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Lessons from the resuscitated

17 October 2014

Ted Harrison looks at research into near-death experiences

The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How understanding NDEs can help us live more fully
Penny Sartori
Watkins Publishing £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT131 )

IT HAS been known for many years that some people who have "died" and been resuscitated report strange memories; they talk of being outside their bodies, of travelling through a tunnel towards a bright light, of seeing long-dead relatives, or finding themselves in a beautiful garden.

It is also not uncommon for those caring for the dying to notice a patient appearing, right at the end, to be aware of others in the room whom no one else can see.

Penny Sartori is a nurse who developed an interest in near-death experiences (NDEs) and devised a Ph.D. research project to study them, which then led on to the writing of this book. For her research, she interviewed terminally ill patients and survivors of resuscitation, and collected a wide range of accounts of these subjective but profound experiences. She noted how those who reported NDEs lost their fear of death.

Although she devotes a section to the explanations offered by medical science, her interest is not primarily in explaining NDEs. Neither does she side with those who say NDEs afford a glimpse of heaven (and, in a minority of cases, hell) and are thus proof of an afterlife.

The purpose of her work is to suggest that by acknowledging the spiritual as well as the medical aspects of dying, the medical profession might better understand the process and nature of death. The result might be improved care for the terminally ill, and enhanced support for their carers.

Sartori's book is not limited to clinical description and analysis. She takes readers on a personal journey, which started with a particular hospital death that came to be for her a life-changing event.

We have been conditioned, she says, to think of death as a sad and fearful thing. Yet those who undergo a temporary death talk of experiencing a deep peace and harmony that enables them to review the past and gain a new perspective on life.

The book leaves many questions frustratingly unanswered, or, to put it another way, by implication, Sartori opens up many potential avenues of new research. It is a challenging book for the medical profession, over-focused, perhaps, on the technology that prolongs life. It is also a challenging book for Christians, suggesting that, by concentrating on the afterlife, the importance of the process of dying might be underestimated.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

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