The afterlife is an eternal question for most of us, but in Williamsburg, Hope Dillard has started a group to celebrate those who have died and come back.
“When people have near-death experiences, they come back changed,” Dillard said. “They used to be filled with hate, but they come back and they have so much more love and wisdom than before.”
Dillard, a licensed professional counselor, started the group Williamsburg Friends of IANDS when she realized a lot of her clients might benefit from it. IANDS — the International Association for Near Death Studies — is a national nonprofit that engages in educational research to provide quality information on near-death experiences, according to the organization’s website.
A group of about 20 people meets once a month at the Williamsburg Regional Library to listen to speakers and see presentations about near-death experiences. Dillard said that having the group available to people who have had near death-experiences allows them to find community and support in a society that might make them sometimes feel excluded.
“These people live their lives without saying anything about it to anyone because they’re afraid people will think they’re crazy,” Dillard said.
The light at the end of the tunnel
For Neil Helm, former deputy director of the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University and a retired faculty member at Atlantic University, it took about 30 years before he shared his near-death experience with anyone.
In 1944, when Helm was 5 years old, he tried swimming in a hot springs pool in Montana. He ended up drowning and was dead for nearly two minutes, he said. Those two minutes felt much longer to young Helm, though.
He remembers his very last thought being that death would be painful.
But then a sense of peace and calm come over him, he said, as he left his body and floated over hot springs and pastoral fields. Eventually he came through a long tunnel with, what he admits is cliche, a light at the end.
“I came out of the tunnel and a 20-foot white wall, with sparkling colors and a waterfall-like mist, flowed over me with peace, serenity, love and forgiveness,” he said. “And then, that bright light spoke to me in five-word segments. It told me, ‘It is not your time.’”
Following this, Helm was resuscitated by a family member but he found that his life was changed forever.
Keeping it quiet
“After coming back, the voice spoke to me again and told me, ‘It might not be a good idea to tell your parents, they’re loving people but they won’t understand,’” he said. “And then it told me that I definitely, absolutely should not tell my soon-to-be first-grade teacher because all of the kids will think you’re crazy.”
As Helm got older, he discovered that his experience had also granted him certain psychic gifts such as telepathy and precognition. In his various positions, he found that he was able to predict his boss’s desires or know the outcome of situations before they happened.
“It’s a huge help to know what your boss wants before he even has to tell you,” he said.
But these gifts, and the whole experience, were secrets he only shared with a select few. It wasn’t until 1975, when Raymond Moody published his book “Life After Life,” that Helm realized there were others out there who had a similar experience as him.
Then Helm started to do more research and eventually went on to do both his culminating project for a master’s degree in transpersonal studies and doctoral dissertation in transpersonal psychology on near-death experiences.
“It’s profound, using that word ‘trans,’” he said. “It’s out of the body and you have this experience that goes beyond the ego and the self.”
It is research such as Helm’s, who is also on the board of directors of the International Association of Near Death Studies in Virginia Beach, and books like Moody’s that are making individuals who’ve had near death experiences feel more comfortable sharing their stories, Dillard said.
The connecting thread
Having a group like the one Dillard has started helps people with these experiences to connect and realize that there are a lot of similarities between the stories. These similarities are the connecting thread between humanity, Helm said.
In Helm’s research he found that there were often a lot of similarities between people’s stories, no matter their religious or cultural background.
“The No. 1 thing that nearly all of us find after this experience is that love is the most pervasive and prevalent element,” Helm said. “We realize we are all part of one unity together. When you know everyone is a part of you and you’re apart of everyone, it changes you.”
But part of the challenge behind his work, and Dillard’s affirmation for her group, is the non-believers.
“There’s a lot of people in the scientific community that don’t believe it because it’s an experience that can’t be replicated,” Helm said. “They think to be scientific you have to be able to observe it and do it again and again and only then can you stamp it as science. I disagree because science is natural and nature is always changing. You can’t always reproduce those changes.”
Dillard said that with new research and studies, more people with these near death experiences will feel comfortable sharing their stories in settings like Williamsburg Friends of IANDS.
“People start to understand that their loved ones aren’t dead, they’re more alive than when they were here,” she said. “It gives them comfort knowing that there is something, some common experience, after all of this and it changes people’s lives.”