In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey threatens to end it all by jumping into an icy river. But after an angel-guided glimpse of a world without him, Jimmy Stewart's character realizes how much he has to live for.
The moral here is that there's nothing like a brush with death to put life into perspective. And George Bailey isn't the only one who's had a near-death experience (NDE). According to the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS), 13 million adults in the United States claim to have had an NDE, guided not by Clarence the angel but by the subconscious. Only some NDEs contain religious imagery, but all are about "getting religion," says Dr. Barbara Rommer.
Since the Fort Lauderdale physician began studying NDEs three years ago, she's interviewed 265 people who were once declared clinically "dead" but were then revived. Without exception, she says, all of the subjects have lost their fear of death and found a renewed zest for life.
While NDEs vary, many share common traits, such as the typical light at the end of a tunnel, to which an "experiencer" is drawn. That light, subjects have told Rommer, fills them with feelings of love, peace, and compassion.
During a really intense, long-lasting NDE, an experiencer may find him- or herself in a giant waiting room, talking peacefully with dead relatives. Sure makes dying sound nice. Some NDEs, however, offer nightmarish flashbacks. Either way, Rommer claims that, for experiencers, an NDE is "a nexus point that really makes them examine their life up to that point."
When it comes to the NDE phenomenon, there are plenty of skeptics, so experiencers are always searching for forums in which to share and analyze their NDEs without judgment. With that in mind, Rommer and psychologist Joyce Strom, also of Fort Lauderdale, founded the IANDS South Florida chapter support group in October 1996. From 40 to 150 people -- many of whom are experiencers, some just curious -- attend the monthly meetings.
Asked if she's skeptical herself, Rommer admits that, during an NDE, people may see what they want to see, that the imagery is probably suggested by the subconscious. "I don't believe that any of this isn't real," she adds. "But I also believe that what we need is what we get."
The South Florida chapter of the International Association for Near Death Studies meets on the first Friday of every month at 7 p.m. at Columbia University Hospital's Pavilion Gym, 7425 N. University Dr., Tamarac. Admission is free. Call 954-491-0166 or 954-491-2240 for more information.