This is What it Feels Like to Die and Come Back to Life

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Near-death experiences (NDEs) have fascinated me ever since I read Dr. Raymond A. Moody’s best-selling book Life After Life (1975). It chronicles the experiences of one hundred people from all over the world who were pronounced “clinically dead” and came back to life.

Their stories are all remarkably similar, regardless of age, sex, culture, country, or religion. Most of them reported having an out-of-body experience, sensing that time and space did not exist, seeing a being of light, being greeted by loved ones, and looking back over their lives. Each of them felt their experience was real, spiritual, and had a profound impact on their life.

One of the things I found most striking were the stories of people who could describe what had happened to them while they were looking down on their lifeless body. What gave me chills was not that they could recount the details of that horror, but that some of the doctors were actually able to corroborate their account of what had happened while they were unconscious and clinically dead. I’m not sure if it amounts to evidence of an afterlife, but it’s a powerful testimony that there might be one.

Dr. Moody’s research has drawn criticism from scientists who chalk NDEs (a term Dr. Moody coined) up to nothing more than hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, or chemicals released in the brain in response to severe stress. The philosopher Robert Todd Carroll suggests that NDEs could be the result of a “dying, demented, or drugged brain.” Others accuse Moody of omitting cases that did not fit within his hypothesis, or cherry picking his results.

But not all scientists are critical of Moody’s research. Since Life After Life was released, several more doctors have examined the phenomenon of NDEs.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, scientifically studied 4,000 NDEs and published his findings in a New York Times bestselling book Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. Long believes NDEs are real and not due to hallucinations or a lack of oxygen to the brain. He also started the Near Death Experience Research Foundation in 1998. His site provides a place for NDErs from all over the world to share their stories.

Dr. Sam Parnia, an associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, published a study called AWARE in October 2014. It involved 2,060 cardiac arrest patients from 15 hospitals in the United Kingdom, United States, and Austria who clinically died, came back to life, and remembered having an NDE. His study was published in the journal Resuscitation.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He wrote a book called Spiritual Science: Why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world.

As I suggest in Spiritual Science, there is a powerful argument in favor of the idea that consciousness is fundamental to the universe rather than just produced by the human brain. As a result, there are some circumstances in which consciousness can continue independently of the brain. – Steve Taylor, Psychology Today

And then there is neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III who was in a coma for seven days before being pronounced brain dead by his doctors. Somehow he survived and wrote a book about his NDE called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012). It was on the New York Times Best Sellers list for a year. Alexander got his medical degree at Duke University School of Medicine and taught neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston for fifteen years. He wrote the forward for the special fortieth anniversary edition of Moody’s Life After Life.

If a near-death experience was powerful enough to convince a neurosurgeon, maybe there is an afterlife. But of course there’s no way to know (at least while we’re still breathing). The closest we can come is to ask someone who died and lived to tell us about it.

So I asked two women I know who’ve experienced NDEs about what it feels like to die and come back to life. Leigh and Naomi have very different stories, but each will send shivers down your spine. And Naomi’s might make you believe in miracles. Her story follows Leigh’s.

I transcribed the audio interview below and made some edits for the sake of readability. My questions and comments are in bold.

NDE #1: Leigh
Leigh lives in Southern California. She had a benign cyst in her brain.

Most people are afraid of death because it’s such an unknown. Are you afraid of death after having this experience?

No, I’m not afraid of death. No, in fact I think it’s a welcome relief from earthly problems and fears and anxieties. I was not happy coming back because I felt the restriction of my body and the heaviness of the physical body again. It’s a very expansive experience being on the other side.

There’s so much love and peace and just feelings of absolute serenity. You don’t experience that here all the time. I mean like you would there.

Here you have so much stuff that you are dealing with in terms of your life experience and just sheer survival, even being in the constraints of time. There, there’s no time. You’re totally expansive. It’s the most beautiful experience I’ve truly ever had.

So tell me about your experience. What happened?

So when I was on the other side, I saw my parents who had died ten years previously. Most people will say they see a white light and they go to that white light. I saw my mother and I saw her face, it was the white light. It was glowing…it was like sparkles were coming off her face. And nothing was said. It was telepathic. And she was there shimmering, like this shimmering glow. Then I just remember floating in this incredible feeling of peace, love, joy, total peace. People talk about peace and they give lip service to peace, but…

to truly experience serenity and peace is like nothing you’ve ever felt. It’s very difficult to put into words, actually. It’s such a profound experience that I personally haven’t felt it to that degree in this dimension.

Are you willing to talk about what happened? Why you were in the hospital?

I was unconscious for most of this, but from what my husband tells me, one morning my four-year-old daughter had to go to preschool. Normally, I would be the one to get her up and get her ready for school, but I didn’t get up that morning. So he decided he would let me sleep. So he gets her ready, takes her to school, and I was still in bed when he returned, which was unusual. And so he comes into the bedroom and tries to wake me and he can’t wake me up.

He must have been terrified.

Terrified. So he immediately calls 9-1-1 and they come and they start asking him all these accusatory questions like, “Did you beat her?” I guess this is what they have to do because those situations do occur. And they put me in the ambulance and I sat in the emergency room for six or seven hours, eight hours.

Are you conscious at this point?

No. They don’t know what’s wrong with me. They can’t figure it out. And I’m sure during this time I was having my NDE.

Finally, the hospital got in touch with the neurosurgeon at UCLA and they went in and removed a piece of a cyst. It wasn’t even a tumor. It was benign, but it was caught in an area where fluid can go through and it blocked the fluid from going through [to my brain], so it backed up into the brain and it created swelling.

So they took you to UCLA and they obviously did an MRI, and you’re unconscious this entire time. You said you didn’t have any sense of time, and all of a sudden you saw your mother?

Yeah, I saw my mother and I believe my father was there, too.

Was there anything that you could see? Was there a background?

There was nothing in the background. She was a very bright figure. And I didn’t see my father, but I felt his presence. After I was released from the hospital and came home, I was sitting on the couch in the living room and I felt his presence sitting next to me. So, they were around. Both my parents were around when all this was going on.

But it was your mother you actually saw?

Yes, physically.

Did she have a body?

Yes, she had a body and this sparkling face and I could see the outline of her hair.

I know she didn’t say the words to you, but she did she have any sort of communication with you?

I don’t remember any specific communication. Just…she was there. She didn’t say, “You have to go back” or “This is not your time.” No, nothing like that.

Did you see your body?

No, it was like this expansive energy of total and complete love, and peace and I didn’t want to leave.

So when I actually did wake up in my body in the hospital, I was really disappointed. I was really upset. I was like “Oh, no, I can’t believe I’m back in this body, which feels horrible and I don’t want to be here.” I was kinda starting to panic. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go back.”

Meanwhile, I have a four-year-old daughter. And obviously that’s why I was brought back.

And you didn’t feel anybody’s energy here pulling you back?

No, I didn’t feel that as much as I just woke up in a body that felt like a vice.

And you mentioned something about time, that there wasn’t such a thing as time.

No, which was very liberating, actually.

It’s almost hard to imagine that.

I know! In our earthly reality, because we live in a linear world, it’s very hard to imagine. It’s very hard to describe in words. To not have time constraints or any kind of time limitations is probably the most liberating feeling. I can’t even begin to tell you.

We have a lot of distractions here on Earth, a lot of things to keep us busy, but what would you do [on the other side]?

You just are.

And it doesn’t feel like you need to be anywhere. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere.

You don’t have the mind constricting you like we do now. The mind that constantly needs to be focused on something, it’s not like that.

And when you came back to your body, did you tell you doctors about this experience?

No, I told my sister, who was at my bedside when I woke up. She was the first face I saw. The first thing I said to her was, “Well, how’s Mom and Dad?” And she was like, “Uh, Mom and Dad have been dead for ten years.” And I was shocked because I had just seen them. And I said, “No, no way, I just saw them, seriously.”

Did you not realize what had happened?

No. No.

Did you have any idea what a near-death experience was before you had one?

You know I think I might have heard about the white light and going toward the white light, but no one had ever talked about the beauty and the peace and the love and the joy. No.

How did your family react? How’d your sister react when you told her?

I think they were fascinated. They wanted to hear all about it. They were blown away by the fact that I saw our parents. They couldn’t believe it.

What I find interesting is that your loved ones…you know people are devastated when they pass on, but they’re always around. They are always there. They don’t go away.

Do you feel that?

Oh, definitely.

And have you felt your mother since then?

I felt her through different periods, and my father, too. I’ll think of them and I might feel them around, my grandparents as well. Yeah, definitely, they’re around. People who die, just because they pass on and leave their bodies doesn’t mean they’re gone.

NDE #2: Naomi
Naomi lives in Australia now, but when her father had an NDE, she and her family lived in Canada. Naomi’s father was told he had cancerous tumors all over his body and only three days to live.

My father had been feeling kind of sick for a few months and he went to the doctor. And the doctor said, “We’re going to have to do some exploratory surgery.” And the exploratory surgery revealed that he had Stage 4, or Stage 5 bowel cancer. And he had tumors throughout his body. They had to take part of his intestine and make a new bowel for him. I mean his entire pelvic cavity was just completely full because his bowel had perforated.

They did the best they could, but when he woke up from the surgery, the doctor said, “We found tumors all throughout [your body] and they have metastasized onto your spine. And we got whatever we could but there was a bunch we couldn’t get because it was on your spine. You’ve got three days.”

And normally what happens after a major surgery is your vitals start going downhill, even when everything is fine. Your vitals go downhill for about three days and then you start to climb because you are just recovering for the first three days from surgery and general anesthetic.

And the doctor said, “What’s going to happen to you is you’re going to have this decline over the next few days and then you’re just going to drop off the perch. So put your affairs in order and say goodbye to your family.” This is what my dad was told and he was 52.

So that night he was lying in his hospital bed and he just had this sense of, “If I go to sleep, I’m not going to wake up. And I need to move.” So he put his hands on either side of the hospital bed, on the bars, and he just started rocking himself side-to-side. And it was really, really painful, but he did it for like four hours. He just felt something in him was driving him.

And the next day, he was lying in his hospital bed and my little sister, who was nine at the time, was sitting on his hospital bed looking out the window and banging her heels against the hospital bed, just back-and-forth rhythmically while she was talking about what was going on at school.

And my dad said suddenly he was up at the ceiling looking down. And he said there was this white enveloping light, this warmth, this feeling of just love and joy and he didn’t recognize specific people, but there were people there saying, “Come on along” that he felt he knew even through he couldn’t place who they were.

Everything in his being was like, “Uh, yeah, this is good.” And he looked down and he saw my little sister down there siting on his hospital bed and he suddenly had the thought,

“She still needs me.” She was being bullied at school at the time. He goes, “Oh wait, I can’t go, she still needs me.” And boom, he was back in his body.

And what happened over the next three days was his doctor came in, day one, looked at his vitals and said, “Hmm, that’s kind of strange, your vitals are getting better already.” And the next day he came in with a couple other doctors and looked at the vitals and said, “This is really weird. Even if people are going to survive their surgery, the vitals go down for three days.” And his chart was going up.

Day two, it was up. Day three, there were five of them [doctors]. It was like this revolving door in his hospital room of doctors coming in, looking at his vitals, frowning, mumbling amongst themselves, scratching their heads, and leaving, and then bringing more back-and-forth. And finally, after about ten days, his doctor came in and went, “Well, apparently, we are going to be sending you home because we can’t keep you here because your vitals are fine. You’re gaining weight, you’re eating, all this stuff doesn’t make any sense, but great.” And he said, “You’re still going to have to have chemotherapy, so you’ll have to report to the BC [British Columbia] Cancer Society and I made an appointment for you when you’re strong enough to start.”

So it was three months later and my dad dutifully reports to the BC Cancer Society. And they go to do some preliminary tests and they go, “Um, we can’t find any cancer. So we can’t do chemo on you. But I’m sure that based on your records, you have pretty serious tumors metastasized onto your spine. We’ll see you in three months. Come on back.”

So my dad goes back there in three months. Nothing. This went on for about a year and they finally went, “Okay, well, we’ll see you in two years.” My dad goes back in two years. Nothing. When he went back that time they went, “Well, apparently you don’t have cancer. Have a nice life.” And he lived thirty-five more years.

Did the doctors offer any explanation?

They had no idea.

How does somebody recover, basically overnight, from deadly cancer?

Well, we know from a lot of spontaneous remissions, I mean look at Anita Moorjani [who experienced the] same kind of thing when suddenly there’s no need to have cancer or a decision is made on a very deep level to overcome it, and the body just follows. And I guess in my dad’s case, he just made the decision, I can’t go. [Anita Moorjani is the author of Dying to Be Me. She fought cancer for four years before her organs began to shut down, which put her into a deep coma. She had an NDE, recovered and was released form the hospital cancer-free within weeks.]

So the whole space-time continuum thing is just a big illusion. It’s how we experience time. We tend to think in terms of healing takes time. We don’t question that we can be traumatized in a split second by something, but we always question how long healing can take because we’re used to being weighed down by our physical experience. In most cases we are, but we can transcend that kind of easily, if we only knew that we could.

You know, like my dad having all the tumors metastasized onto his spine. Oh, that means you’re going to be dead in three days. Well, no, maybe not if he decided not to. If he decided that wasn’t the experience he was going to have because there was a very deep reason that someone needed him. His daughter needed him.

End of interview.

Regardless of whether NDEs are real or some chemical hallucination that happens in the brain, it’s comforting to know that some among us have experienced what it feels like to die.  According to them, life after death is full of nothing but peace and love. I hope we all get to experience that someday.

2jenn @iStock

Medical Press — “New study suggests existence of meditation-induced near-death experiences

Feature image photo credit Siphotography @iStock.

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