Then, as the tunnel began to lighten, I became aware of presence, a crowd. They were not people and I didn't see anything but I was aware of their minds. They were debating about whether I should go back or not and I could hear it, though it was only thoughts.
Near Death Experience
Most people who have near-death experiences undergo the strange phenomenon only when they are seriously ill. This was the case with those who told of glimpses of the after-life in the first two parts of our series. Yet today Avon Pailthorpe's story suggests that it is an experience which can happen to someone who is perfectly healthy.
Avon Pailthorpe, a 53-year-old social worker who lives in London, had a near-death experience seconds before her car was involved in a horrendous crash on the motorway between Bologna and Modena in Italy.
Nor was that the most astonishing thing about it. In the moments before her Volvo 340 was hit by a red BMW travelling way above the speed limit she knew with total certainly that she would be all right.
While the Italian doctors were feverishly examining her battered frame - she had a split liver as well as a broken pelvis and ribs - and were clearly afraid she was going to die, Avon kept on trying, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, to assure them that she would not.
'But of course', she said, 'they couldn't know how I knew that I wasn't going to die.'
Mrs Pailthorpe's near-death experience is one of the oddest and most fascinating that I have heard. It shows that it can happen to people who are still, however temporarily, perfectly healthy. It also shows that their reality is so utterly convincing that it gives them absolute certainty about their survival.
The crash happened more than eight years ago, in the summer of 1986. Mrs Pailthorpe, a petite blonde, was driving home from her cottage in Umbria after a three-week holiday. Her mother, her son Robin (then 23) and her mother-in-law were in the car with her. She was feeling fine but the rain was sheeting down and she had always hated that stretch of motorway.
'I was driving in the middle lane,' she recalled, 'and it was dark, even though it was only just after midday. A car in front of me slowed down sharply and, since I didn't want to brake for fear of skidding, I steered out into the fast lane. Unfortunately, my car aquaplaned and went into a spin. I was struggling to control it when, quite suddenly, I wasn't in the car any longer. 'I found myself in a tunnel which, although completely black, felt soft. I was travelling along it head first, not up or down, and I was spinning round and round very fast, like water going down a drain.
'It was very noisy, just as the moment of birth can feel noisy to a mother, even if she is not shouting herself. The moment of death can be very noisy, too. When my husband, who was a research chemist, died at 42, I had the same sense of hectic noise and activity as I did in that tunnel.
'As I was whirling along the tunnel I had a clear sense of still being my essential self, even though I was no longer in my body. It was fascinating to discover that I was still a thinking, feeling being.
'Then, as the tunnel began to lighten, I became aware of presence, a crowd. They were not people and I didn't see anything but I was aware of their minds. They were debating about whether I should go back or not and I could hear it, though it was only thoughts. It was a very reasoned debate, not emotional. I couldn't say what words were used, but I knew they were making a decision about what would happen to me.
'What I do remember very well were the two feelings which being aware of that debate gave me. I felt great excitement about what would happen next and, secondly, enormous relief that they were taking the decision for me. I knew that I couldn't influence them in any way but I sensed that, whatever it was, it would be right.
'I felt most trusting towards them. It sounds daft but somehow I found it wonderfully liberating to have absolutely no responsibility in the matter. Perhaps that's because I have so much of it in my normal life. Anyway, at that point, I didn't discover the outcome, but I felt intensely interested and peaceful. Then there was nothing.
'I opened my eyes and found that the car was stationary across the fast lane. I was astonished to be back in my body, because I hadn't expected to be. My first thought was "They've sent me back!" I can remember feeling really disappointed, because I'd been so curious to find out what would happen next. When I discovered I was still stuck with my body and my life here, I thought "Oh shucks!"
'Then - and I cringe to say this because it sounds so incredible - I heard an echo in my head: "You haven't got permission." Only then did I remember my six children and that they had only one parent left. I'm afraid they hadn't crossed my mind before.
'I saw this car shooting towards us through sheets of water but I wasn't afraid. I thought: "I'm not going to be able to do anything, but I'm not going to die because they have put me back."
'I learned afterwards that the car had swerved and avoided us. It was the car behind, the red BMW, which smashed into us, The crash knocked me deeply unconscious but when I came round in the hospital I knew it was all right. I was only surprised that the doctors were so worried and worked on me so furiously. I tried to tell them it was all right - I speak good Italian - but they still didn't understand.'
Mrs Pailthorpe made a complete recovery. So did her son Robin, who had suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung, and her mother-in-law, whose hip was shattered. Nor does she ever feel any anxiety about driving along that same road. She says: 'They wouldn't let the same thing happen to you twice.' She has always been 'a Christian in a vague sort of way', but her experience has left her with a firm conviction that 'there is something wise and good which protects us, guardian angels if you like, though I prefer to call them aspects of God. We are certainly not just mechanical, soulless creatures.
'I felt so safe with those presences, though it did strike me afterwards that I wouldn't want to go against their wisdom, because I'm sure they could be terrible if they were angry.
'That was difficult for me, since in the past I'd never felt critical of those who took their own lives when they felt things had become insupportable. After that experience, I did feel very worried for people who took that way out.
'It has not entirely clarified my concept of God, though I no longer think of Him as an impersonal deity. What I do feel now is that part of your identity goes with you when you die. You don't just become an anonymous soul.
'I had always thought death would be a great adventure. Now, I feel that even more. Your body is only the clothes you wear during your lifetime.'
Mrs Pailthorpe did not speak about her extraordinary experience for years because she was afraid of being thought deranged. Yet she is a highly intelligent woman in no way given to flights of fancy.
Did she somehow tune into an other-worldly conversation between 'beings' whose task it is to watch over us? Or was her experience merely the result of her brain's reaction to impending disaster - that is to say, a massive release of endorphins, the brain's own sedative?
That, however, scarcely seems to explain Mrs Pailthorpe's sense of a debate between 'minds' or her memory of being told that she did not have permission to leave this Earth. Still less does it account for her profound conviction, even when staring violent death in the face, that she was not going to die. There seem to be no rules about to whom near-death experiences occur. The one thing they do have in common is that they are indelibly imprinted on the minds of those who have them.
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