Around 8,000 Americans will die today, roughly 700 of them from COVID-19. We all know that death comes to everyone. Humankind has lived with that platitude for millennia. But it sometimes takes a pandemic for us to realize that death may come to you and me personally. Whether it’s due to the daily deluge of case or mortality numbers, or to watching a friend or relative succumb to the pandemic, COVID-19 has made death a personal reality in today’s world.
But facing up to the inevitability of death doesn’t have to mean being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. Much of our fear of death is due to how we think about death, and not about the reality of it. In my practice as a physician, I have been working for the past half century with patients who have come close to death – and sometimes been pronounced dead – and then returned to talk about what that was like for them, describing phenomena that have come to be called “near-death experiences” (NDEs). And no matter how we understand the causes of these near-death experiences, careful research over the decades by clinicians around the world have confirmed that the experiencers’ brush with death has greatly reduced, or in many cases completely eliminated, their fear of death.
How is that possible? How can the near loss of life – the near loss of everything we think we are – lead to feeling more comfortable about death? The short answer is that, although much of the public interest in near-death experiences is related to what they might suggest about an afterlife, many experiencers find that the more important the lessons they bring back are for this life. The experience often gives them a new outlook on what makes this life purposeful and meaningful. Near-death experiences are ultimately not about death, but about transformation, about renewal, and about infusing our lives with meaning and purpose right now.
Most of us expect dying to be a terrifying experience. However, between 80 and 90 percent of near-death experiencers report that the process of dying is peaceful—if not blissful . That alone may mean we don’t need to be afraid of dying, and help may us worry less about loved ones suffering as they die. Several studies have shown that between 80% and 100% of people who have near-death experiences describe markedly decreased fear of death . But there is much more.
One consequence of their reducing fear of dying is that near-death experiences paradoxically also reduce fear of living. More than 70% of near-death experiencers say that because they’re no longer afraid of death, they no longer feel there’s as much to lose by letting go and as a result they enjoy life more fully . They no longer feel the need to maintain such tight control over their lives, but can feel free to take some risks. And that in turn leads near-death experiencers to live more fully in the present moment, rather than dwell in the past or dream of the future.
This tendency to live in the present comes at least in part from the experience of almost dying—that is, of living through a moment they think might be their last. So it makes sense that people who have had NDEs and live with the memory of that experience try to make the most of each day. People who survived NDEs believe they were experiencing their last moments, with no chance to say goodbye or to resolve unfinished business. If we all thought that this moment right now might be our last, how would we act toward our spouses, our children, our friends, strangers we meet on the street—and ourselves? One lesson from NDEs may be that the way to ease our fear of death is to create a good life.
So how do we start? First, we should actually think more about death and dying, rather than trying to avoid the topic out of fear. We can think about the “small deaths” of daily life: our own outgrowing certain things and activities as we mature, and watching our children outgrow beloved things and activities. We can talk with others about our concerns regarding death, write about them, and share them with family and friends who may be feeling similar concerns. We can read first-person accounts of people who have faced their own deaths and grown from those experiences. Prolonged exposure and paying attention to anything that is initially scary or sad or anxiety-provoking can help us normalize and accept it as a natural part of our world – the “elephant in the room” phenomenon.
Thinking about the certainty of our own death can also motivate us to practice healthier habits. We can eat better, sleep more, improve our relationships, spend more time in nature, take breaks; in short, make the years that we have as healthy and enjoyable as we can. We can be more mindful of the little things in our lives that bring us pleasure and happiness. This is just a matter of paying attention to the tiny joys in everyday living, such as the taste of good food, the beauty of nature, or the satisfaction of a relationship. We can focus less on the separation from loved ones at death, and focus instead on our gratitude for the positive relationships and events in our life right now.
We can find a purpose in our daily life, activities that link us to something greater than ourselves . That can take the form of imparting our values to the next generation, working to improve our community, or alleviating the suffering of others, or creating something of value that will last beyond our lifetime. We can figure out what is meaningful for us individually and try to create a life focused on that goal. We can create legacies, things of value that will last beyond our lifetime, actions, words, and deeds that we leave behind to live on in the memories of others.
Finally, we can consider what near-death experiencers almost universally conclude: that physical death may not be our termination. The idea that death is not the end of our existence but rather a transition to another kind of life eases our anxiety and fear of death. For many people, that belief is linked to religious faith, and we either believe it or not. But for those without a religious context for such a belief, reports of secular near-death experiences, if taken at face value, can also be seen as suggesting consciousness may continue beyond bodily death.
Near-death experiences give people who have them the spark to reevaluate their lives and to make changes in how they spend their time and how they relate to other people . They tell us that death is more about peace and light than about fear and suffering. They tell us that life is more about meaning and compassion than about wealth and control. They tell us that appreciating both the physical and the nonphysical aspects of life gives us a much fuller understanding of ourselves and our role in the world. And research shows that near-death experiences transform the lives not only of people who have them and their loved ones, but can also transform those who read about them, and can help us change the way we see and treat one another . The global pandemic, for all its tragic effects, has also given us an opportunity to step back from our daily hassles and reevaluate what is meaningful and worth preserving in our lives. Knowing about near-death experiences can give us the spark to reevaluate our life and reconnect with the things that fill your life with ever greater meaning and joy.
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Dr. Bruce Greyson is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the UVA School of Medicine. He served on the medical school faculty at the Universities of Michigan, Connecticut, and Virginia. He was a co-founder and President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and Editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. His award-winning research led him to become a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and to be invited by the Dalai Lama to participate in a dialogue between Western scientists and Buddhist monks in India. After is the culmination of nearly half a century of scientific research.
You can read an excerpt from After on the site HERE.