I knew I wanted to write about Near Death Experiences (NDE) since I watched The OA a few years ago. In the show, written and directed by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, a scientist abducts people who have had an NDE and experiments on them to see if he can discover where we go when we die. I loved the premise of the show, and I became interested in the experiences people claim to have had.
Near Death Experiences and The Liminal Grief That Follows
At this year’s Cemetery Scavenger Hunt, I met an incredible individual who spoke to me about their NDE. NDEs aren’t always talked about in death education spaces, and there can be a spiritual component to them that many people are quick to dismiss.
Kit (they/she), is a Death Doula and part of the PDX Queer Death Collective in Portland, Oregon. On October 24th, 2018, they had a hepatectomy (liver resection) surgery that led to an infection that required numerous additional surgeries. During one surgery in November 2018, Kit had a near death experience. Regardless of your own spirituality or lived experience, I invite you to read this story with an open mind, because you might find something surprising waiting for you.
After my liver resection, I was doing poorly. Medical negligence aside, I started tanking. The hospital staff was trying to encourage me to walk, so I kept pushing myself, and telling myself it wasn’t so bad. This was probably how it got so bad. I started falling down, and they finally figured out that I had a really bad infection in my abdomen. It was bad so there was a period of ten days from November 1st – November 10th that I had eight surgeries where they were trying to chase the infection. During those ten days, I don’t remember a single fucking thing– not one. My organs were failing, I wasn’t eating, and I was being force fed. I found out it takes a lot of energy to die.
That was when I realized, oh cool, I’m dead!
What I do remember was what happened after they put the oxygen mask on my face during one of my surgeries. Without needing to even count down from one hundred, they just put the oxygen mask on my face and I took half a breath before I was gone. What I noticed first was that I had stopped hurting. Months of endless pain just vanished. The next thing I noticed was that I was looking at myself in the room. I didn’t realize I was looking at myself at first, because my body was cut open and the doctors were violently intubating me, trying to get me to breathe. That was when I realized, oh cool, I’m dead!
It was clear that time did not exist where I was, I felt like I was everything and nothing in the universe, but in a good way. The best part was nothing hurt. I was in a kind of shock, when I noticed three of my family members who had died were standing next to me. My grandma, my aunt, and my cousin. They looked happy, they looked healthy, they looked nothing like the bodies I had last seen in caskets.
My grandma said to me, “you don’t need to look at this,” and clouded the vision of my body on the operating table. Then she said, “let’s go to a different place.” We swooped up and I realized there was a theater of people watching my body be operated on. I was so excited to just see the people I love and be in this space that was so beautiful, even if it didn’t really look like much. There were colors that we can’t see in this life, similar to an oil slick in a parking lot, it was the perfect temperature where you weren’t sure where your skin ends and the air begins.
We started talking and they decided that they wanted to take me out so I could get a break from everything that I was going through. They wanted to show me what it was like beyond death, and they wanted me to tell other people about the experience. This was why, tragically, they were sending me back. At that point I did not want to go back. I was so tired and my grandma said “You don’t have a choice so you have to be okay with it,” and I guess I just was, because I knew I had important work to do when I got back.
They told me to tell people it’s okay to die and there is nothing to be afraid of. I had no idea how to tell people that.
Before I was sent back, we talked for three months – the surgery was 90 minutes. I told them about my life, even though they had already been watching, but they just let me go on and on. At some point during my stay, I realized there was a huge, Tolkien-esque door on the left side of the room, with people entering and leaving through it. My grandma noticed me looking at it and said “Yeah, that’s your door, but you can’t go in it yet. Don’t even look at it.” She told me that everyone has their own door when they die.
Eventually, they told me it was time to wrap up and go back. I made a final plea to stay, and they told me “there is going to be something that is going to happen soon and a lot of people are going to die.” Now I am aware they were talking about the pandemic. They told me to tell people it’s okay to die and there is nothing to be afraid of. I had no idea how to tell people that.
Before leaving, my grandma asked my cousin “do you think she’s gonna get the joke?” and I was like, “what’s the joke?” That’s when I realized that everyone watching the surgery was eating popcorn. I noticed the popcorn, and then I was back. The first thing I said was, “I just saw my grandma.”
In my hospital room, my parents listened to my experience and were supportive and relieved that I was okay. Later that night, a nurse brought in some popcorn, which was weird for a hospital, and that’s when I said “oh my god you get popcorn when you die!” that was the joke.
Living After Dying
Returning to life after feeling the release of pain was not an easy thing for Kit. Many people who have had an NDE struggle with depression and suicidality, wanting to go back to the place they went during their experience. Kit was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) after their extended stay at the hospital and multiple surgeries, which added to their stress.
Research published in The National Library of Medicine shows that people who have experienced an NDE are more likely to suffer from dissociation, depersonalization, PTSD, and other pathological conditions. There are, however, many positive components to returning from an NDE. Losing the fear of death and having a stronger belief in an afterlife are the top positive experiences found from this research, and this was true for Kit as well.
The first time they shared their story was at a living funeral hosted by Steady Waves EOL. “I realized people did need to hear my story and that really helped my relationship with wanting to be alive and here.”
Kit has also discussed openly this idea of liminal grief, which she describes as when you’re suddenly living in an in-between space and don’t have the ability to change how you move through time. “You can’t go back to before your person died, or before you had a scary experience, so I was thinking about deaths where you don’t find a body or where you can’t get the body, and people have to take their grief to a public space because it’s the only place they have.”
There are so many ways we experience grief, and those who have had an NDE often urge the world to see that there is beauty even in that grief. For Kit, sharing their story and connecting with others who have been touched in some way by the unbelievable pain of losing someone you love, is what connects them most to this life.
Download Kit’s zine here.