The most inscrutable, looming, and painfully urgent question presented by life is what, if anything, might occur at its conclusion. We awaken at birth with no memory of where we came from, twist and wind through the drama of our existence, and eventually exit this stage, receding back into the unknown. If anything, death is a place of no return, a fearsome final door slam, ubiquitous and inescapable, the hard fate shared by everything that now lives. And yet, with advances in modern medical technology, more and more people are being pulled back from clinical death, surviving situations that would have been terminal in an earlier age.
In her new book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death (National Geographic Books), author Judy Bachrach presents tales from those who crossed the boundary between life and death but were medically revived and subsequently able to recount their experiences. Scores of these paradoxical and fantastical stories are being recorded, travelogues from those with stopped hearts and no perceptible brain stem activity. Bachrach provides scientific data about the death process itself, how it may be more gradual and reversible than previously imagined. One may or may not have a traditional conception of heaven and may discount whether these people were truly and fully deceased, but the fundamental conundrum that emerges is whether some form of consciousness, an essence of self, can exist without a physically functioning brain. The evidence presented here seems to suggest that it can.
Bachrach begins with the story of Pam Reynolds Lowery, an Atlanta songwriter who underwent brain surgery in 1991. During the procedure to repair an aneurysm, Pam was in “a barbiturate coma” with no measurable brain activity, eyes taped shut, earplugs inserted, and her body cooled to 60° F. When she regained consciousness 12 hours after the operation, she astonished her physicians by being able to relay specific details of the operation: the appearance and sound of the medical instruments, the doctors’ discussions about her arteries, and even identify a song that was playing in the background of the operating room.
The majority of death returnees report a revelatory experience, with enhanced sense perception, and freedom from the normal constraints of time and physical motion. In Pam Lowery’s case, her observations were made from an improbably elevated vantage point, seeing the tops of heads and looking down upon her own operation.
This sense of removal from one’s own physical body is a common phenomenon, usually coupled with reluctance to return to this discarded shell of selfhood when reentering the realm of the living. (“It was like jumping into a cold pool,” Pam reported.) Encountering previously deceased loved ones who offer welcome and guidance is another frequent experience, a comforting one that conforms to most believers’ hopes about heaven. There is a feeling of coming home, of being absorbed into an overarching primal love, leaving the goldfish bowl and entering the open ocean, becoming one with the universe.
Another death traveler featured in the book is Anthony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning at an outdoor picnic, but revived by CPR administered by a nurse on the scene. Looking down upon his comatose body, his dislodged consciousness thought:
Whoever is over there on the ground is a shell. So whoever I am now, I am. And always am.
One is reminded of the Biblical account of God’s response to Moses in Exodus, when asked his name: “I am that I am.” In death, Cicoria felt himself becoming amorphous and eventually coalescing into a ball of pure, bluish-white light, transforming from living creature to free-floating energy.
Returning to the realm of the living utterly transforms the lives of most death travelers, who can never again be as wholly absorbed in life’s overblown dramas and artifice once they’ve peeked behind the stage curtain. Fear of death is dissolved, and many develop preternatural sensitivities and empathy to others. Unfortunately, there is also a newly formed separation that often leads to divorce and alienation from the trappings of one’s previous, unenlightened life.
Cicoria, who was a surgeon himself, believes that we may achieve a complete understanding of death “within our lifetime.” I personally doubt this, no matter how much information we glean from scientific advancement, and I hope it doesn’t come to pass. Losing fear of death is one thing, but the point of having faith is punctured when the unseen becomes the seen. The challenge is to live with connectedness, freedom, and expectation of the triumph of expansive love without a premature glance at our ultimate fate.