Do Children Really Have NDEs?

nancyevansbushAs the film Heaven Is For Real is released in theaters, Nancy Evans Bush, author of Dancing Past the Dark, discusses issues and evidence of children who have had NDEs.


When news of near-death experiences first began reaching the public, almost forty years ago, one of the earliest questions was, “What about children?” Children haven’t had much education or religious training; so surely a child could not have such an experience?

Well, wrong. As early as 1983, more than two thousand people had reported their near-death experiences (NDEs) to the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).  [... Among them were dozens from people who mentioned having had an NDE as a child; fifteen of them were described in detail.] Full article.

As the first-generation archive of experiences, these reports are considered the “cleanest”—unlikely to have been influenced by hearing or reading about many others. Among them were dozens from people who mentioned having had an NDE as a child; fifteen of them were described in detail. The experiences had all happened well before the term “near-death experience” was even invented, but all were remembered vividly. In addition, two mothers contacted IANDS for help with what their still-young children were reporting and dealing with after an NDE.

As the fifteen first-person accounts were being described so early in the history of near-death studies, and as the two mothers’ stories were so immediate, they have exceptional believability. First reported in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Winter 1983, these experiences still serve as introduction to the question, “What about children and NDEs?”

Adults Remembering

This first group of reports demonstrated that children are as strongly influenced by their NDEs as adults are. All but one of the experiencers had remembered their NDE in detail since the event—from 11 to 65 years earlier. The one exception was a woman whose NDE had happened during a hospitalization when she was 13 months old (before language development); then, 27 years later, she was under hypnosis for an unrelated purpose, and the NDE memory surfaced strongly.

Most of the NDEs had occurred during ordinary childhood disasters, or in illnesses before the discovery of penicillin: four near-drownings; three ruptured appendices; two unidentified illnesses with prolonged high fever; and one case each resulting from mastoiditis, pneumonia/mastoiditis, drug allergy, and a fall. Of two incidents not typically childhood-associated, one resulted from a "heart attack" (no other information given) and one when a young teen was swept into a flood-swollen river (not a near-drowning).

Major Features

The NDEs of children contain much the same features as those of adults, though sometimes in different percentages. The features described here are those most frequently mentioned. No questions had been asked which might encourage the writers to remember or mention any of the features.

The Light

In the remembered childhood experiences, a special quality of light was a feature in 65 percent of the experiences. By contrast, when the adults interviewed for Kenneth Ring's Life at Death (1980) were asked, "Did you at any time experience a light, glow, or illumination?" 34 percent answered yes. In Michael Sabom's study of adults (1982), light appeared as a major feature in 28 percent of the responses. Although the colors and quality of the light are described almost exactly as in adult NDEs, it is mentioned twice as frequently in the children’s accounts.

A nine-year-old girl was in such critical condition after surgery for a ruptured appendix that her surgeon told her parents she would probably not live through the night. As she described her NDE, she found herself in a heavy darkness until

the blackness was gone and in its place was a beautiful soft pink light. All the weight was gone, and I floated back up into the room as light as a feather. I seemed to be filled with this same light, which was the most profound spirit of love that you can imagine. Nothing has ever come near it since. I opened my eyes, and the whole room was just bathed in that beautiful light. In fact, the light completely surrounded everything in the room, there were no shadows. I felt so happy .... I heard my father say, 'What's she looking at?' The light lasted for a little while and it was wonderful.

Another nine-year-old girl, diving off the high board at summer camp, slipped and plunged uncontrolled into the ocean. She was later told that she was underwater for ten minutes.

The next thing I remember is floating only an inch or two from the ocean's sandy bottom in the midst of a great light. The light wasn't the bright glaring sort of light that makes you blink. Instead, this light was incandescent, almost ethereal. I could see every indentation and curvature in the sand and minute details in the seaweed. If there were fish or shells, I don't remember them. I felt absolutely nothing. Not the water, nor the sand, nothing. I was surrounded by silence, but I wasn't afraid. I wanted to stay there forever. I have never since experienced such a feeling of peace.

A four-year-old girl was about to go down the cellar stairs with a flashlight because the light fixture at the landing had burned out. Years later, she reported:

As I started to take the first step down, I flashed the beam of light up at the light bulb, curious to see if a burned-out bulb looked "burned." I stepped out and fell into the-darkness.

The next thing I was aware of was being up near the ceiling over the foot of the stairs. The light was dim and at first I saw nothing unusual. Then I saw myself lying, face down, on the cement, over to the side of the stairway. I was a little surprised, but not at all upset at seeing myself that way. I watched and saw that I didn't move at all. After a while, I said to myself, "I guess I'm dead." But I felt good! Better than I ever had. I realized I probably wouldn't be going back to my mother, but I wasn't afraid at all ...

I noticed the dim light growing slowly brighter. The source of light was not in the basement, but far behind and slightly above me. I looked over my shoulder into the most beautiful light imaginable. It seemed to be at the end of a long tunnel which was gradually getting brighter and brighter as more and more of the light entered it. It was yellow-white and brilliant, but not painful to look at even directly. As I turned to face the light t with my full "body," I felt happier than I ever had before or have since.

Then the light was gone. I felt groggy and sick, with a terrible headache. I only wanted my mother, and to stop my head from hurting.

A fourteen-year-old boy and his family were trying to escape from their car, which was trapped on a bridge by rising flood waters, when they were swept over the side and downstream. Years later, he wrote to lANDS:

I knew I was either dead or going to die. But then something happened. It was so immense, so powerful, that I gave up on my life to see what it was. I wanted to venture into this experience which started as a drifting into what I could only describe as a long, rectangular tunnel of light. But it wasn't just light, it was a protective passage of energy with an intense brightness at the end which I wanted to look into, to touch.

As I reached the source of the light, I could see in. I cannot begin to describe in human terms the feelings I had over what I saw. It was a giant infinite world of calm, and love, and energy, and beauty. It was as though human life was unimportant compared to this. And yet it urged the importance of life at the same time it solicited death as a means to a different and better life. It was all being, all beauty, all meaning for all existence. It was all the energy of the Universe forever in one place.

As I reached my right hand into it, feelings of exhilarating anticipation overwhelmed me. I did not need my body any more. I wanted to leave it behind, if I hadn't already, and go to my God in this new world.

A Sense of Well-Being

In the childhood NDEs, 53 percent offered a sense of well-being and 35 percent said they had felt peace. Of Ring's (1980) adult sample, the figures were reversed: 20 percent had felt a sense of well-being ("happy," "good," "beautiful"), with 60 percent reporting peace. Combining well-being and/or peace into a single category, it was an important aspect of the NDE for 88 percent of the children and 80 percent of the adult experiencers. One might wonder how many children, as compared with working adults, feel the need of a sense of peace…but then there is this:

A hospitalized thirteen-month-old girl had pneumonia in both lungs and mastoiditis in both ears, but was too sick to tolerate surgery; in fact, she was considered to be near death. After the experience surfaced almost 27 years later under hypnosis for an unrelated purpose, her mother corroborated her remembrance of the scene:

I am strapped downhands, legs, body. I feel excruciating pain. There are big people all around, with enormous hands ... All at once I am safe. I am being rocked to sleep in a soft, warm and utterly serene and secure cradle. There is no pain, no noise, no turmoil—only peace, beautiful peace. The overhead light in the room is gone; in its place is all-encompassing light, the light which communicates safety and love. I feel so warm and confident inside. There is no pain. I can breathe easily; my limbs are free to move and I am all safe .... My eyes fix on the window across the room; it is outlined with the warm and happy light. My mother is looking through the window at me.

A thirteen-year-old boy who nearly drowned later reported:

It was a feeling of no pain at all. Like a floating feeling. It was like a beautiful rest period. If I was near death, it was beautiful.

A fourteen-year-old girl with an abscessed tooth had an allergic reaction in the dentist’s office. Years later, she wrote:

I was traveling towards the light rather quickly. I was very warm and cozy and knew something wonderful was at the end of the tunnel and in the light.

A fourteen-year-old girl with a ruptured appendix later reported:

I did not hurt any more. I was surrounded by a puffy cloud. I really was floating in peace. I have never felt as good. My parents asked me if I needed to go to the hospital. I told them no, because I didn't hurt anymore and I was dying.

Out-of Body Experiences

Of the children, 47 percent had felt they were separated from their physical body, 41 percent of them able to see clearly. Of Ring's adult sample, 37 percent reported an out- of-body experience, with roughly 33 percent identified as "visually clear."

An eight-year-old boy whose ears had just been lanced for mastoiditis later reported:

Mother was covering me when I felt I was rising up in the air. Although I could see I was rising toward a bright light, I could also look down and see Mother kneeling beside me....

A twelve-year-old girl with a ruptured appendix was rushed to the hospital. She later wrote to IANDS:

I became aware that not only was I completely out of pain, but that I seemed to be somehow floating along, above the ambulance. I could see my still, white form lying on the stretcher, my mother with tears in her eyes, leaning over my body, my father in the car behind the ambulance, white knuckles grasping the steering wheel. In addition, I could see my grandmother pacing up and down our living room, about fifteen miles in one direction, and my [physician] uncle at the hospital, fifteen miles in the other direction. At the time, nothing seemed odd about being able to be with all of those people at the same time. I remember feeling very detached from them, much as I feel if I walk down a strange street and casually glance into someone's back yard.

A six-year-old boy with polio fell face-down in foot-deep water in which he was wading without his leg brace. Years later, he wrote:

Suddenly I was viewing the scene from a vantage point about two or three feet above, behind, and to the right of my mother's right shoulder. She was sitting on the beach in a folding chair. My next older brother was playing in the sand to her right, and I could see myself floundering in the water between and beyond them. Just as I got there, my mother put down the newspaper she was holding open in front of her and reading, saw me in the water trying to call for help, and then turned to my brother and calmly told him, "Go pull your brother out of the water." I remember the words distinctly. I saw my brother stand up, walk out into the water where I was, and reach down and grab me by the shoulder. The next thing I knew, I was back in the water with my brother pulling me up.

Tunnel, Darkness

In the remembered childhood accounts, 41 percent included going into a darkness, 30 percent into a tunnel. The adults surveyed by Ring (1980) reported a 23 percent incidence of "entering the darkness" 18 percent of the tunnel. A curious finding is that in more than two thousand archive accounts in 1983, the only four-cornered tunnels are the two appearing in these accounts, one described as "square in section" and the other as "a long, rectangular tunnel."

A ten-year-old boy, sick for several weeks with an unidentified illness, had an NDE shortly after "the doctors had given up":

I don't remember the entrance, but in a little while I was in a dark tunnel. There was absolutely no sound, and all was black. I couldn't see to make my way through the tunnel, but I was being wafted along as a speck of dust, pitch black, but as I went along with neither sight nor sound, I felt at ease. I thought I was discovering a new cave.

After a while the tunnel became square in section, and along I went and I became annoyed, and thought to myself that the journey was pointless and fruitless and I was wasting valuable time. Just when I was about to turn back in disgust (I was completely alone), I saw a tiny speck of light ahead. I went on, and as I did the speck grew larger, and I thought it was well I hadn't turned back because I was going to discover something at last.

At about 150 yards from the end, I saw plainly that there was brilliant white light out there beyond the square end of the tunnel. It interested me and I went on. All was yet quiet, and I went blissfully on, enjoying the journey at last.

When I was about twenty-five yards from the end, the light became the most brilliant I have ever seen, yet it did not hurt my eyes. I began to wonder about that light because all I could see was light: no landscape, no people, nothing but a sea of light. And not a single ray entered the tunnel. The tunnel was black right to the end, and then there was the sea of light.

I went closer, cautious now because it seemed that the end of the tunnel was pretty high up on the side of a cliff, and since I couldn't see through the light, I didn't know how far the drop might be, if I left the tunnel. When I was near the end, I took a good look around at the sea of light. I was urged to jump into it, and assured that I would not fall to ground. No voice said this, it just came to me from a kind of presence. I thought it might be fun to try; but in an instant I knew that if I left the end of the tunnel I'd never find it again, and hence never get back home.

I turned around and started back through the tunnel, and that is the last I remember.

[The final paragraph of his account reads, "Believe me, if you go through what I have described, you come back with the thought that it's a good thing you didn't dive into that whipped cream of lovely light too soon. But you know you have 'seen the light."']

A post-operative nine-year-old girl, the first case described above, reported:

Then a strange uneasiness came over me, and as I watched, the darkness from the hall gradually came into the room and filled it. It seemed to have a weight to it, and as the room got darker, it became harder for me to breathe, like there was a weight on my chest. It felt as if this darkness was pushing me down, and as I looked up at the ceiling I noticed that it was getting smaller and smaller. It was like being pushed slowly down a mine shaft.

A fourteen-year-old girl with an allergic reaction to sodium pentothal, described above in the section on "Well-Being," also reported:

All I knew was I was traveling—not walking or running, just somehow moving smoothly—down a long black tunnel with bright green and red lights on either side. At the end of the tunnel was a yellow or golden light. I was traveling towards it rather quickly .... It seems I got about half-way to the light when I started to reverse and it got colder. The next thing I knew ... the dentist said, "You gave us quite a scare."

The fourteen-year-old boy swept over the bridge, also described above, stated:

This experience ... started as a drifting into what I could only describe as a long rectangular tunnel of light. But it wasn't just light, it was a protective passage of energy with an intense brightness at the end which I wanted to look into, to touch.

The remembered near-death experiences recounted here occurred between the ages of 13 months and 14 years; they were written down by the now-adult experiencers anywhere from 11 to 65 years later. The age range of the adults at the time of writing to IANDS was 25 to 72 years, with a median age of 48.

Contemporary Accounts

The two more recent accounts that follow were told by the mothers of the children, one of whom was within two years of the experience.

Robin

Because of its remarkable force and openness, Robin's mother's letter, written in 1983, is reprinted here almost in entirety.

On December 18, 1971, I had my son. My husband Jose and I were overjoyed. A beautiful perfect strong son. He would kick so hard in the bathtub I would be frightened of his strength. A beautiful boy. So good. He never cried much. He smiled so early. Never sick. So strong.

The morning of August 9, 1975, my husband was very nervous all morning. He was to meet my sister, husband, and two children for the first time. He agreed on that, but all the way up to our family home, Jose would say, "I don't want to go to [Crystal] Lake." [But] we all went ....

We got on a boat to go out to our own private area .... Robin cried all the way on the boat across the lake. I remember the heat was very intense. Dry, too. When we arrived, I can remember pulling him with all my strength off the boat. Jose came over to me and said, "I hate it here." I had Robin in my hand and he was still angry. I let go of his hand and told him, "Robin, Mommy is going to get you an inner tube," but he said, "No." I turned around and he was gone.

I looked around and everyone was swimming or sunbathing. My sister Beth had already put her blanket down and was laying down sunbathing. She had two boys with us, one Robin's age. The men were already swimming. I let out a scream of death. "Beth, I can't find Robin!"

Within seconds, everyone on the beach was looking. Ten minutes went by. No Robin. I ran up on a hill. Jose followed. The rocks on the hill felt like razors on my feet but I didn't care. I hoped Robin went up the hill. Jose embraced me. I felt totally helpless as I screamed in his arms and he cried in mine. I just knew he was dead.

As we looked down the hill, a lifeguard boat drove up. Everyone screaming to have him help. Jose left me and went back down to look. Three lifeguards. About fifteen men by this time.

As I started down the hill, Robin came up feet first by the lifeguards.

Fifteen minutes in ten feet of water by the dock. No one knew the dock was deep because the lake about two feet away was shallow. A new lake and no signs. By this time, sheriffs were holding me away from Robin. Jose was holding me, too. I remember feeling worthless because I couldn't get to my own son. I prayed. My sister left a second and came running back. "He is alive, they have a heartbeat."

I said, "No, she is saying that so I won't go crazy." When I saw a helicopter, I then felt maybe, because they wanted to take him to the hospital nearby.

[At the hospital] we met a lady doctor. She told us, "He's alive, but very, very sick." She stayed with Robin for many hours. Robin was in a deep coma. Machines and a plastic box over his head. I couldn't touch him. My baby, three years and eight months. Our tears were endless.

The doctor transferred him to the] Medical Center and stayed with him all night until he was stabilized. I drove out [there] three times a day because my work wouldn't let me off. We tore our car apart, but I didn't care.

Two weeks. No change. One day I went in his room. His bed was stripped. No sheets, no Robin. I dug my fingers into Jose. A housekeeper came in his room and said, "He's down the hall." We walked down the hall, always numb. I thought he was dead. As we slowly walked into the room, Robin was laughing at a clown passing out balloons.

The next day he was in a wheelchair. We took him down to the cafeteria for lunch. He ate like a horse. Talking to us. Walking with us slowly for a few days. In three weeks he was back to the day-care center.

No brain damage. Just ear damage that has been corrected.

Robin is eleven now, and about six months ago he shared something with me about the white light. I couldn't understand until I listened carefully.

. .. He said, "A long time ago I was awake. Not asleep! I was going up in the air and saw you and Papa crying. Something came to me and said you have to go back. I felt good [to come back], but I liked all the people I saw."

I asked Robin who he saw, and he said they were too bright, but, "One man held me and I felt so good I wanted to stay, but he said no."

Just a few days ago, I reminded Robin of what he told me and he didn't remember and laughed at me. Maybe someday he will remember again.

I do know God gave me back my son, but I know he is not mine forever.

He is a gift I must take good care of until he is ready to share his life with others.

J er

Jer was four when he fell into the deep end of his apartment house swimming pool. A year later, his mother heard of lANDS and wrote, saying, "I need help in trying to explain certain things which I know nothing about. Don't think this is a crack-pot letter. I'm really confused about this."

What follows is a verbatim account (rearranged for chronological sequence) of a very long telephone conversation with Jer's mother.

The day it happened, Jer had gone outside to play. Maybe ten minutes. I had checked on him maybe ten minutes before. The other boys came running and told me Jer was in the water.

My girlfriend pulled him out of the pool. I knew he was dead. I could see it on his face. His lips were pale blue. I knew he was dead. I started mouth-to-mouth, and then my other girlfriend took over. He was in the water four or five minutes, in the deep end. The paramedics got there real quick.

The day of the accident, two doctors had come from [the Medical Center] to do a conference on the new controlled coma procedures for drownings. They were still at our little hospital and they drove back to [the Medical Center] with Jer. They started him on the drugs right t away.

They put him into a controlled coma for seven days, with his temper- nature way down. The first brain scan they did was unreadable. They said there was just nothing there.

I knew if I was there with him in the hospital he'd be okay. I knew it, in spite of what the doctors said. They said there would be severe brain damage, and we'd better be preparing ourselves for it.

We drove to [the Medical Center] every morning, a one-and-a-half hour trip each way. I'd go in and say, "Hi, Jer, Mom's here," and I'd kiss him. And his heart rate would go up. Some of the doctors said we didn't have to be there, that it was too much for us every day, but I knew we had to be there. I know he knew somehow that we were there. They told us to keep talking to him. His heart rate went up, and other things.

Two or three days later, they did another brain scan. The nurse said it was better, but the doctors still said there was major brain damage. They said he might die when they started to warm him up. They started warming him up on Thursday. They said it might take until Sunday, because they were doing it real slow, but he started coming around almost immediately. They didn't know what to do, he was coming around so fast.

They said he wouldn't remember anything about the experience, if he could remember anything at all. They really expected him to be so damaged. But when he woke up, the first thing he said was, "Get me a doctor! I'm drowning."

I should tell you, Jer has always been terrified of water. He was just terrified. After we got him home from the hospital, we had a little party for him. Kind of a welcome back. I mean, we were just so glad that he was…well, that he was back at all. And the first thing he did, he said he wanted to go in the pool. I nearly died. I never wanted to go near the thing again. But I put his floaters on him and he went over and dove right in the deep part. When he came up, he said to his brother, "See, Jon, I came back again."

He walked around with this for almost a year, and then one day he came to me and said, "Sit down. I have to talk to you, Mother." That's not a five-year-old. He never calls me "Mother."

He said, "When I drowned, I didn't want to come back. I saw something real pretty in the sky. I saw you and Josie and another lady working on me. I was sitting on the roof and I could see you.

"Then it got real dark and I walked down a tunnel. There was a bright light at the end, and a man was standing there."

I asked him, "Who was the man?"

He said, "It was God. And I said I wanted to stay. But God said it wasn't my time yet and I had to come back. I put my hand out and God put his hand out and then God pulled his hand back. He didn't want me to stay.

"On the way back, I saw the devil. He said if I did what he wanted, I could have anything I want."

I said, "You know God is good and the devil is evil."

He said, "The devil said I could have anything I wanted, but I didn't want him bossing me around."

I said, "Mom and Dad wanted you back real bad, and God knew that. He let you come back to us."

And he said, "When I fell in the water, I called and called for you, but you didn't hear me."

Since his experience, Jer's mother reports, he has become moody, with dreams—good and bad—that affect his behavior the following day. She says he gets "a faraway look" and says his dreams are sometimes about "castles in the sky."

The beginning of school was not helpful, as he tried to tell his experience for show and Tell. The teacher said, “We only tell true things in Show and Tell,” and the children laughed.

What followed became severe behavioral disruptions that led Jer's parents to take him for counseling. Believing the near- drowning experience to be related to the behavior changes, Jer's mother told the psychologist about it; however, the response was, "You know children and their imaginations." The therapist refused to discuss it.

Our phone interview concluded with the following:

When he gets moody, I'll ask him why.

"1 think I'll keep that my business for a while," he says. It's like a grown-up person in a little body. He seems to have no sense of fear, and that scares me. Pain doesn't seem to bug him, either. It just doesn't bother him.

He gets this faraway look and if I ask he says it's so nice there. Is he going to try to do something to get back there? I think there's something there, too, that he doesn't want to talk to Mom about. Something is bothering him that he can't tell me.

What do I do? I mean, I'm saying, "Come on back, Jer," and God's up there, and I'm saying… What do I do now?

At the time of my last contact with Jer’s mother, he was going on eight years old, still troubled. The family was moving to a different town, hoping that a fresh start would help.

Child/Adult Experience Comparisons

Some features in these childhood NDEs vary from their frequency in adult experiences.

Encounters with deceased persons

It is probably not surprising that only two of these childhood accounts report meetings with deceased persons. One, a twelve-year-old, said he met "a teacher and a schoolmate"; the other, an eight-year-old boy, reported entering a garden and meeting a slightly older girl who identified herself as his sister. Asking his parents about her later, he discovered that an older sister had died at birth.

Life review and judgment.

Both Moody (1975) and Ring (1980) found a strong relationship between the life review and the idea of judgment. It is interesting, then, that none of these childhood accounts includes a life review, for nowhere in any of these experiences is the word "judgment" mentioned, nor "judge," nor the idea that one's life might be evaluated as "good" or "bad." The concept is totally absent, even among the older children who might have been expected to identify more closely with adult thought patterns, and in the three who believed themselves either dead or dying. Across the age span, up to fourteen years old—obviously at widely differing developmental stages—the concept of judgment or of "goodness/badness" is absent from them all.

Four of the children encountered a significant figure or presence, which they identified as "God," "a big man," or "like a giant." Fear is not mentioned as an element in their encounters, nor any of the emotion-filled descriptions mentioned by adults. In fact, this group of children seems remarkably matter-of-fact about meeting the presence. Angels did not feature in any of these experiences. However, later studies have indicated that children commonly identify NDE presences as angels, though it is unclear how they make that identification, as they are often described simply as “nice,” or “friendly” or “beautiful.”

Knowing; the feeling of wisdom.

Although adults have reported a powerful sense of knowledge after awakening, the children's experiences with that knowledge tend to be self-consciously age-related.

"The overwhelming feeling was one of wisdom or a great 'knowingness,'" wrote a woman of her experience. "That is a strange feeling for a twelve-year-old who one moment has the sense that all grownups know so much and then the next moment feels so wise. I recall sort of pausing to savor that feeling."

Another wrote, "I felt wonderful and calm and strong. I wasn't nine years old, I was eternal."

About an experience at the age of four, a woman noted, "I felt strong and confident, with a strong sense that everything was all right. I didn't feel like a little child or any age at all."

Absence of fear

Although mentioned more frequently by adults (47 percent as compared to 35 percent in children), where a lack of fear does appear in the children’s NDEs, it is a strong element. In the six accounts here in which lack of fear is explicit, it is especially noted for its contrast to the child's usual feelings. In their accustomed selves, said the writers, they were timid, afraid of heights, fearful of separation from their parents, frightened in strange situations, or aware of being powerlessly small. During the NDE, these terrors vanished. Its absence has been marked, specific, and clearly remembered.

Worth mentioning for its fearless tone is the account of the ten- year-old boy exploring a "pitch black" square tunnel.

"I thought I was discovering a new cave ," said the writer, and then, " ... I was wasting valuable time. Just when I was about to turn back in disgust ... I saw a tiny speck of light ahead .... I thought it was well I hadn't turned back because I was going to discover something at last."

Despite a lapse of forty-five years, the account carries with it a whiff of Huckleberry Finn.

Distressing elements

Sabom reported that in adult NDEs, "Momentary fright or bewilderment sometimes accompanied the initial passage into darkness .... In time, however, these unpleasant emotions were replaced with calm, peace, or tranquility" (1982, p. 41). Ring noted that "Although people sometimes report feeling scared or confused near the beginning of their experience, none felt they either were on their way to hell or that they had 'fallen into' it" (1980, p. 192).

In general, the childhood accounts corroborate these remarks, with some qualifications. One lengthy account describes an experience, not characterized by its writer as "hellish," which was nonetheless very frightening to her right up to a last-minute rescue by a presence.

The experience of the four-year-old who said he met "the devil" is not the only distressing childhood NDE on record but is unusual not only for its specific mention of "the devil," but also because the pattern of his experience moves from positive (strongly wanting to stay with the presence he identifies as God) to negative (encountering, and not wanting to remain with, a presence identified as negative). Because of the unavailability of a professional interviewer to meet with the child in person, there is no information about what he thought about the incident or how he understood it. Given his mother’s account of his behavioral difficulties and psychological history, the child obviously struggled, apparently with little success, to understand what had happened to him—and what is sadder, what it meant about him.

CONCLUSION

These seventeen accounts provide a useful foundation of information about children’s NDEs.

1. Near-death experiences happen not only to older children, but even in infants and toddlers too young to talk. The external circumstances have been verified by parents and other adult observers.

2. Childhood NDEs follow patterns similar to those of adult NDEs, though with some differences. The common pattern is of being out of the body, movement through a darkness or tunnel, seeing or entering a light, sometimes encountering one or more presences, feeling strong emotions about the experience. Some NDEs convey information the child had little or no way of knowing otherwise.

3. Unlike adult experiences, none of these earliest-reported childhood NDEs included a life review or sense of judgment; not surprisingly, few included meetings with deceased family or friends.

4. Although some of the childhood accounts mention seeing or being with other presences, only the one four-year-old here mentioned God or any religious figure, and that with no description of a surrounding landscape. In fact, there were few details of landscape, other than some aspect of light (“that whipped cream of lovely light”).

5. Although the wording of retrospective accounts shows that it is adults writing, two factors contribute to the sense of authenticity of the childhood memory. First, in reading the entire accounts, one finds repeated instances of typically childish thought processes, such as the small girl wanting to know “if a burned out light bulb looked burned.” Second, the sharp recognition of feeling “wise” or “not like a child” is noticeable and age-specific. In these accounts, although it is not possible to determine how much of the interpretation is an adult overlay, the specificity of such memory details suggests that adult contamination is not a major issue.

6. According to the writers of these retrospective accounts, they were, as children, strongly aware of feeling changed by their experiences, as is frequently reported about adult experiences. It is not unusual to hear, “I always felt different from other kids after that.”

With little "before" and much "after" in the lives of the child experiencers, developmental changes are likely to mask many of the behavioral effects. However, these experiences already show the need to develop thoughtful approaches that will support the children and their families as they work to make sense of a near-death or similar experience in their lives.

Features of Childhood and Adult NDEs


 

Feature

 

 

Incidence

 

Childhood N=17 (unsolicited mentions)

Adult N=49
  (solicited mentions)

Light
 

65%

34%

Sense of well-being (happy, good, beautiful)

53%

20%

Separation from body

47%

37%

Autoscopic OBE

41%

n/a

Entering the darkness

41%

23%

Tunnel

30%

18%

Peace             

35%

60%

Absence of fear

35%

47%

Encounter with spiritual presences, voices

35%

40%

No pain

24%

49%

Floating

24%

n/a

Silence

24%

16%

Wisdom, "knowingness"

24%

 

Ineffability

18%

49%

Distressing elements

18%

 

Landscape

18%

20%

Encounter with deceased people

12%

16%

Sense of dying

12%

39%

Sense of a boundary

6%

27%

Believed self dead

6%

25%

Life review

0%

25%

Chose to return

12%

34%

Told to return

24%

23%

"Just came back"

30%

 

No information about return

35%

57%

 

REFERENCES

Note: The original version of this article was the first published study about children’s NDEs (although note below the single account described by Morse, published the same year). Because it was published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies in 1983, these were cutting-edge references at the time and are still reliable.

Gabbard, G.O., and Twemlow, S.W. With the Eyes of the Mind. New York: Praeger, 1983.

Gallup, G., Jr. Adventures in Immortality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Moody, R.A., Jr. Life After Life. Covington, Ga.: Mockingbird, 1975.

Morse, M. A near-death experience in a 7-year-old child. American Journal of Diseases of Children, 1983, 13 (7), 959-961.

Ring, K. Life at Death. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1980.

Sabom, M.B. Recollections of Death. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

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