Like her previous works (including When She Was Bad and A Brief History of Anxiety), Patricia Pearson’s latest tackles some of life’s big questions. This time, however, instead of addressing issues affecting the living, the Canadian journalist and fiction writer explores the experiences of the dying and the dead. Opening Heaven’s Door investigates why Western society finds it so difficult to accept non-scientific explanations for, among other things, deathbed visions, near-death experiences, second sight, sensed presences, sleep paralysis, the “third man” phenomenon, and precognition.
In 2008, Pearson’s world was turned upside down by “the astonishments of death” brought on by the passing, in quick succession, of her father and a sister. Unexplained “spiritual” incidents accompanying their demises prompted Pearson to begin a search for answers that led her to the “subterranean world” of dying and death that many experience or witness. She soon realized that many palliative care professionals, doctors, and scientists are reluctant to voice their personal opinions about the possible origins of such occurrences, other than in support of standard explanations such as brain dysfunction, oxygen deprivation, wishful thinking, or coincidence.
Pearson’s research is solid, and she writes clearly about difficult concepts. Until the Enlightenment, with its reliance on reason and logic and distrust of superstition, it was commonly accepted in many cultures that the living and the dead were interconnected and frequently communicated. Pearson contends that we are limiting our earthly experience, and often misapprehending our last days with dying loved ones by disregarding these ancient beliefs. Although not all the empirical evidence is equally convincing, she presents a valid case for looking beyond science in matters concerning mortality and the end of life.
Opening Heaven’s Door could mark the beginning of a new conversation about death – a subject that, beyond its physical aspects, we are perhaps further from understanding than were our ancestors. Her findings could help us make better sense of our lives and deaths. And we want that, we all want that so much.