An Interview with Kenneth J. Doka PhD

1. Your new book is When We Die: Extraordinary Experiences at Life's End. What inspirited you to write it?

I have been involved in the study of death and dying—what we now call thanatology—for near half a century, researching, writing, teaching, and counseling. Even in my earliest days, individuals shared remarkable stories. Some were stories about strange coincidences—for example, a student seeing a tabby cat outside seconds before a call indicating that their family cat had just died. In other cases it might be a near-death experience of someone who is dying and comatose suddenly regaining consciousness—sharing final words prior to death. Other times it might be someone who is dying talking about seeing now deceased relatives or others having dreams or other experiences where they encounter the deceased. And, as I indicate in the book, I have had my own experiences of clearly feeling the presence of a good friend who had died years ago.

As I counseled, taught, and researched in these areas, I became aware of how common such experiences were. Yet many individuals who have such experiences often have a mixed reaction—finding the experience itself helpful but ashamed to share it lest others doubt their sanity.

I thought it important to write this book for three reasons. First and foremost to help people understand how common such experiences are—reassuring individuals that they are not a slippery slope to lunacy.

Second, I felt that while there are many books that look at pieces of the experience such as near death experiences, there is nothing that explores the range of extraordinary experiences that can occur as life ebbs.

Finally, even those these experiences may not be open to scientific explanations, nor may they easily fit into our beliefs—they are reported throughout history and across cultures offering perhaps hope that death is not a hopeless abyss.

2. What makes death such a scary proposition for so many of us?

Well, first of all, it is an unknown. Whatever our faith, or beliefs and our hopes, there is always at least a little part of us that wonders what happens after we die. The philosopher Ernst Becker once noted that as humans, there is something about us that we believe to be infinitive—that we seem to have a sense of the "forever"—yet at the same time, our mind acknowledges that we are finite—mortal. We may have the sense of angels—feeling that our soul or spirit is inextinguishable but we know that our bodies can fail at any point. It is this paradox, Becker believes, that causes us to both fear and deny death.

3. Is there any way that we can learn to approach death and the process of dying with a more open mind?

I am unsure that we can ever be sanguine as we face the deaths of those we love or our own death. As humans, we never want to be separated from the people we love, the relationships we cherish, or the world we know. Certainly our beliefs or philosophies—whatever they might be—should offer some solace and comfort. Yet my work and observations about these extraordinary experiences around dying and death do continue to convince me there is life after life.

4. Though your research and experiences, what has been illuminated about death and dying?

Well, easily that there are a lot of unusual and strange events around death and dying. Even some of the coincidences associated with death can really be odd. Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son, realized that. Who would ever expect to be a witness to three presidential assassinations! And, ironically, he was saved from death by the very brother of the man who would later shoot his father! But beyond that, my studies included near-death experiences, nearing death awareness, extraordinary experiences of the bereaved after death, terminal lucidity, ghost sightings, and reincarnation. At the very least, there are a lot of questions I might have on the other side of life.

5. What do you hope readers take away from When We Die?

First I hope they take away a sense of wonder as they explore all of the areas developed in book. After all, I was deeply surprised and astounded by my own study of these areas. Second, I would like to think they have a sense of hope the death is not the end. But most critically, I hope most strongly that they take away their own opinions and thoughts. My major goal was to explore these topics without preconceptions or even conclusions. But rather to present the information and let each reader decide what they think and believe about these areas—to draw their own conclusions as they consider the book and align it with their own beliefs and orientation. Finally, I hope they take, as I did, a sense of wonder.

About Kenneth J. Doka PhD

Kenneth J. Doka PhD (Poughkeepsie, NY) is a professor of counseling and a leading authority on issues involving death, dying, and grief. He has edited or written over 35 acclaimed books on death-related subjects, including ...