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Surviving Death: My near-death experience and how it changed me

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Trigger warning: On death and dying.

Spoiler alert: I write about the first episode of Surviving Death on Netflix.

Death can be viewed as the transition from one form of existence to the next. But what happens when you don't cross over?

This is a heavy post I wasn't planning on writing so soon in my time as a blogger.

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in a... long time. In truth, I wrote the first draft of this post at the end of January. Then I decided not to post it. Recent events have me rethinking that decision.

You see, I work with a small staff, and well, one of our own passed away earlier this year after a long illness.

While it wasn't entirely unexpected, it was still a shock to the system. My coworkers and I had to soldier on in our work as journalists, even though our dear friend had just passed away. There were a lot of tears, but also laughter as we shared our memories of our coworker. We leaned on each other and got through that initial shock of losing a friend.

It's a rare thing to be able to say I consider each of my coworkers in my small newsroom my friend and that I actually like them. I'm so grateful for that. This line of work is incredibly stressful, but it helps to work with people you don't mind seeing everyday (even if it is on Zoom or Teams.)

My last conversation with this coworker before he died was rather pleasant. I was giving the group an update on how we were doing as a team as seen by our higher ups. It was a positive update. This coworker gave one of the loudest celebratory shouts on the call. This occurred just over a week before he died. He also shared some encouraging words with the team, or were they compliments? It feels so long ago, even though it was only a month ago that we last spoke. All I know is, I was beaming after the call. He sounded so positive and ready to take on everything the world threw at us. He usually maintained an old-school, cynical attitude (we loved him for that.) So this was a noticeable difference.

Perhaps he was aware of what would happen next? He was that type of person, for sure.

Death is a natural process in human life, and has been a part of the mystery of it all for as long as humans have walked the Earth. It is one of the greatest transitionary acts any of us can undergo, and there is as much debate on what happens after we die as there is debate on how to live our lives. We as humans have a fascination with it, and can you blame us? We don't really know what it's all about. Sure, we know how and why it happens. But what comes after?

A series on Netflix explores these very concepts in six episodes, each just under an hour long. Surviving Death (based on the book by Leslie Kean) was suggested to me by the Netflix algorithm, claiming a 97% match with what I already watch. Considering most of what I watch consists of Korean dramas, reality TV from the early 2000's (I consider it junk food for the soul), true crime and cooking shows, I was surprised to see this pop up on my "recommended" list. Perhaps it's my love for Forensic Files that tricked the system.

The intro to the first episode, "Near-death experiences", opens with the question: "At the moment of death, are we really dead, or is there just something else going on?" An interesting question indeed.

The first five minutes of the episode recants the near-death experience of a doctor, who was briefly dead after going over a waterfall in a kayaking accident. She recalls being greeted by familiar beings and lead through a field of flowers to what she could only describe as some other-dimensional heaven.

I paused the episode and heard myself say "huh," out loud.

It reminded me of the only true near-death experience I had as a toddler. And yes, I remember bits and pieces of this experience, and I have also been told the story of it by my mother (who remembers what I told her clear as day) over and over for the past 20-something years.

I was two-years-old when I was with my parents at a Chinese restaurant in our old neighborhood in Brooklyn. I don't remember this moment, but my parents do.

Somehow, I ran an extremely high fever in a short amount of time, and started convulsing in a seizure. (That seizure would be my first, and only to this day, thank goodness.)

My parents drove to the nearest hospital, where they handed me off to an EMT near the emergency room entrance. Apparently, I was out at this point.

What I remember still, is incredibly clear. I was floating above my hospital bed, and watching myself hooked up to a series of monitors. I could hear the heart monitor beeping. For some reason, I remember seeing myself under a sheet of clear plastic, some type of dome.

My mother told me that I drew pictures of myself with crayons after this incident, in which I was a girl with brown pigtails wearing a yellow and purple dress, playing in a meadow, but floating above the ground. "Two-year-old me said I was sent back to Earth 'to take care of my mom and dad.'" She told me. It just wasn't my time, apparently, and my parents needed my help. The being that delivered this message is the only thing that appears to change every few years: I grew up hearing it was the virgin Mary, Jesus, angels, or something else altogether. I don't remember who it was that told me this, but I do agree with my mother that this is what I experienced.

As beautiful as the story sounds, it's always been unsettling to me.

Although I don't think I technically "died" and came back, I do think that I was teetering on the edge of something. My parents have told me time and again they weren't sure what would happen to me, and they never did get any answers as to why that febrile seizure occurred. Doctors couldn't figure out the cause of my fever. I do know that febrile seizures are usually caused by infection, and that children who have them recover well.

Since then, I have felt like I was on borrowed time. I grew up to be a "sick" kid, but also an athletic, achieving kid.

I went through a series of illnesses: blood poisoning, MRSA, pneumonia, asthma, metabolic syndromes, ovarian cysts and several infections that are recurring to this day (I'm 31 now.) I was also an accident-prone teenager, maybe due to my teenage-induced fearlessness: broken bones, torn ligaments, dislocated this and that.

If you look at my medical timeline, I have had some type of an infection every year since my febrile seizure. Sometimes I've been hospitalized for these infections (I've even had surgery for one particularly bad case of MRSA), sometimes I've fought them at home. They aren't your typical flu or sinus infections (although I have had those and am vulnerable to those illnesses) these infections typically manifest as Staph, impetigo, mononucleosis, kidney or bladder infections, tooth infections, etc. I have no explanation for it. I get these consistently and have been for the past 29 years. I am healthy: Most of the time my blood tests come back perfect (except there is usually an "unknown infection" result). I eat a healthy diet, am a healthy weight, and am on top of my physical and mental health.

Every time I battle an infection, or have a chronic illness flare-up, I get nervous. I can hear the beeping of the EKG, even when I'm safe at home.

The major religions of the world view death differently. Christians believe in a heaven (some Protestants believe you get into Heaven by the Grace of God, Catholics believe you can earn your way via good works, or spend a bit of time in Limbo before moving on) as do Muslims. The Jewish view is interesting, in that there are many perspectives. The Jewish Virtual Library offers some insight, so I suggest starting there. Wiccans "borrow" a general concept of reincarnation from eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps a bit more simplified, in that many Wiccans believe we choose to be reborn, or to move on, whereas in Asian faiths it is at times a punishment or a reward to be reincarnated in another form. Buddhism in its early forms sought to free those who sought to break away from the cycle of birth and death. I am by no means an expert on any of these religions, perhaps only in my own experience as a Wiccan that was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. I suggest doing your own searches on that to find an afterlife story that resonates with you.

What happens after the near-death experience?

One of the key factors in NDEs discussed on "Surviving Death" was a distorted sense of time. While I don't remember whether or not I experienced this when I was unconscious after my seizure, I do know that my sense of time was forever changed.

That idea made my blood run cold. Ever since I was a child, I had an obsession with the passing of time. I remember being five years old, and awake in my bed, agonizing over the fact that yesterday was gone. At times I felt as if I existed in multiple times at once, a strange understanding that yes, I was a five-year-old, that was still that sick two-year-old, but also the same person I would be at 1o years old, or even at 31.

Although my ability to cope with this feeling has gotten easier as I've grown up, it's still something that has persisted from time to time. I wouldn't entirely say that this feeling is a negative thing. At times, it's helped me cope with stressful events, it's helped me see the bigger picture in life, and it has helped me make peace with my own shortcomings.

The idea that I am who I was then, and who I will be in the future, is a very comforting notion. The thought feels like a warm hug, I can't explain it.

One of the experts that appeared on the episode of Surviving Death offered this tidbit of philosophy to a woman who had survived a rather severe (and triggering) near-death experience: "If we can't understand (near-death experiences), we can at least have faith that there's a purpose to it."

While I'm not sure why my experience occurred, I do know that it changed me. My entire personality changed after that incident. I wasn't a bubbly toddler anymore. I was serious, and observant. I said weird things to people, I claimed to see spirits. I became an artist and a storyteller. I became anxious. Perhaps there is a purpose to it.

I thought it was interesting that one of the people interviewed for his NDE also became an artist. He felt he was healing and coping with the feelings he experienced as a result of the NDE. I know that art and writing has been an outlet for my complex PTSD (I won't get into that here) and my anxiety for most of my life. I started painting with oils at six, and never stopped (although my medium has changed plenty of times.)

The way I feel about death can actually be summed up in a specific song, and I have no idea why. The song is "Never Catch Me" by Flying Lotus, featuring Kendrick Lamar. Yes, the video also appears to be about the afterlife, but I heard the song long before I saw the video. The lyrics allude to death and what happens after, but its so poetic that the message can be missed by those just listening for the magic of the music itself.

Obviously, I ponder life and death whenever someone I know passes away. Just thinking about and writing about death itself does send a chill down my spine.

I do believe in some type of life after death, and I also know that I'm not entirely sure what it is. While I'm OK with looking up spoilers to a TV show, I'm not one for spoilers in what comes in the afterlife. I am a person that relies on intuition to get me through the day, but to be honest I wouldn't mind a pleasant surprise on what comes after it all.

As I clean up this entry to post nearly 7 months after I originally wrote it, I pray that this attitude on death carries me through my inevitable pain. More on that, later.

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