In the spring of 2020, the poet, novelist and New Statesman writer John Burnside found himself struggling to breathe. As many might have done, Burnside assumed this was Covid-19 – in fact, it was heart failure combined with a lung infection. When he became increasingly confused, Burnside was rushed to the nearest hospital’s “red zone”, where staff told his wife to “prepare for the worst”. Burnside wrote about these days in a moving essay for this magazine. It was not so much a near-death experience, as an experience of death and return to life, Lazarus-like.
More than two years on, Burnside is reflective. In John Burnside: From the Other Side, he explains how he felt he was surrounded by light. “Not in it, but with it, or part of it. The light was as much as me as I was – there was no differentiation… and it seemed to be everywhere, going on forever.” At the same time, he felt calm and at peace – and willing to leave the world of the living behind. He felt he was “on the point of becoming the light – dissipating into the light. I was upset that my children wouldn’t be able to see me… But it was almost like: that’s his problem. The old me.”
This remarkable programme is more than one man’s experience. Dr Penny Sartori, a senior lecturer at Swansea University who was a nurse in intensive care for 17 years, has spent much of her career researching near-death experiences (NDEs). She explains that many people describe sensations like Burnside’s. Mothers who have NDEs in childbirth report feeling acceptance about leaving their child behind – leading to strong sensations of guilt in the aftermath. Many people report a new sense of serenity that stays with them for months, even years, afterwards. These accounts have significant implications – possibly contradicting the widely held scientific belief that our consciousness exists in brain activity. To make sense of what happened to him, Burnside turns to visual art, fiction and poetry – from Emily Dickinson to William Burroughs. Still, it is his own words on the experience – in both poetry and speech – that are the most powerful.
John Burnside: From the Other Side
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak