Near Death Experiences

Is there life after death?

Posted Jan 15, 2019

A reader of one of my recent blog posts posted a comment that is the stimulus for this writing.  He commented that there is an unrecognized problem: being misdiagnosed by mental health professionals.  The gentleman, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, directed me to videos by a retired PhD Army nurse, Colonel Diane Corcoran. 

Corcoran talks about near death experiences (NDEs) and the transformative lessons learned from them.  She studies NDEs and offers legitimate criticism that mental health professionals are mostly ignorant of this body of work.

Auto Accidents and Near-Death Experiences

In working with victims of serious auto accidents, some nearly escape death.  For many this creates great anxiety with the heightened realization that death can happen at any time.  Many report having out-of-body (OEB) experiences where they see themselves going through the accident.  Some have NDEs that change the way they view life.  For most who have NDEs, the fear of death is gone and there is an intensified appreciation of life and the importance of love.  With support, trauma often leads to positive transformation, and experiences that without tragedy would not have been possible.

Perhaps the single most important question all of us have to answer is what happens to us when we die.  This is a question that Plato struggled with in his Republic as he explored ideas of the soul.  Plato’s work inspired philosopher and psychiatrist Raymond A. Moody, Jr, PhD, MD to study NDEs for most of his professional life.  Moody is credited with coining the term NDE in his book Life After Life.  You can view many of Moody’s fascinating lectures and interviews on YouTube.  I find his manner and perspectives very comforting.  After decades of interviewing people who were clinically dead and were revived, Moody believes consciousness does go on after it leaves the body.  This is a belief shared by Eben Alexander, MD, a Harvard neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and wrote about it in Proof of Heaven.  Alexander’s total recovery from a severe brain infection could not be predicted or understood by contemporary medicine.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

In my graduate training and post-doctoral clinical work, the topic of death and dying was largely ignored, with two major self-directed exceptions.  In 1978, I spent a week studying with psychiatrist  and thanatologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, who at that time was considered the leading authority on the topic of death and dying.  In 1969, she authored a famous book by that title (On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families) which outlined her stage theory of coming to terms with loss and grief. The five stages she identified are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

She was a pioneer in the founding of the hospice movement which offers palliative care and psychological support to terminally ill patients and their families.  In many ways she revolutionized how American medicine thinks about death.  However, clearly, there is still much work to be done.

Kübler-Ross struck me as the most compassionate human being I had ever encountered.  I met her at her training retreat in a beautiful old Spanish monastery in Escondido, California.  It was a transformative experience which continues to play an important role in how I think about life, death and patient care.  For me, she remains a psychiatric giant.  My experience with Kübler-Ross motivated me to do my doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology on dreams of dying patients and their relationship to depression and death anxiety. 

The Study of Consciousness

Nuclear Physicist Thomas Campbell, PhD studied out-of-body experiences with Robert Monroe (author of Journeys Out of the Body).  Kübler-Ross had also worked with Monroe to learn about out-of-body experiences as her attention increasingly turned to spiritual phenomena.  Campbell is a brilliant physicist who has been working on a unifying philosophy of physics, a virtual model of the universe and challenging existing models of reality.  Campbell believes that consciousness does not have a material cause—that it cannot be located in the brain.  In his book My Big Toe he states, “Think of consciousness as a digital medium rather than a building material.”  He believes that the study of consciousness will be at the heart of the physics of the future. 

As to the question of what happens when we die, we will all have the opportunity to find out.  However, in the meantime, the work of Moody and others gives us some fascinating and hopeful glimpses of what may come.