Santa Barbara author explores personal stories and research in new book about shared death experiences
Santa Barbara author William J. Peters’ book, “At Heaven’s Door: What Shared Journeys to The Afterlife Teach About Dying Well and Living Better,” will be released Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.
Mr. Peters, the founder of the Shared Crossing Project and its Research Initiative, is a practicing grief and bereavement therapist with degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
His new book explores the shared death experience and contains years worth of research, clinical practice and personal stories, including stories from Mr. Peters’ own personal life.
To launch the book, Mr. Peters will discuss shared death experience with author Eben Alexander during a free virtual program at 5 p.m. Tuesday. To watch it, go to www.facebook.com/events/4721784294604358/?active_tab=discussion.
“At Heaven’s Door” will be available at bookstores and amazon.com. In addition to the book, there’s an audio version narrated by Mr. Peters.
According to the author, the shared death experience and the near death experience contain very similar if not identical phenomena.
Mr. Peters’ own near death experience first began his journey and his interest in the SDE.
“It’s not what I anticipated growing up as a suburban kid outside Silicon Valley,” Mr. Peters told the News-Press. “ I had my first NDE at 17 years old, on a skiing trip.
“My skiing was a little bit rusty and as I was skiing, I began accelerating a bit and I caught an edge,” he said. “The back of my skis crossed, and I tried to correct mid-course, causing the front of my skis to cross, catapulting myself into the air. I flew up into the air until I crashed into the hard snow, somersaulting and crunching my back.
“It was exhilarating at first, then terrifying, because I knew that it wasn’t going to end well. I sailed up out of my body. I saw Lake Tahoe, North America, and eventually I had a satellite view of planet Earth,” Mr. Peters said.
“As I was sailing away from planet Earth I was soon in a beautiful galaxy, and I was very much at peace,” he said. “I was watching snippets of movies, from the most significant scenes of my life up to that point, and realizing every action I had ever taken mattered. Then I noticed I was entering a ribbed tunnel, and then I saw a light, and then as I saw the light, I realized I was dying.
“I realized I had been in this space hundreds of times before, and I was upset because I did not want to die,” Mr. Peters said. “I sensed that I had not completed what I was on Earth to do, and I was pleading with the light, which I called God. ‘God, I don’t want to die! You have to let me go back!’ ”
This is an unusual response, according to near death researchers.
Mr. Peters explained that most near death experiencers report they wanted to stay in this beautiful state of being in the afterlife, and they returned because they were typically told that it was not their time.
The author said he stayed in this life because either it was not his time, or the powers that be seemed to honor his request. “I was later told, by my orthopedic doctor, also a family friend, that I was one 32th of an inch away from being a parapeligic, when he showed me the X-ray. He said I was ‘fortunate’ as he put his ruler on the X-ray.
“It was the gradual end of my experience as an athletic and adventurous young man,” Mr. Peters said. “I lost my identity as a healthy, active, athletically inclined young-man.”
While attending college in 1984 at UC Berkeley, Mr. Peters traveled to Europe with friends behind the Iron Curtain.
“I was on a bus ride, in southern Yugoslavia, in what is modern-day Bosnia,” he said. “After an overnight bus ride, I awakened groggily, realizing I was looking out on a sea of Muslim women in burkahs, through the bus window.
“The women had a look of intense desperation in their eyes, pleading with the passengers in the bus, begging for money and food,” Mr. Peters said. “I was mesmerized. Something touched me deeply in that moment about wanting to be with people who shared that experience.
“I looked like a healthy guy, but I was broken,” he said. “I made a commitment to myself to be with people who shared that level of pain. It was the direct hit that I think my soul was yearning for.”
During his college career, Mr. Peters worked with refugees and studied language in Guatemala and Peru. That’s when he had what he calls his first shared death experience.
“In Tacna, I was at the beach and coming back, and there was a body on the road. He had a pulse but he wasn’t breathing. I put him in the car and gave him CPR until we got to the hospital,” Mr. Peters recalled. “He was a man of the fields. He was dressed in a white, rough cotton shirt, a rope around his waist as a belt, long tattered pants and sandals.
“While giving CPR, I could taste the salt around his mouth, but no alcohol. As I was administering CPR, I was drawn up and felt an affirming presence,” Mr. Peters said. “He eventually died, and I wept tears of gratitude and joy at being able to experience this man and this experience. This was a kind of shared death experience, but as I would learn later, most SDEs have a greater diversity of sensory experience and NDE features.”
Mr. Peters then worked in San Francisco as a social worker with gay men during the AIDS epidemic. Prior to contracting AIDS, these men were fully-functioning, working and contributing members of society.
Mr. Peters shared the story of Brad, an individual he had come to know during his time as a social worker, who lived in a homeless encampment. Brad helped people through the death process.
One day, Brad walked in and said to Mr. Peters, “Randy passed.”
Mr. Peters replied, “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s so sad.”
“Brad replied, “I’m sad too, but it was so beautiful.’ ”
“So beautiful?” Mr. Peters asked.
“Randy rose to a cylinder of light and looked down on all the caretakers and said, ‘Thank you.’ Randy appeared younger, happier and healed. The caretakers saw Randy in his body, fully healed,” Brad told Mr. Peters.
“The key motif is the journey, to share the passage from this life and into what lies beyond,” said Mr. Peters.
Mr. Peters met Raymond Moody in 2009.
“Moody defined shared death experience as being similar, if not identical, to the phenomena around a near death experience,” Mr. Peters said.
Seeing deceased loved ones, seeing mystical or heavenly realms, seeing the light, having a life review, etc. — all of these phenomena occur in both the near and shared death experiences, according to Mr. Peters.
Mr. Moody was supportive of Mr. Peters when he told Mr. Moody that he thought he knew how to help people have these experiences. To accomplish that, Mr. Peters developed methods and a series of programs.
Eventually, Mr. Peters started a group that met to discuss life after death. After the first group, there was increasing interest and requests for more groups.
He conducted the group a dozen times over the next three to four years. People wanted more in-depth study, so Mr. Peters started a new group, which he called “the sequel.”
“People were so excited and energized to talk about experiences around death and dying. People appreciated the authenticity,” said Mr. Peters.
He began his research to document these shared death experiences.
“These are not hallucinations or delusions,” he said. “We would only get the attention of the medical community through rigorous research. The first part was to study the methods I had devised to facilitate the shared death experience. The next study is our current study, which is the shared crossing testimonial project.”
Mr. Peters founded the Shared Crossing Project and its Research Initiative in 2013.
He previously volunteered in San Francisco for the Zen Hospice Project — a progressive organization that believed in Buddhist principles of sitting with the dying.
Mr. Peters described an experience he had with a dying patient while working for the Zen Hospice Project. The patient was Ron.
“I popped out of my body and was floating above Ron,” Mr. Peters said. “Ron shared with me telepathically ‘This is where I have been. Isn’t this cool?’ ”
The author said he hopes his book, “At Heaven’s Door,” normalizes shared death experiences.
“I want the readers to know that these experiences happen more than is being culturally acknowledged,” Mr. Peters told the News-Press. “Our research has shown the benefits of the shared death experience. The experiencer expresses that their departed loved ones are alive and well in a benevolent afterlife.
“They feel that they will be reunited at some point. Their fear and anxiety surrounding death are greatly alleviated,” Mr. Peters said. “We need to honor and accept the shared death experience because it is a gift which allows us to grieve more fully and completely.
“The SDE may often give birth to subsequent after-death communication or experience,” Mr. Peters said.
For Tuesday’s launch of the new book, Mr. Peters will participate in a virtual, free event, where he will have a dialogue with New York Times-bestselling author Eben Alexander, who wrote “Proof of Heaven.”
Mr. Alexander praised “At Heaven’s Door.”
“This brilliant and fascinating research about shared death experiences removes the conventional myth of death’s finality and shows how love binds us together beyond the material realm. Highly recommended!” Mr. Alexander said of Mr. Peters’ book.
Tuesday’s program will feature the two authors’ conversation about the shared death experience. The authors are drawing on years of research as well as personal experiences to provide a close look at NDEs and SDEs, including why they happened and what they mean for people.
“We are living through a period of immeasurable loss,” Mr. Peters said.
“More than one in 400 Americans has died due to COVID-19, creating ripples of bereavement and loss,” he said. “Death is also finding us sooner. In 2021, U.S. life expectancy fell to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years and experienced the biggest single-year drop since the worst days of World War II.
“Not only are we unable to outrun death, we cannot even keep it at bay,” he said “I hope these stories from ordinary people just like you and me will provide solace for those of you who may fear death, and inspiration for those of you who want to cross this great divide with confidence and courage.”
“The story library has video narratives taken from our research,” he said.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity to hear ordinary people from around the world share their stories.”