Near Death Experiences
The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” Isaiah 38:1b
When discussing near death experiences, many people think of the stories of those who went through an episode of clinical death, only to return with memories of the experience. There is a more common experience, however, which is of those who are about to die, although they may or may not be consciously aware of it. I want to discuss this more common type of being-near-to-death before exploring the types of reports of those who seemingly returned from the afterlife.
I had three direct experiences with loved ones as they approached their physical death – my grandmother, my mother, and my father. My grandma Hildenbrand was born in 1900, the daughter of German immigrant farmers. A few months after my grandfather died of an extended illness, grandma grew weaker and began having trouble eating. She suspected her life on earth was ending, and she was, in her words, “ready to go.” She was a strong woman of faith and had no doubt she would enter heaven after leaving this life and be reunited with loved ones.
Grandma was admitted to the hospital where I worked, so I was able to spend time with her most days when my shift ended. She always greeted me with a smile, anxious to tell me of the dreams she was having. Her visions were very much along the lines of traditional views of heaven. She heard choirs of angels singing and could name the songs they sang. She saw long-gone friends and family, including the two children who passed before her, one of whom was my father. She always seemed a little sad to wake up and find herself back in her earthly body. It appeared to me that she was regularly crossing over between this life and the next. She died a couple of weeks later, just before Christmas in 1982.
My mother was a very active 82-year-old. She had taken good care of herself and was in amazing physical condition for her age. And then a stroke took away her ability to speak in intelligible ways, and she lost much of her mobility. For a time after the stroke she attempted to converse, but realizing that her vocalizations were coming out as gibberish, she soon stopped trying. Mom quickly became bed-ridden and was shuffled between a skilled nursing facility and a hospital.
My experience with mom was interesting because it was non-verbal. For a time after the stroke she appeared determined to recover. She brightened at my daily visits, and her therapists praised her efforts. A month or so later, she began to withdraw. She lost interest in all things of the earth. When I entered her room, she would open her eyes to acknowledge my presence, then turn away as if I were not there. She stopped eating and refused to be fed. Eventually, she ceased acknowledging my presence, and then she passed away. I believe two things about her final weeks. First, she longed for death. She accepted that she was not going to recover, and death was preferable to her current physical state. Second, like grandma, she was experiencing glimpses of an afterlife prior to her death. Unlike grandma, she could not communicate what she experienced, but she clearly preferred to be left alone where she could more easily be in that land beyond her stroke.
My father’s death was sudden and decisive. My “near death experience” with him occurred the night before he died. There was no way of knowing it would be his last night on earth, but he was unusually pensive, as if he knew something was about to change. He and I were in the car after a Boy Scout activity. He talked about his job and reflected on our family. It was an unusual conversation for us and was uncomfortable, in some ways, for me. He told me what he had bought mom for Christmas and where it was being hidden, as if someone else needed to know where to find it. He asked if I wanted to go for another drive. I told him I was headed to a friend’s house to play cards. I’ve often wondered what he would have said had I gone on that drive. I suspect he, like Jesus, did not wish to spend his final hours alone.
These are my three most vivid experiences with loved ones near death. The common theme is marked by a significant shift in the placement of one’s attention. I will continue this theme next week.
This is the 22nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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