I never met my uncle Marc. He died decades before I was born. I did know him, however. His mother –my maternal grandmother — made sure of that.
One story has stayed with me from the first time I heard it. It was about the day he passed. He was eleven. According to Grandma Stena, Marc developed “blood poisonin'” a few days after puncturing a blister on his heal with a sewing needle. Over the course of several days, a bright red line began moving up his leg. Fever and sweats soon followed.
Ocurring years before the development of antibiotics, sepsis was a death sentence. Having two kids of my own, I can’t imagine the terror my grandmother must have felt. And yet, the way she talked about the experience was strangely comforting.
Marc lapsed in and out of consciousness. When awake, he carried on lengthy conversations. Not only with his mother, but with deceased family members, many of whom he’d never met in life. As was her habit, Grandma Stena dutifully recorded the experience and names in her journal. One was her own mother, Kristin Enarsdottir — particularly curious given that my Icelandic great-grandmother had died two short weeks after giving birth to my grandmother. She was “taken in” by a family Marc knew as his grandparents, the Runolfssons. Neither my grandmother or Marc had known “Grandma K.”
According to the journal, around 11:30 am on July 22nd, 1929, Marc announced he could only stay “a few more minutes.” When she began to cry, he met her tears and sadness with reassurance. Others were waiting, he told her. They had been speaking with him and she was not to worry. He would be all right.
Marc took his final breath around 12 noon.
For my grandparents, 1929 was a year of challenge and tragedy. Three months after their son died, they lost their modest home and life savings in the aftermath of the stock market crash. Needless to say perhaps, both were transformed by these experiences — in ways one might and might not expect. For example, in the many years that followed, my grandparents never again put money in a bank. The baking soda can they used to store cash sits on my desk to this day. In their home, it was always buried deep in the flour bin inside a kitchen cabinet.
The other changes are harder to relate as succinctly. Growing up, the story’s supernatural elements were often what grabbed my attention. Talking with the dead. Crossing the veil. Life after death (insert theme song from the Twilight Zone here). For my grandparents, however, it was something entirely different. While the experience may have confirmed their beliefs about what happens after death, the real impact was on how they thought about and lived their lives after Marc’s passing. Life is short. Always treat others with kindness and compassion. Practice forgiveness. Listen and, whenever possible, be of help. Relationships, not money or material possessions, are what matters. In both word and deed, my maternal grandparents embodied these values in their daily lives.
Turns out, they were not alone. The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia has been studying the nature and impact of “near death” experiences for more than four decades. Bottom line: they are often transformative. And, in contrast to psychotherapy and psychotropic medication, the changes NDE’s faciliate occur with greater speed and are more encompassing.
The problem, of course, is that to benefit, you either have to die or, in the case of my grandparents, witness an NDE close-up! “Unacceptable,” observes Dr. J. Kim Penberthy with a laugh. Professor of Research in Psychiatric Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virgina, Dr. Penberthy has been investigating how we might obtain the same transformative, consciousness-changing benefits of NDE’s using alternate means.
I’m embarassed to admit I’d never heard of the Division of Perceptual Studies — described on the UVA website as, “a highly productive university-based research group devoted to the investigation of phenomena that challenge mainstream scientific paradigms regarding the nature of human consciousness.” Frankly, it never occurred to me that a program focused on reincarnation and the survival of consciousness after death would be granted space and funding in a top notch scholarly setting.
Back in 2017, I’d written an article describing how psychotherapy might benefit from embracing phenomena that exceed the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions. A few years later, together with colleagues from Australia, I published a research article documenting that people reported better outcomes when consulting a psychic/medium than a traditional mental health practioner. Unfortunately, two book projects — Better Results and The Field Guide to Better Results — got in the way of further work on the subject.
Mindfulness. Yoga. Psychedelics. Drugs. Alcohol. Religion. Travel. Extreme sports. Now, and throughout history, humans have sought to alter their consciousness — sometimes to escape, but more often to find a new or different reality.
That’s where Dr. Penberty enters the picture. I stumbled upon her work while doing research for our next book, Healing in the Age of Science. She graciously agreed to be interviewed. Personally, I think you’ll find the conversation consciousness-altering.