Living with death and dying
Living with death and dying

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Living with death and dying

1.3.9 Other common features

In addition to these very common features there are in many accounts further distinctive elements. A sense of entering into or being met by light and/or an area of great beauty has been expressed in a significant number of accounts. Here are just two illustrations:

I was just in a wonderful peace and wellness in a beautiful landscape setting of grass, lawns and trees and brilliant light.

(Fenwick and Fenwick, 1996)

A man who nearly died of pneumonia recounted:

A blue-gold light which reappeared and grew brighter and brighter. I went forward towards the light and as I did so I had such a feeling of freedom and joy, it’s beyond words to explain. I had a boundless sense of expansion.

(Grey, 1985,p. 47)

Do people draw on images such as this in their description of near-death experiences?

The proportion of near-death experiences that involve these kinds of ‘transcendental’ phenomena varies from one study to another. In Sabom’s research they are most common among people undergoing surgery. Table 1 indicates the frequency among the 61 non-surgical cases in Sabom’s study.

Other recurrent features include:

  • Meeting deceased friends or relatives. (This was reported in 38 per cent of the respondents in the Fenwicks’ study; in Sabom’s study this was more common among women than men.)

  • Being in the presence of a religious figure such as God, Jesus or the Buddha. (This was reported in 34 per cent of the Fenwick’s respondents.)

  • A life review: a rapid mental replay of significant life events. (The Fenwicks’ study did not replicate this common finding of other studies – only 12 per cent recalled reviewing past events.)

Table 1 Elements of the near-death experience and their frequency of occurrence among 61 non-surgical cases

Element Frequency (per cent)
Subjective sense of being dead 92
Predominant feelings of calm and peace 100
Sense of bodily separation 100
Observation of physical objects and events 53
Dark region or void 29
Life review 54
The Light 29
Beautiful environment 54
Meeting others 48
Return 100
(Source: Sabom, 1982, p. 206)

All the near-death experiences described by Sabom are predominantly positive. In the Fenwicks’ study (where they advertised for accounts of near-death experiences) the majority of the respondents also reported positive experiences – 82 per cent felt calmness and peace, 40 per cent felt joy, and 38 per cent felt love. These were surprising findings because they had predicted many more negative experiences, particularly descriptions of terror, fear and loss, because many near-death experiences are catastrophic and overwhelming. In her book Return From Death Margot Grey, a psychologist who herself had a positive near-death experience, maintains that negative experiences also occur, though they are much less frequent. She suggests they are more likely to be spoken of immediately after the event. A negative experience is usually characterised by a feeling of panic or fear and may involve dark and gloomy or barren and hostile visions and landscapes. Very occasionally people report a situation that resembles classic descriptions of hell.

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