Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Life, Death and Everything “In-Between”

It was standing room only in the Knox Presbyterian hall as our host, Neil Wilson read us this quote from Patricia Pearson’s book Opening Heaven’s Door to set the stage.

“The more critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion, the individual is pauperized.”  -- Carl Jung


Alongside her own personal experiences, it was this perspective particularly which prompted and spurred on Patricia’s research and interest in what exactly happens when we die. She noticed that especially in the last few decades, the pendulum of our shared cultural understanding of death has swung far to the side of the intellectual atheist’s -- that when you die you cease to exist. But she argues that this idea that believing in life beyond death is a serious blow to one’s credibility is blocking the general population’s ability to express their own experiences which suggest that there may be something more.


Through her readings of several passages in her book and recounting her own stories and those told to her by others as she compiled her research for the book, Patricia led us through many compelling stories of people making contact with a force beyond that which we can observe with our earthly senses. The stories fell into two general categories of those experiencing “Near Death Experiences” (or NDEs) and people experiencing the spiritual presence of a friend or loved-one.


These experiences might seem unthinkably rare, like an urban myth. Not so, says Patricia! These stories are all around us. They are so commonly recognized in hospice or long-term care facilities that the caregivers have their own vocabulary to describe them.  She tells of people bringing stories to her when they found out about the subject of her research -- close friends that she had no idea had had encounters with the other side. But her opening the topic created a welcoming place for people to share the experiences which had  been so meaningful for them. After the event, I was surprised to find that, when discussing the event with a friend, he was able to recount two separate post-death spiritual encounters within his immediate family! This taboo about open discussion on the matter is creating, in Patricia’s mind, “a real subterranean world of spiritual experiences.” All around us people are having encounters, but not feeling able to discuss them, and so many keep these experiences private, missing out on the reassurance of those who can say “me too.” Writing this book was Patricia’s first step to bridging that gap.


In the Near Death Experiences she heard about, the experience of the now cliche “white light” was described with stunning uniformity across all cultures. Those experiencing it describe it as “simply indescribable” above all, but the words that fit the experience best were consistently akin to a “sentient emotional light”, “profoundly comforting”, and the feeling of “dissolving into light, like a drop of water joining a sea of light.” One described it as feeling “I had been lost for centuries and found my way home.”


Though nearly every organized religion has its sacred passages drawing parallels to god(s) and heaven being “pure light,” Patricia also quickly points out that this experience, for those who have had it, does not seem to be about organized religion at all. As you would imagine, being on the brink of death and discovering what lies beyond is an incredibly jarring experience, and one that takes years to fully integrate into your worldview. It takes on average twelve years, according to Patricia’s research. But she mentions that in almost every case, no matter what the subject’s initial religion, they leave the constructs of their organized religion, feeling the lack of fit with what they’ve experienced on so personal a level.


Is it possible that this sentient, emotional light is a glimpse of our same shared spiritual reality that is more complex than any one religion can convey? Patricia doesn’t say one way or the other, and in our short time did outline other options and explanations (as well as her reasons for finding them wanting) An oxygen starved brain? A grief hallucination? A rush of serotonin? The biochemical process of the brain shutting down? Their effects wouldn’t satisfactorily match the description given by so many she interviewed. And though Patricia notes carefully during the question period that she’s “non-declarative” on the subject of exactly what the afterlife is like, she shares something we can all take comfort in -- her belief that death is nothing to fear. Those facing their moment of death are much more likely to feel a calm and peace, than fear and isolation. Whatever that force may be is that takes us into its arms at the moment of our passing, in that moment no one dies alone.