Frightening NDEs: Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences by Nancy Evans Bush

23 Jul


Nancy Evans Bush has released her long awaited book Dancing Past The Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences. I have recently finished reading this great book on frightening or distressing NDEs. It is so refreshing to see the frightening NDEs brought to the attention of the public.

It will be extremely helpful when health care professionals, psychotherapists, and clergy are able to help an individual deal with whatever the experience was, no matter what academics name it. (The difference is rather like telling a child there is nothing to cry about because he was stung by a wasp and not a hornet—the problem is the pain, not the label.) Bush, Page 105

I first met Nancy Evans Bush when I spoke at the IANDs Conference at The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas in October 2006. Our paths crossed again at a meeting at The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan in June 2008.

During this time I was blessed to be able to spend quality time with other researchers in the field of NDEs, at the invitation of The Fetzer Institute, and it was especially nice to be able to hear the first hand accounts of some of the people’s NDEs. Nancy was one of the people who shared their NDE with some of the group. Nancy’s NDE however was of the frightening kind.

A few weeks ago I got an email from Nancy and she mentioned that her book Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences had now been published and asked if I would like to review it. I was really excited to read it as there is so little in the literature about the frightening NDEs in comparison with the pleasant NDEs.

I had come across two people in my research who described frightening NDEs; one was the prototypical NDE but interpreted in an unpleasant way and one was so frightening for the patient that I to terminate the interview as the mere recall of it was causing her so much distress.

I also vividly recall when I was a student nurse looking after a dying lady. This lady was petrified and every time a member of staff approached her bed she would try to cling on to them and dig her nails into their skin. She was begging us not to let her die, she said she had died before and it was a frightening thing. (I checked her notes and indeed she’d had a cardiac arrest several years previously.) At the time the other nurses and myself didn’t have any idea of why she was so terrified. It is only since studying NDEs that I can reflect back and suggest that when the lady had a cardiac arrest a few years previously, she may have had a frightening NDE. The case is one that also distressed us nurses as we felt useless when trying to support her.

Clearly more research needs to be done in order to understand the frightening NDEs and provide greater psychological support to those who experience them – frightening NDEs have been ignored for far too long!

In fact, because contemporary metaphysical thought has so strongly emphasized the belief (or certainly the hope) that only the light is real and has value, it has by and large denied or ignored the “dark night” aspects of spirituality. (Bush, page 123)

With a foreword written by Professor Bruce Greyson I was very excited to read this book and it did not disappoint me. This is a most needed thorough investigation into frightening NDEs.

In this honest look at frightening or unpleasant NDEs Nancy considers all aspects and possible explanations for the less commonly reported experiences which fail to comply with typical experiences of beings of light and beautiful landscapes. Nancy, herself having experienced a frightening NDE, draws on her own experience and her 30 years of research and considers these experiences from scientific, historical, psychological and theological as well as from a personal perspective.

Along with Professor Bruce Greyson, Nancy undertook one of the earliest analyses of the frightening NDEs which took 9 years to collect only 50 of such cases. She describes the difficulties of collecting the cases then further follow up which is testimony to how impacting these experiences are and how difficult they are for the experiencers to express especially when not conforming to the pleasant NDEs.

She highlights the biased, uninformed thinking that frightening NDEs must be due to the person being of immoral character, mean, hate filled and not loving God which has no data to support it. She rightly points out how frightening NDEs were simply not looked for and all measurement tools did not take them into account. This is one aspect that I found difficulty with when undertaking my own research so had to adapt the Greyson NDE Scale in order to accommodate the two frightening cases I encountered.

A most important aspect is Nancy’s comparison of the frightening NDE to shamanic initiation and her point that shamanic initiates would have recognized this stage but NDErs don’t as we have lost touch with fundamental spiritual aspects of the human psyche.

Not only does Nancy consider possible explanations for frightening NDEs from all perspectives but she also offers very practical and important information on how to deal with the experience and how to integrate it into their life post-NDE.

These three themes—the non-physical understood as psychologically real, acknowledgment of the existence of frightening non-physical realities, and the development of strategies for dealing with them—offer a perspective for exploring distressing near-death experiences. (Bush, Page 143)

Towards the end of the book Nancy has a section where she has compiled a comprehensive list of questions about the frightening NDEs which readers will find most helpful.

The appendix also has great examples of frightening NDEs along with advice for caregivers or loved ones of someone who has undergone such an experience.

The bottom line about distressing NDEs in general and the hellish ones in particular seems to be that hell, like heaven, is very real—as a product of the imaginal system that produces experience. It is not a place, not a destination, but a built-in range of ideas that are part of us, and that we must deal with. This concept is part of a much larger conversation involving the growing evidence that consciousness is not strictly located in the brain but has a much greater field, perhaps universe-wide. That being true, it seems likely that the better prepared we are for these kinds of experience, the happier will be the outcome. (Bush, page 200)

This is a most welcome addition to the literature on NDEs and is a must read for all health care workers and those who are likely to encounter NDErs.

24 Responses to “Frightening NDEs: Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences by Nancy Evans Bush”

  1. John Schofield July 23, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Dear Dr. Sartori,
    Yes: so many people are afraid – of both life and death. A Chief of one of the First Nations (so mistakenly called Indians) said “There is no death: only a change of worlds”.
    The lady whose book you write about has invested huge effort and much time into her work of ‘redressing the balance’, so to speak. Lots of courage also, since people can be afraid to live and afraid to die. I have forwarded your item to Facebook and t nde@yahoogroups, where I have been a member for some ten years. I may get some atomic fallout from the latter; but I can field that.
    I find the work of Drs. Larry Dossey and Rupert Sheldrake especially informative on the subject of non-locality.

    All good wishes..

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 23, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

      Hi John, thank you for comment. Yes, its great that Nancy Bush is redressing the balance and bringing the frightening NDEs to the attention of more people.

      I’m sure there are many people who have had a frightening NDE but have not spoken about it. Hopefully Nancy’s book may help these people and more research will provide us with a greater understanding so that more psychological support will be available.

    • John Schofield July 24, 2012 at 6:57 am #

      This *is* John Schofield ! I regret that ineptitude in computer use caused some muddled lines in my post – ‘repeats’ seemingly caused by the reply box jumpingabouut in the course of typing !

      • Dr Penny Sartori July 24, 2012 at 8:31 am #

        I’ve just edited your first comment and deleted the repeats – I did wonder about them when I first read your comment.

  2. Tony July 23, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    I have this book. It’s quite interesting.

  3. Robert July 27, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Thank you for posting this. I also heard her on Skeptiko and have visited her blog. I haven’t read the book. And I confess that I don’t feel strongly drawn to. I think I am like the people she mentions who would like to avoid the distressing NDEs. I know it’s unfounded to chalk them up to people deserving a hellish experience due to their moral failings. Yet what is the explanation for them? I had read Kenneth Ring’s three-part explanation and found it credible, but Nancy Bush seems to reject his approach.

    What I find myself wondering is whether distressing NDEs may help unlock the relationship between objective and subjective elements in NDEs. Clearly there are objective elements, which are seen in the veridical perceptions at the very least, but then there also seem to be subjective elements. Maybe the distressing NDEs are a key to figuring out what the role and influence of each is.

    One question I’ve had (not having read the book) is what Bush’s explanation of distressing NDEs is. I couldn’t quite glean that either from your post or from the Skeptiko interview.

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Hi Robert, I find the frightening NDEs to be harder to understand – probably because there is far less literature on them. You make an interesting point about the possibility of them helping to unlock the relationship between subjective and objective.

      To be honest Nancy would be the best person to answer your question on what her explanation of distressing NDEs is but I think her main point is to not ignore these experiences but to try to understand them.

      From what I have learned so far it would seem that all types of NDEs are maps of the human psyche. Throughout cultures there are representations of beings of light but also of darkness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead warns of wrathful deities that may be encountered along the journey of the deceased. Stanislav Grof’s work with LSD therapy and Holotropic Breathwork has also revealed people who have met with unpleasant experiences during an altered state of consciousness.

      At this point I don’t have an explanation for distressing NDEs but would welcome any suggestions for further exploration of this subject.

      • Robert July 27, 2012 at 10:22 am #

        Thank you very much for your answer. Your mention of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Grof’s psycholitic therapy also bring to mind Rick Strassman’s DMT experiments, in which people encountered all sorts of weird aliens. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there was some kind of objective reality to at least some of these threatening beings. I don’t see why we should assume they’re just products of the mind, even though they may turn out to be exactly that.

        One suggestion for further exploration is a related phenomenon, one that I don’t think is acknowledged yet. This is the traditional Christian NDE (for want of a better term). The majority of NDEs clearly have a kind of universal framework: It’s not about you acknowledging a particular religious tradition; it’s about you learning to love. But a small minority (from what I can see) are distinctly different. They are most definitely about the NDErs acknowledgment of God and Jesus (even his death on the cross) in a traditional worshipful sense. It’s almost like the flow is reversed, from “we (God and other heavenly beings) are here to love and support you in learning to love on earth” to “you are here to honor, praise and worship God and Jesus, and if you don’t…”

        Here is a great example of the traditional Christian NDE:

        In many ways, this is analogous to Ring’s “inverted NDE,” in which the classic NDE elements are there, only experienced as fearful. In Alexa’s case, the classic NDE elements are there, only reinterpreted from a traditional Christian point of view. The life review is there, for instance, only totally Christianized. It’s really quite striking, even jarring.

        My thought is this. We really have (at least) two variations on a pattern. One variation is: majority of pleasant NDEs, minority of distressing NDEs. The second variation is: majority of universal NDEs, minority of traditional Christian NDEs. In each case, the classic Moody elements can be there, only dramatically reframed in meaning.

        It seems to me that having two instances of that pattern can significantly help us get to the bottom of what is going on, whatever that may be.

      • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2012 at 11:18 am #

        Hi Robert, thanks for your suggestion it is very interesting. To me it seems that during NDEs people are accessing this altered state of consciousness that is the basis of the universe but this consciousness is usually screened out by the brain. (The mistake many people make is that they believe that what is perceived during this state is a creation of the brain but I don’t believe this to be the case). It is similar to Jung’s idea of archetypes and the collective unconscious. When in this state these archetypes are encountered but interpreted in accordance with individual’s upbringing, mindset, life experiences, beliefs etc.

        NDEs are unexpected and instantaneous for e.g. one minute the person may be driving his car on the freeway and next minute the car gets hit by a truck and the person finds himself suddenly having a NDE.

        Context, set and setting all have an influence on the experience. So if someone is brought up in a strict Christian tradition then the images and beliefs as they are growing up are embedded in their subconscious. Alexa’s NDE is very interesting, I just checked out the link, thanks for that. When this altered state of consciousness is accessed how these archetypes and experiences are interpreted would be influenced by all of these factors.

        Something that may be experienced as pleasant by many could be experienced as unpleasant by others. So I guess our individual make-up can contribute to how NDEs are perceived and experienced.

  4. Robert July 27, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    John, I have had problems with the reply box jumping around when I type. Do you use Internet Explorer? I do, so I tried writing a reply in another browser (I tried Google Chrome) and it didn’t happen (like it’s happening right now–I’m back in IE). So you might try something like that.

  5. Robert July 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughts. Alexa’s NDE is a real stand-out, isn’t it? I tend to agree with what you say here. I just hope that one day there is a firm answer that nails the subjective factors down in detail. A lot of my question with NDEs is how much can we trust their content? Not just consciousness leaving the body, but all their content, including the philosophical worldview that is implicit in so many, at the center of which is the primacy of love. I tend to trust that content, but then I read a distressing experience, or read “Is she washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” and get thrown for a loop!

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Yes, it is a lot for me to get my head around when there are NDEs like Alexa’s with the comment you’ve mentioned above. But maybe it was just Alexa’s interpretation of the collective unconscious under the circumstances of her hemorrhaging (which maybe she actually saw as she was losing consciousness) along with her religious beliefs. Maybe someone else, maybe a Hindu nurse who was familiar with seeing blood may interpret it in a completely different way. At this point I can only speculate.

      However, I think if more prospective NDE research in a hospital context is undertaken it should hopefully build up the data base of the distressing NDEs as well as the pleasant ones and give us a greater understanding.

      I think the fact that NDEs, including the distressing ones, can be so life transforming in a way that is conducive to our evolution (i.e. becoming more tolerant of others, becoming more loving and compassionate etc) would suggest that the underlying content is of great importance to all of us.

      There is still much to learn about these experiences.

      • Robert July 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

        I completely agree, except for the part about how that might have been Alexa’s interpretation of the “blood” statement. Every American, or at least every church-going American (though I expect not every Brit) knows precisely what “washed in the blood of the lamb” means. It’s a core part of the Evangelical Christian lingo.

  6. Robert July 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Having re-read what you said, I fear I may have misinterpreted your point. If so, I’m sorry about that!

  7. John Schofield July 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Greetings, Dr. Sartori ! And thank you, Robert, for your suggestion. I’m using Chrome right now, and hoping that I shan’t spoil the appearance of the blog. I listened a few days back to a BBC program featuring work in an Intensive Therapy Unit. While it was apparent that patients were being expertly treated, it seemed as if much of what they had to say was being tick-boxed as hallucinatory. Found myself thinking ” But what if….?”

    Where skeptics think of all nde’s being down to anoxia and a range of other physiologic factors, I transfer these to the ‘bad’ experiences. It then becomes a matter of gentle persuasion to elicit trusting responses, which themselves may take a long time to come through, as witness accounts in I am keenly interested in the need to take account of symbolic and metaphoric elements such as may so often occur in dreams. I am persuaded also that the concept of non-locality is crucial. I am not an nde’r myself – indeed,on reaching seventy-nine this very day, I’d say it’s much more likely that I’ll get a straightforward, howbeit possibly uncomfortable death experience in due course. Doesn’t faze me any. I think it was Dr.Moody who said that the very fact that one reads many accounts can dispel angst ! The lady who is Moderator of the nde Group to which I belong is herself an nde’er; and the late Pam Reynolds, whose own recovery from a uniquely notable surgery for aneurysm involved a veridical nde, was a close friend of hers.

    Unconditional love is thought of as immensely important on said Group, so I kept my head down awhile after forwarding the ‘distressing nde’s’ material ! I remain convinced that much work needs to be done to take note of such things.

    With all good wishes !

    John……Silent Companion…. or Wahaliedoda (Father Eagle, would you believe !)

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

      Hi John, Happy 79th Birthday and thanks for your comments.

      Yes I find it very frustrating that people still consider much of what intensive care patients experience, as being hallucinatory. I think there are many reasons for this:
      1) it is still being instilled in the training of healthcare workers that these must only be hallucinatory
      2) healthcare workers are so busy with excessive workloads that they simply don’t have the time to actually sit and fully listen to what the patients want to discuss
      3) there is still a lot of ignorance of the research in this area.

      There is no doubt that NDEs occur and they are very real to those who experience them so the response they are met with if they share their experience is of the utmost importance. To disregard such a sacred experience can be detrimental to the way in which the experience is understood and integrated into the life of the experiencer.

      Yes it is very important to take into account the metaphoric and symbolic aspects of the experience too and I agree that non-locality of consciousness is crucial to our further understanding.

  8. Max_B July 31, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    I think these types of experience give us an excellent clue, which points to the importance of the relationship between the state of mind of the individual, their cultural group, and others, at the moment of their NDE.

    • Max_B August 6, 2012 at 7:01 am #

      I’ve been doing some more thinking about these distressing NDE’s over the last week, and trying to further explain my comments above…

      Going back to an earlier idea I had on your blog regarding the ‘group average pattern’

      Where part of what I wrote said: “…The group average pattern touches you in these areas of your own pattern that are empty, or unused, activating these areas…”

      I realised I had only explained the effect where the patient’s pattern areas were empty or unused compared to the group average.

      It came to me that the patient’s area might also exceeded the group average pattern, and in this case might be non-permissive and thus interpreted by the brain appropriately as a distressing NDE?

      I don’t have much time to write about it at the moment… but can explain further if that doesn’t make sense.

      • Dr Penny Sartori August 8, 2012 at 9:48 am #

        Hi Max, Mm…you make an interesting point. Yes, this is certainly possible. I need to think more about this.

  9. Stuart July 31, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    not related to the post but still interesting and need to put up the link somewhere. please move if so.

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 31, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

      Thank you for this Stuart – I will post a quick comment so others can see this exciting news.

  10. Dennis December 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    As a child, I recall two very strange things that happened to me personally. The first time was when I was playing around our swimming pool, and how I ended up in the pool I don’t remember, but remember struggling to get out. I saw mylife snuff out from drowning, and luckily my cousin saw what was happening and saved my life. I recall just before I almost died, or was possibly dead, how peaceful I felt. Another time, I was living with my parents in their home in Yuma, Arizona I was in the first grade. I was standing on the back porch when suddenly, I could feel my spirit leave my body. It seemed like just a few seconds, but my father shooked me and asked what the matter was, as I didn’t respond to his shaking for about 2 to 3 minutes later. I saw myself circle the world and remember seeing how beautiful it was, then was being pulled back to my body by a silver cord, I was struggling to not go back, but it was stronger than me. What it all means I haven’t got a clue, nor do I understand it all, but it is so vivid in my mind, that I have never forgotten. People seem to be afraid of dying, but I am not, I am afraid of being murdered that scares me. I want to live to have a natural death, knowing that it is like when a person faints, he has no concious that he is dying, he simply falls asleep and instantly his spirit is return to its creator.

    • Dr Penny Sartori December 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

      Hi Dennis, thank you for sharing your experiences. These are very interesting. The first experience sounds like a near-death experience or at least the begining of one. It is quite common to have a life review (where the whole life flashes before one’s eyes) during a near-drowning NDE but life reviews are not so common in children.

      The second experience sounds more of a spiritual experience as you did not appear to be in a life threatening situation. These experiences are very similar to NDEs but occur spontaneously when there is no threat of death. Sir Alister Hardy studied these at great length and the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experiences, at Lampeter University in Wales, has over 7000 accounts of similar experiences in their archives.

      I’m wondering if the NDE you had kind of predisposed you to further spiritual experiences? It is very common after these experiences to not be afraid of dying. It is also common for the person to want to stay where they are and not return to life. Following these experiences people are usually transfromed (very profoundly in some cases). Out of curiosity, do you have any problems with electrical items? Do you find that kettles, toasters or computers malfunction in your presence? Are you able to wear a watch or do you find that they won’t work for you? I ask these questions as some people who have these kinds of experiences find that they have changes in their electro magnetic field and this particularly interests me.

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