It was a break between presentations at the 2006 IANDS conference, and I was chatting in one of many small groups crowding the hallway outside the auditorium of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Suddenly a young Japanese man burst through the crowd, rushing toward my group. He grabbed my hand.
“You saved my life!”
I did not know him, but he was passionate, shaking, gripping my hand in both of his. “You saved my life! I must say thank you!”
And he bolted away, disappearing into the swirl of people. I have not seen him since. I still do not know his name, nor what it was that he believed had saved his life.
Was it an unusual incident? Decidedly unusual. But surprising? Not entirely.
The Incident of the Young Man came in the later years of my thirty-year crusade on behalf of the countless, unnamed people whose own near-death experiences had been ignored in favor of the wonderful stories of light and love. Almost no researcher it seemed, wanted anything to do with the frightening or empty NDEs. For all those years, I had been one of the rare exceptions.
When I fell into a “temporary” management job at a start-up nonprofit organization in 1982, I was coming from a background in secondary school teaching, health care research, and public administration. I had never heard the term “near-death experience.” But the start-up sounded interesting and was close to my home; the work itself seemed low-key, the office volunteers friendly.
It took only a few weeks as office manager of the fledgling International Association for Near-Death Studies, IANDS, for me to realize there was a name for a bizarre and terrifying experience I’d had twenty years earlier, an event I had never spoken of to anyone. Somebody else knew about mysteries like that! The problem was, my near-death experience had been one of cosmic abandonment and annihilation. Where to find information about such things when all attention was on the wonderful, light-filled experiences, with only a rumor about another kind? There was no bibliography, no specialist to ask, no place to look for a shred of obvious information to help understand something like a disturbing, even horrifying NDE.
Eventually it dawned on me that as I was the person in the IANDS office, the one with best access to the phone calls and mail and the University of Connecticut library, perhaps I should begin piecing together whatever scraps of information might be assembled. That was the turnaround, and I’ve never looked back.
It was the beginning of encounters with hundreds of near-death experiencers and their stories—of anguished letters from the mothers of very young children who told troubling tales after a near-drowning; of people who awoke from surgery terrified to live and even more afraid to die; of the letter from a 93-year-old woman in Montana, reverently telling of the angel who appeared at her bedside in 1916, “acknowledging this to humans for the very first time.” There were hilarious stories and tragic ones, bewildered people and frightened ones. And every once in a while, there was a letter or phone call that said, “You aren’t telling the whole truth, with all this love and light. My experience wasn’t like this. My experience was hell. Why aren’t you telling people the truth?” And so I began keeping a file.
Within three months of my arrival at IANDS, I was named its executive director. Not long after, I began editing its quarterly newsletter. Informational overload! Bits of answers to questions began to emerge, like strings of information that could be braided together to create new understandings. One was the realization that small children could also have detailed NDEs; in 1983 I wrote the first study of children’s near-death experiences, whose accounts included not only those of the two four-year-olds who nearly drowned but one of a child not yet two, with convincing descriptive detail about the circumstances. Most of the children’s experiences were quite wonderful, but some were frightening, or had distressing elements.
For almost five years, until IANDS left its UConn offices, the phone calls and letters continued in a veritable avalanche. There were TV and radio talk shows calling, and experiencers desperate to talk. A minister’s wife in Iowa, barricaded in her bedroom. Why? Because in her NDE, she had learned how to bring world peace, and she considered this God’s mission for her life. She had been calling television stations to spread the word. Now her family was having her admitted to the state psychiatric hospital.
There was the young man from New Orleans who called, weeping with grief, who would not give his name but shared the light-and-love-filled deathbed vision of his partner, wasted with AIDS. “We didn’t know it could happen to us…but it was so beautiful!”
So many stories, so many lives! And along with them, the file of disturbing NDEs grew, as is described in a chapter of Dancing Past the Dark. What that chapter does not mention is the range of letters. It might be a single line on paper torn out of a spiral notebook: “I had one of those, but I cannot talk about it.” It might be badly typed on drawing paper. Most were very short, even abrupt; but a few, handwritten, covered pages and pages describing the circumstances of the person’s life and situation at the time in far greater detail than they described the distressing NDE. One man, a touring evangelist, sent his account in the form of a hell-threatening brochure he handed out at his revival meetings.
Over at the Near-Death Hotel, as IANDS President Kenneth Ring’s home came to be known, the author of the first statistically-grounded book about NDEs—and an irresistible host as well—was swamped with house guests. Near-death experiencers longing to talk about their encounters with heaven, their light-filled, blissful NDEs, made the pilgrimage to meet him and each other. They couldn’t talk enough, get together enough, share enough about their peaceful and wonderful experiences. On the distressing NDE scene, not only were there not enough experiencers to make a minyan, but although people with distressing NDEs were occasionally willing to correspond for a couple of letters, they were not, and still are not, much interested in developing relationships centered on their experiences. (Which, considering the relative size of my house and the fact that I, too, am such an experiencer, has been a blessing.)
For reasons detailed in the book, including that lack of interest in sharing, it took ten years to collect enough complete experience accounts; but by 1992 Bruce Greyson and I could put together the breakthrough first study of distressing NDEs, published in the journal Psychiatry. Since then, I have presented subsequent work in journal articles and at conferences. I wrote the chapter about these experiences for The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation(2009, Praeger) and have presented on them widely.
The conference recordings may be the likeliest source of whatever helped the young man in Houston, for from the outset I have insisted, based on research findings, that “There is no evidence that bad people have bad experiences and good people have good ones.” It is a life-giving message for the many people whose only explanation of a frightening visionary experience is that it foretells eternal torment. For many years, the IANDS office has forwarded to me “difficult” letters that need an especially careful response for a troubled experiencer. Since early 2011, I have been writing this blog about distressing NDEs and related matters ; it forms the heart of my website, http://dancingpastthedark.com. So many, many stories, so many lives touched!
My BA in English is from the University at Albany–SUNY, and a master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry from St. Joseph University in Connecticut, with additional graduate study at McGill University, Trinity College and the University of Connecticut. My three children have grown families of their own, providing me with seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Now President Emerita of IANDS and retired, I live in coastal North Carolina. I do not play golf.