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Spiritual Alphabet Soup of Death and Dying

Near-death experiences (NDEs), after-death communication (ADC), nearing-death awareness (NDA), and shared-death experiences (SDEs)

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The Final Goodbye

“Little Betsy is going home now.” I was dreaming one morning when I heard the familiar voice of a woman who was waving goodbye to me. She looked like my Aunt Betty, but years younger than my first memories of her. She had been sick for a long time, but I hadn’t thought about her in months. I called my mother and found out her sister had died that night. I had never heard her called Betsy, and she said it was a pet nickname only used by my Uncle Walt.

My visitation dream can be considered a form of after-death communication (ADC), one of the four categories of spiritually-transformative experiences (STEs) included in the spiritual alphabet soup of death and dying. I have written previously about the four psychospiritual after-effects of near-death experiences (NDEs), but ADC, nearing-death awareness (NDA) and shared-death experiences (SDEs) also can have significant impact on our worldviews about how life and death intersect. 

ADC is the most common of these spiritual acronyms occurring in 20 to 40 percent of the population. It was first popularized by the Guggenheims in their 1997 book Hello from Heaven: A New Field of Research — After-Death Communication — Confirms That Life and Love Are Eternal based on their research of more than 3,300 first hand accounts. Four categories of ADC have been described in the Journal of Holistic Nursing: 1) visions and dreams, 2) lost-things-found, 3) symbolic messages, and 4) sightings.

Compared to the extensive research that has been done by the International Association for Near-Death Studies on NDEs there is relatively little scientific literature on ADCs. However, my dream does have a couple of the features described in NDE research on veridical perception. I received information about a nickname I had no foreknowledge of that proved to be true. My aunt coming to me to say goodbye prior to being notified about her death can also be considered a form of a “Peak in Darien” experience where NDEers see dead people not known to have died. Her unfamiliar appearance as if in the prime of life is also typical of visitation dreams.

The dream message about going home is very similar to the stories of NDA first popularized in 2009 by hospice nurse Maggie Callanan in her 2009 book Final Journeys: A Practical Guide for Bringing Care and Comfort at the End of Life. Comments such as “It’s time to get in line” and “I’m going home soon” are relatively common in her experience. The take home message from her work is that acknowledging these phenomena as a meaningful part of the death process can be valuable in providing comfort at the end of life.

Dreams and visions at the end of life are now an emerging field of research thanks to the groundbreaking studies of Dr. Christopher Kerr, chief of palliative care at Hospice Buffalo. His 2015 TEDx talk I See Dead People with over 2 million views highlights the scientific results showing dreams of the deceased are correlated with an increase in comfort levels for the dying. Such dreams increase in frequency in the final weeks of life. If your loved one in their deathbed says not to sit in a particular chair because Grandma is there, it is probably a good idea to respect their wishes.

The least common form of STE associated with death and dying is the SDE which was described by NDE research pioneer Raymond Moody in his 2010 book Glimpses of Eternity: Sharing a Loved One’s Passage From This Life to the Next. At the deathbed close relatives of the dying person who have intuitive abilities are able to participate in the transition process. Their stories may begin with altered perceptions of the room itself and progress to features typical of a classic NDE including being sent back from the final boundary in the heavenly realms.

We discuss all these kinds of mystical and paranormal experiences on a monthly basis at the Rhine Research Center’s Psychic Experiences Group and Dream Group meetings. This year is the 85th anniversary of the parapsychology laboratory that was originally housed in the Department of the Psychology at Duke University until 1964. We are celebrating decades of outside-the-box research exploring ESP and other exceptional human abilities including a joint meeting of the Parapsychological Association and the Society for Scientific Exploration here in Durham, NC, June 16–19, 2020. 

Many people are making all sorts of apocalyptic presidential predictions for 2020, but it is important to remember that apocalypse means Revelation, not Armageddon. Instead perhaps the messages of hope from NDEers may indicate we are converging toward the Omega Point described by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as representing the endpoint in the evolution of consciousness. In that spirit I will be speaking about the spiritual alphabet of death and dying at the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology conference in Baltimore, MD, on 5/18/2020, and at the Haden Institute Dream and Spirituality conference in Hendersonville, NC, on 5/24–29/2020. 

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