We have explored the near-death experience as a rite of passage into spiritual maturity. When individuals have integrated a near-death experience, they are spiritually changed forever. They become more open to others, and consciously devote a part of their lives for service to others. They also make a concerted effort to improve their interpersonal relationships and ultimately lose their fear of death, seeing it as a transition rather than an end.
When the near-death experience is broken down, the three stages of a rite of passage are clearly seen. The stages of separation, liminality, and reintegration are all present. This lends strength to the idea that the near-death experience is an archetypal experience of a rite of passage.
We have also explored the effect of having had a life review during the NDE on individual’s spiritual beliefs. Those individuals who had a life review during their experience seemed to release religious dogma more readily than those who did not. This has had a profound effect on their interpretation of God. Those who had a life review began to view God as a benevolent being who does not punish or condemn, and of whom we are all a part. Those who did not have the life review continued to view God as a separate being from themselves who, although He was viewed as benevolent, would willingly punish them for not following His desires.
Career changes that were made by those who have experienced the NDE were also reviewed. Changing career may be the individual’s unconscious attempt to reintegrate into society with an acceptable change in status. It satisfies both society’s need for an acceptable change in status and the individual’s need to have the change in status recognized.
We have considered the NDE as a bottoming-out experience. As in all bottoming-out experiences, the individual must either change or die. We have observed how these individuals brought themselves to their bottoming-out experience and how the NDE was pivotal in turning it around.
Childhood NDEs with two of the interviewees were examined. Their experiences differed from adult experiences in that they did not appear to be a rite of passage into spiritual maturity. In fact, NDEs did not appear to be a rite of passage at all for young children. Rather, the childhood experiences resembled a holding and containing nature that helped to soothe and calm the child. The NDE gave the children an experience of unconditional love that they were able to integrate into their lives and benefit from. For the adolescent, it may be integrated as a rite of passage into adulthood.
In addition, we have explored the archetypal images that were present in the interviewees’ NDEs from a Jungian perspective. The issues that are important to Jung’s concept of the first dream were present in the NDEs of the interviewees. An individual’s first dream often marks the beginning of progress to maturity and differentiation. The individuals who experienced a near-death experience became more differentiated in their spiritual beliefs. We also considered the presence of the Trickster and Merlin in the experience and the maturity that comes with balancing the tension of the opposites.
Each of the participants felt a great deal of passion for this topic. It called to be treated with respect and reverence by the researcher. The spiritual quality and importance of the topic were always present in the working of the research. At times, it felt like an enormous task. The topic was large and at times unwieldy. The implications of the research are life changing; life does not end with death. My life and outlook on life changed dramatically as a result of doing the research.
The topic ultimately dealt with understanding the perceptions of reality. The greater idea lodged in the meaning of the work is that what we consider physical reality is an illusion and what comes after our death is what is real. That concept has been mind boggling for this researcher and has caused me many hours of internal turmoil, grappling with the concept. Through the course of writing this dissertation, my spiritual beliefs began to change. I began to view my world differently. I also began to view my work as a therapist differently.
As I write this dissertation, I myself am going through my own rite of passage. As I have worked the material, the material has worked me in reciprocation. Am I am forever changed having done this research.
My own near-death experience was not as involved as those of my interviewees. My own personal encounter left me with questions and doubts about my experience. I had never met anyone else who had had an NDE. I had read about them, but never personally met with anyone. Meeting with others who have had these experiences, I felt a strange and sudden kinship. The kinship experience seemed to be reciprocal.
During the interviews, I could sense the excitement for the experience that each interviewee held which fueled my own excitement about the topic in turn. Their zeal was infectious. All of those interviewed felt it important that this information be made available to others and were generous with their time and support to see that end met. What started out as a typical research project turned into a passionate personal investment with the goal of helping those who read this to understand and honor the divine selves that they are. The gentleness and kindness surrounding those individuals who were willing to be interviewed has been an inspiration in my own life.
It seemed clear that the interviewees are truly in touch with a deeper spiritual understanding for life. The divine seems present in everything they do. It is not possible to be in their presence and not be affected by their energy. I have felt truly honored to be given an opportunity to research and write on this material. I am honored that those people who gave me the opportunity to interview them would let me into the most intimate part of their being. I only hope that I have done justice to the topic.
There have been times when I have questioned the authenticity of my own near-death experience. At times, I feared that I had fabricated the entire experience. I did not acknowledge the changes that occurred in my life after the experience as anything connected to the NDE. I now know differently.
The archetype is a magnet that draws shards of expression to it. “What the ego wills is subject in the highest degree to the interference, in ways of which the ego is usually unaware, of the autonomy and numinosity of archetypal processes” (Jung, 1989, p. 353). This process unfolded in my practice as I was working on the research.
Throughout the research and writing of this dissertation, many remarkable experiences took place within my private practice. During the last year of researching the topic, I noticed a sudden change in the issues patients were bringing into the therapy room. The topic of death and loss became the focus of a significant portion of my practice.
The change was mainly attributable to new patients coming into my office presenting these topics. I also experienced several former patients simultaneously deciding to re-enter therapy with the presenting issue of their own dying or partners who were in the process of dying.
The process began in the spring of 1998 with the sudden and unexpected death of my beloved cat due to cancer. This experience was followed 3 weeks later by my assisting a friend whose own cat suffered from a similar disease, as a veterinarian put the cat to sleep . Three days later, I was involved in an emotional deposition for the prosecution over the accidental death of a patient. It was a draining experience, and I was wracked with grief at his loss.
Three days after the deposition, the building in which my therapy offices were located burned to the ground. In the process, I lost everything of a physical nature that pertained to my education and work as a therapist. Three weeks later, a friend of mine lost his mother to cancer, and I offered emotional support throughout the process and after her passing. One week after her death and 5 weeks after the fire, my golden retriever, who had lived with me for 9 years, died of old age.
Death and loss were present and seemed to be everywhere in my personal life for me at that time. All the while, I continued doing the research on near-death experiences. My growing understanding of the research helped me through that difficult time. I had now begun to interview people who had had near-death experiences. Listening to their stories lifted me with hope for finding meaning in life. I began to realize that we were not alone in our tragedies and that grief along with all of our other experiences had meaning in this life and beyond.
Effect on the Researcher’s Private Practice
Death of a Patient’s Husband
By January of 1999, three quarters of my practice was made up of people dealing with different aspects of death and dying. One particularly moving experience took place after having completed the near-death experience interview of Marco. During the interview, Marco mentioned that he saw a rainbow of lights before him that was made up of the souls of others. He reported it as a joyous and wondrous event to behold.
My head swimming from our intense interview, I returned to my office to see patients. The first patient I saw right after the interview was a woman who had lost her husband unexpectedly to a virulent cancer that January. She was distraught by his loss and overwhelmed at the prospect of raising her 3-year-old daughter on her own. Her grief was impenetrable. It had been 4 months since his death, and she was unable to work or be as present for her daughter as she needed to be. She wanted to know what happened to her husband and if she would ever see him again. In the deepest recesses of her beliefs, she feared that when he died, he disappeared into the void of nothingness. Her grief overwhelmed her.
She began the session by telling me a story of her daughter, now 4, who had caught her crying alone in her bedroom several days earlier. Her daughter walked into the bedroom and sat next to her as she fought back the tears. Her daughter asked her if she were sad because she missed daddy. My patient responded with a yes and hoped that her affirmative answer would not be traumatizing to the child.
The little girl put her arm around her mother and said, “Don’t cry Mommy, when Daddy died, he left to become a rainbow.” She responded to placate what she considered the childish imaginings of her daughter with, “Yes, of course he did sweetheart.” I sat stone quiet in my chair as the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end. I had just left an interview where that same event had been reported. I felt moved to relate my interview experience with her. We also spoke of the research that I was doing in my dissertation on near-death experiences. She broke down into deep and sustained sobbing.
The next week she entered therapy changed from the experience. She began to let go of her deceased husband’s belongings and felt resolved enough to bury his ashes. She told me that something released for her during our last session. The future was something that she felt she could now face. The idea that there might be evidence of life continuing after death filled her with the inspiration that perhaps life did have some lasting meaning.
She began to greet the future with hope and expectation. In her mind, there was a reasonable possibility that his life continued. The reciprocal connection of love that she shared with her husband had not been broken by his death. She was now free to let go of the grief and embrace life, for life’s promise of connection had not been betrayed through her husband’s death. The realistic possibility that life continues after death was all she needed to consider trusting again in the processes of life.
Death of a Patient’s Lover
Later that month I had another patient whose lover was in the final stages of death due to complications from AIDS. Again, sharing the work of my research seemed to help this patient in handling the inevitable loss of his lover. By coming to view the approaching death of his lover as a transition, rather than annihilation, he was able to let go of the fight for his life at an appropriate time and spend the final days together in peace.
Interestingly, half an hour before his lover’s death, my patient awoke in the night to check on him and sat down on his bed to spend some time. His partner had been in a coma for the last 24 hours and had not moved. A few moments after he sat down, his dying lover opened his eyes with a distant stare, lifted his arms out in front of himself, and began to smile the brightest smile he had ever seen on him. He then brought his arms down to his sides, closed his eyes, and died.
After the patient related the story to me, he stated that he was grateful for our discussions about near-death experiences. He saw his lover’s experience as an authentic transition experience and not the musings of a delusional mind. He felt that in his lover’s final moments, someone met him from the other side who came to help him across. He was comforted by the possibility that his lover’s life continued after the death of his body.
Much of what I have learned from the research has been useful in my private practice. Besides the apparent comfort some people gain from having an awareness of near-death experiences when those close to them die, it also has apparent benefits for those facing their own mortality. The following took place during the same time period.
Death of a Patient
During the time I was working with the above individuals, I received a telephone call from a former patient. She urgently wanted me to visit her in the hospital, where she was being treated for cancer. Both she and her boyfriend were in denial about the seriousness of her health condition. They would both talk about the future in a manner that did not seem appropriate given her condition. It was as if their speaking of the future could magically prevent her death. I was not going to take away their hope. I was, however, curious about her need to use this defense.
By our third session, she had confided in me that she was afraid of dying. She had very little experience with it in her life and did not know what to expect. She did not want to vanish into a black void of nonexistence. To her, life would seem such a waste if that were its ultimate goal. Then she suddenly changed the topic in the middle of our discussion. She asked about the nature of my dissertation; she was aware I was a doctoral candidate.
I was astonished. When I told her, she wanted to know the details. At the end of the session, she stretched out her hands from the hospital bed in a motion for me to hold them. When I did, she said, “Thank you. . . thank you” in a voice straining from her waning strength that seemed mixed with resolve and joy. That was the last time I saw her. She died 3 days later from a respiratory complication.
Our discussion of near-death experiences seemed to have given her a more realistic hope for the future than did her original defenses against death. The fact that scholarly energies were being devoted to its research bolstered for her the credibility of such possibilities. In that moment, she appeared to let go of her fear. I received the news of her death with a mixture of sadness and joy. My reaction surprised me. For it was the first time that I had ever received news of that nature in which joy was part of the mixture of my emotions.
The Researcher’s Reaction
When I contemplated my reaction, I realized that a fundamental part of myself had shifted as a result of my working with the topic. I felt joy for the release that she must have experienced at the moment of her death and for the love that would engulf her as the experience progressed. It was not a pious or fashionably appropriate joy, but rather an authentic joy that caught me by surprise.
The addition of joy into the mix of emotion upon hearing of someone’s death was in no way intended to be dismissive of the feelings of those left behind. Nor was it to be used as a form of denial for personal grief; there was plenty of that present. The joy came from a place where I marveled at the mysteries of life having gained a renewed trust in its processes.
While I was working with the above patients, another former patient came back into my practice that had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Two other patients were newly diagnosed with HIV. Another began to face mortality issues around a terminal health condition. Two other patients lost a parent each, another patient lost her best friend to an illness, and another lost his entire family in a plane crash. All of these cases involving death took place between January and August 1999.
With each one of these cases, I was able to work some form of the research into the therapy. In each case, it had a beneficial effect in the course of our work. The concept of the near-death experience brings mystery back into life. Besides the ease it may bring to an individual’s fears, it also creates a wonder for life. This is the gift that is brought back by those who have experienced a near-death experience.
I can think of no greater gift than the gift of wonder. For in our wonder, we meet our innocence. In our innocence, we hold no malice. By holding no malice, we are open to the processes of life, and by opening to life, we hold eternity in our hands.
Implications for Therapy
I have found that having an awareness of and respect for near-death experiences is beneficial in a variety of therapeutic situations. The benefits of the topic are not confined to working only with those who have had the experience. The lessons learned from this research easily lend themselves to situations involving loss and grief due to the passing of loved ones as well as the facing of our own mortality.
For instance, the individuals who were interviewed identified their desire to be of service to others as an important positive change that took place as a result of their NDE. Being of service to others can pull one out of self-involvement, which can be of benefit for someone who is caught in a never-ending cycle of depression due to a loss or a personal bottoming-out experience. It can allow the individual to gain a sense of self-empowerment and feel a sense of purpose in life.
The comfort that patients gain from the serious consideration that life might continue after the death of the body is helpful to their emotional well being. They no longer need to feel themselves as a helpless victims of their own mortality. When one is not identifying oneself as the victim, then one can be more accountable for one’s actions.
In several of the cases, individuals mentioned that during their experience they could sense their smallness in the vastness of life and at the same time were aware of the importance of their contributions to the whole. This realization helped to raise their sense of self-esteem and gave them a sense of belonging. This alone can be a powerful contribution to lifting an individual out of depression. It was a very empowering experience and should be explored with a patient who has had a near-death experience.
There are also those who have had near-death experiences that have a difficult time integrating them into their lives. They are frightened of being ridiculed or considered deranged, so they keep their experiences to themselves. The holding onto the secret is itself anxiety causing. What they need is someone who is willing to listen and who has some knowledge of NDEs. Their experience needs to be heard in a nonjudgmental context.
There is a strong possibility that people who have just experienced an NDE might already be in the throes of a bottoming-out experience in their personal life. If this is the case, they may already be feeling disconnected and misunderstood by others. It is imperative that they not be judged for their near-death experience. The experience should be normalized for them through acceptance and understanding. They should also be referred to the International Association for Near-death Studies where they can have contact with others who share their experience.
People who have reported having had a near-death experience should be encouraged to give meaning to their experience. Depending on the appropriateness for a particular patient, the experience could be reframed as a rite of passage in spiritual growth. This would help give some meaning to the experience and allow the individual to integrate those positive aspects of the experience into their personal lives. Doing so might help a patient more easily come to terms with the personal changes that take place after such an event.
Whether or not the experience is believed to be authentic, it can have authentic value. All of those interviewed accepted greater personal accountability for their actions after their experience. They reported feeling more self-directed and self-confident. They became dedicated to improving their interpersonal relationships. They reported feeling a greater sensitivity toward and respect for all life. They developed an internal desire to be of service to others without an ulterior motive for personal gain. Their concept of and belief in God expanded beyond the narrow views of religious dogma. They lost their fear of death; however, suicide was no longer an option. Consequently, they experienced a generalized improvement in their life condition.
The Responsibility of the Medical Community
It stands to reason that with proper counseling from the medical and mental health fields, individuals who have experienced NDEs can make these adjustments more effectively and quickly. It is important for the medical community to recognize the important role a near-death experience can have on an individual’s life. Rather than dismissing or ridiculing a patient for having reported such an event by calling it a hallucination or fabrication, the physician should be more familiar with the experience and have on hand a list of therapists and societies that handle near-death experiences.
The reason I singled out physicians is simple; they set the tone of the treatment team. In every case I interviewed, professionals from the health-care industry, physicians in particular, were involved at some point in the events surrounding the NDE. In nearly every case, people were afraid to mention the experience to their doctor. They were afraid of not being believed or taken seriously.
The position of the physician is not to be a judge but rather an assistant in the improvement of the health of the individual. They have taken an oath to protect their patients’ health. This health includes mental health. Given the resulting changes that individuals attribute to NDEs and the frequent presence of physicians around the precipitating event, I feel that it is imperative that physicians give individuals who report NDEs the respect of validating these experiences and referring them to someone who can assist them in that area.
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Appendix A Informed Consent Form
Study: Near-death experiences: Their Effects on the Beliefs and Attitudes of Those who Experience Them. 1. I understand that this study is of a research nature. It may offer no direct benefit to me.
2. My participation in this study is voluntary. I may refuse to enter it, refuse to answer any question, or withdraw at any time without creating any harmful consequences to myself. I also understand that the investigator may drop me from the study at any time.
3. I understand that the purpose of doing this study is to collect information regarding near-death experiences in order to fulfill the requirements of a doctoral dissertation for Pacifica Graduate Institute. Material gathered during the research process will be used in this dissertation and in other publications.
4. As a participant in this study, I will be asked to take part in the following procedures:
a. Complete a brief participant information form.
b. Agree to have researcher, James E. Walton, ask me a series of questions about my near-death experience. This process will involve a 1 1/2 to 2 hour audio-taped interview. I further understand that any information collected about me in this study will remain confidential.
c. Participate in a final review of information collected where the researcher will share with me what he has written from my interview. I understand that I will have an opportunity to give input as to the accuracy of what he has depicted concerning my experience.
5. Information about this study, time and the place of my interview within the study were discussed with me by James E. Walton. If I have further questions concerning the study or procedures, I can call him at 818-753-4865.
6. I understand that if, at any time during the study, I feel distressed about my situation or my participation, I may telephone James E. Walton at the phone number above. He will provide me with appropriate information or referrals for therapy, the cost of which would be my responsibility.
7. I am not receiving any compensation for participating in this study other than the personal satisfaction for participating in the study.