Patricia Pearson is a Toronto-based author and journalist who has written a book called Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying Tell Us About Where They’re Going. It was mentioned here in a recent post and sparked some admiring comments. Having had a chance to read it now, I must say I too am impressed. (There's also a good interview with the author here.)
It’s fair to say that most people who get interested in psi and survival come to it from a personal experience, and that’s the case here. Pearson’s sister, the single mother of teenagers, fell ill with aggressive breast cancer. One night she woke to experience a profound vision of joy and healing. Was it the effect of people praying for her, she wondered?
The next day she learned that their father had died during the night. It was natural to link the two events, and Pearson’s subsequent journey of discovery revealed how common it is for people to have experiences of all kinds in relation to their own deaths, or the deaths of loved ones.
This reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by a British journalist Justine Picardie, who likewise embarked on a personal inquiry following the death of her sister from breast cancer. Justine seemed keen to believe her sister had survived death, if she could find convincing evidence. However her subsequent encounters with researchers and mediums were somewhat clumsy and half-hearted, and she encountered only silence.
By contrast Pearson started out with personal experience. She describes Katherine on her deathbed being pleased and interested by what she seemed to be observing, ‘as if she were engaged in a novel and pleasant adventure.’
She looked gorgeous, as if lit from within. Sometimes, she would have happy whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she’d stare at the ceiling of her room as a full panoply of expressions played across her face: puzzled, amused, skeptical, surprised.
She just couldn’t find the words to describe it.
When one day Katherine announced she was leaving, she could have survived for weeks or months, but in fact died two days later. Pearson discovered that this is very common – patients can be crisply precise about when they will die, and far more accurate than doctors. (My father on his deathbed suddenly said, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow’, in the same tone as he might have said he was going to the dentist – and he did, even though there was nothing to suggest he couldn’t have gone on for a while longer.)
Yet more interestingly, Pearson also learned that the dying often use the language of a journey to convey the imminence of their departure, quizzing those around them about what arrangements have been made with regard to passports and tickets, and so on.
The book essentially covers Pearson’s research into all kinds of dreams, visions and intimations, from Nearing Death Awareness (termed Death Bed Visions in the early research), psi dreams and visions, apparitions coinciding with death, NDEs, and so on. I was particularly engaged by a chapter on Third Man experiences, where people in situations of great danger find themselves accompanied by an invisible yet somehow tangible presence, who guides them to safety.
Some of the material is published and may be familiar to readers, for instance the account by Yvonne Kason of her dramatic air crash into a frozen lake and the near-death experience it led to. But there are many similar anecdotes culled from Pearson’s own research. All of this is skilfully interwoven with surveys and scientific findings of various kinds, cultural, historical and religious references, and intelligent musings.
Several things make this book stand out. One is the lightness of touch. As a journalist Pearson knows how to present topics in an engaging way, with the eye of the novelist. There is a serious intent, though – in fact the book can be seen as a patient reproof to the response, ‘couldn’t you just have been imagining it?’ Always calm and equable, one nevertheless senses a certain steely impatience with the pretence that such things don’t really have any significance, and that to talk about them as if they do is a sure sign of credulity.
Professional experts like Peter Fenwick emphasise that hallucinations resulting from illness and drugs are unpleasant and fragmentary, whereas these are coherent and meaningful to the highest degree. But unless the point is driven home it remains easy for an agnostic to dismiss it as ‘something that happens in the brain’. That is dealt with in gratifying depth here. Pearson presses experiencers to reveal just how strongly they distinguished the event from anything else that had encountered, and to say why it reassured and sometimes changed them.
I also think that Pearson is absolutely right to emphasise the primacy of subjective experience. A book full of anecdotes is reassuring to sceptics, who tell themselves that anecdotes aren’t science. But theirs, if they only knew it, is the science of a dead world inhabited by zombies and robots. We need to share what we feel and experience, in order to communicate.
People like me bang on about scientific evidence and how it is to be interpreted. Her approach is to quietly layer experience on experience, to show just how completely normal all this really is and how absurd to repress it. Comfortingly, the book hints that more people are willing to speak up – the doctors and medical staff who observe death-bed phenomena, the hospice carers and relatives who witness it, and even on occasion share in the visions themselves – and leaves one with a sense that the mood is slowly changing.
Yet in a rather poignant coda, Pearson learns that she is as much subject to the general reticence as everyone else. She hears a medium in a public meeting say things that clearly come from her sister, but keeps quiet, and only afterwards confesses to him privately that she knew the statements were meant for her. Breaking a taboo is hard, even for those of us who would love to see it happen.