A Nonbeliever’s Near-Death Experience

So can we talk about near-death experiences for a minute? You know — the whole tunnels-and-bright-lights thing?

I bring it up because a good friend recently shared with me a YouTube video featuring an 18-year-old with heart disease. In the video, the high school senior, whose name is Ben Breedlove, uses index cards and music to tell the story of his life, his illness and his three near-death experiences.

Viewed more than 2 million times, the video seems to be Breedlove’s way of explaining what it’s like to pass from one world to the next and back again. He describes the journey in somewhat mystical terms — bright lights, a white room, a feeling of deep peace and calm. He also reports feeling proud of himself, of all he’s accomplished in his life. And he marvels at how good it had felt to be in that calming, bright-white place — so good, in fact, that he never wanted to wake up.

“Do you believe in angels or God?” Breedlove asks his audience just before the video ends. “I do.”

This young man’s experience, and his words, are meant to be affecting — and they are. Especially knowing that only a week after Breedlove uploaded that video to YouTube, his heart stopped again. Only this time it didn’t start back up. Ben Breedlove died on Christmas day.

As I watched the video, I was touched by Breedlove’s courage, optimism and humor. He’s clearly a good person who deserves to be happy. And that he appears to find happiness, even in the grip of death, is both sweet and uplifting.

But to answer Breedlove’s question: Do I now believe in God or angels?

No. The answer is no. Not even a little.

While I truly believe Breedlove saw those bright lights and felt that deep sense of calm, I don’t believe that what he saw and felt were “evidence” of another realm. Rather, they were the dreams and hallucinations so often brought on by brain malfunctions, powerful drugs and our own rich imaginations in the midst of life-threatening illness or trauma.

I’m intimately familiar with the phenomenon because I, too, had a near-death experience 16 years ago. Only I experienced it as a nonbeliever.

My own story begins in a restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., on the evening of May 20, 1995. I was in college at the time, and that night I was having dinner with my mom and my boyfriend, Charlie. (If the name rings a bell, that’s because I eventually married him.) I started off the meal by informing our waitress that I had a serious allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, by the time we ordered dessert, she’d forgotten. I took one bite of our cheesecake and knew immediately there must be nuts in the topping. Soon, I began feeling sick to my stomach. The waitress apologetically confirmed there were crushed almonds on top of the cheesecake, and we left.

About 30 minutes later — after my mom had begun her two-hour drive home and Charlie had headed to a video store to get us a movie — my face swelled up and I began having trouble breathing. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but I sensed that something must be terribly wrong. I called 911, then ran to the porch to wait for help. Charlie met me there, video in hand. Within seconds, I was lying down, struggling against my ever-shallowing breath. The effect was terrifying. I can still feel the chipping paint on the wood slats below me as my body thrashed around, desperate for air. “Try to relax,” I remember Charlie saying, as he held me in his arms. “You’re breathing. You’re breathing. You’re breathing.”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t breathing anymore.

I immediately lost consciousness. As Charlie tells it, my body went rigid and my lips turned blue. He tried to administer CPR, but my tongue had swelled to the point where he couldn’t do anything. From the look of it, he said, I was either dead or dying.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was in full respiratory arrest. Their first rule of business was to get a tube down my throat so they could push air to my lungs; but it wasn’t easy. According to the paramedics’ report, the first several efforts failed. And when they finally did intubate me, it didn’t do much to improve my situation. By the time I got to the emergency room at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, I was still in respiratory arrest. There, I was injected with all kinds of drugs, fitted with a chest tube for a collapsed lung, and given a rather grim prognosis. As I lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator, doctors brought up the distinct possibility of severe brain damage.

Obviously — or maybe not so obviously if you believe Fox News fans — I made a full recovery. I remember coming out of my coma, but still not able to speak (or even swallow) because of the tube running down my throat.

The only way to communicate with my parents was to trace out letters with my finger. At first, they didn’t know what I was trying to do, but then my dad figured it out and offered me his palm to write on.

GET THIS DAMN THING OUT OF MY MOUTH, I scrawled.

When I got to the word “damn,” the smile that spread across my dad’s face said it all: Not only was I alive and awake. Not only was I able to form words. But, by God, I was cursing again. All was right with the world.

This is the wristband I wore during my hospital stay. When my brother saw it, he asked: “Is that your allergy or your diagnosis?”

 

Now, about that near-death experience…

I can’t tell you exactly when this happened, other than to say it was sometime after I lost consciousness and before I was stabilized in the hospital. But, just like Breedlove, I had a vision that accompanied an extreme sense of calm. I didn’t see angels or bright lights or tunnels or staircases to heaven, though. What I saw was my own funeral. Or, more specifically, I saw the feet of the people at my own funeral. (Kooky, I know.) It was as though I were sitting under a table. That was my vantage point as I watched these black dress shoes shuffle back and forth on a wooden floor. There was no question that it was my funeral, but instead of feeling depressed or scared or even very sad, I felt a peaceful acceptance. In fact, it was kind of nice seeing all those people getting together to remember me.

And that was it.

Feet. Then nothing. Then cursing on my dad’s hand.

I don’t tell this story to undercut or minimize Ben Breedlove’s experience. I think his visions were profound and beautiful and life-changing and remarkably comforting. Just like mine, but in a different way.

I say it only to show that near-death experiences are colored entirely by our own unique backgrounds, philosophies, personalities and values. When faced with our own mortality, Breedlove and I both imagined what comes after death.

He’s religious; I’m not.

He saw an after-life. I saw a funeral.

This post originally appeared in January 2012.

About Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is a journalist, author and blogger. Her book, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is due out this winter.

  • JT

    Fascinating…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Isn’t it, though? :-)

  • Andrew

    I found your post very interesting, and I thought I’d share my own near-death experience.

    This happened when I was 5 years old, while at the beach with my mom. I’d found two other kids to share the playground with, so we were pretending to be race cars whilst taking laps around a row of palm trees. At some point, I’d drastically slowed down, but the adrenaline of the “race” kept me from noticing the fact that I’d been bitten multiple times by fire ants, of which I’m very allergic to. I eventually lost the ability to move my legs, and my body began to ache badly. I was also hallucinating, as I remember looking up to see the kids that I was racing with were now running on top of the palm trees.

    I called out to my mom, who immediately noticed something was wrong as she approached. I remember reaching out to her as I lost consciousness. I stopped breathing as I was rushed to the hospital, but on the way I had an out-of-body experience. I remember seeing myself lying in an ambulance with my mom and an EMT, as they tried to revive me. I floated through the ceiling of the ambulance to see it was crossing a local bridge enroute to the hospital. While the ambulance continued forward, I continued upward, while a bright light enveloped my vision. It was a very peaceful feeling, and I wasn’t distressed about seeing my still body or the speeding ambulance. When I awoke, I was in a hospital bed, and my dad had arrived to see how I was doing. I was fortunate enough to be able to return home that evening.

    While the experience makes me believe that there is more to life than what we can detect with our basic senses, I remain an atheist.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Interesting! Thanks, Andrew.

  • Cal

    I, myself, am atheist – but I find this article inappropriate. Not the concept, not the point – but citing the specific example of a young man who posted his dying thoughts online. Let alone less than a month after his death. His beliefs helped him deal with what was happening to him – and his family’s beliefs sustain them, as well. This is exactly the wrong time and manner in which to tell them ‘I think your beliefs are false.’ And if any of them – /ever/ – find this article, it will be extremely painful to them.

    Please show this guy and his family some respect. Take out the specifics, and make it more generic.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      I can appreciate your concern, Cal. But given that I only have good things to say about this young man, I can’t imagine his family would be extremely pained by it. I certainly hope not.

  • Heila

    Talking about funerals…(sorry, going off on a tangent) My husband and I have discussed this issue on more than one occasion. We are not religious and both of us feel strongly that we really would not want to have a traditional church based funeral as that would just be too hypocritical to contemplate. There are a few problems here: 1) Both of us grew up in families who are Christian, at least nominally, even though they now rarely go to church or participate in other organised religion. They still say grace at meals and feel that the church has a role to play in baptisms, weddings and funerals. (Hatching, matching and dispatching). We have a lot of genuine and earnest Christian friends. All of these people would be distressed at the lack of some sort of ritual, and it is after all meaningful for those who are still alive rather than the one who is dead. 2) The church has a very efficient and well practised framework for dealing with death. They make it easy. I have no idea how one would go about arranging a non-religious event to say goodbye to a loved one. In the absence of a religious authority figure, would you have a MC like at a wedding? And who would this person be? Someone who knew the deceased well would be appropriate but would they be emotionally up for it?

    Both of us feel that cremation, or some other eco-friendly alternative is the way to go. Then there can be a party, perhaps at a place that the dead person really liked, and people can talk and cry and laugh and remember together.

    Anybody else have thoughts on this?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Hi Heila!
      ‘Hatching, matching and dispatching’ made me laugh out loud.
      And great questions! I think people will inject their religion into your funeral no matter what — and that’s totally okay. But I definitely see your issue with having a church conduct the ceremony. I do believe — although anyone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong — that funeral homes are well-equipped to deal with non-religious ceremonies. And the funeral director may even sometimes act as the “MC” — although some people, I know, just have a lineup of speakers. As long as there’s a program provided to guests, there won’t be much confusion.

      • http://www.mortuaryreport.com Heather

        Heila,

        Most funeral homes – the ones that are worth their salt, anyways – should be able to conduct ceremonies from all walks of religious life (or lack thereof.) I know that for most of the secular ceremonies I’ve worked, the family has chosen a family member or close friend to serve as the MC for the service, although I’ve seen the funeral director do it, too. Most will choose specific family members to eulogize through the service. Some ceremonies will even have the equivalent of “open mic night,” passing around the microphone at an appointed time to allow anyone to speak to share stories about the deceased.

        Some funeral homes are incorporating “celebrants” for their services, people who attend training on providing meaningful secular services to those who are agnostic or atheists. I have never been to one of these services, but a quick google of “funeral service celebrant” seems to bring up a fair amount of information.

        Also, if you’re worried about your family being too involved in disrespecting your final wishes, many states do allow pre-need plans that cannot be changed or revoked after they have been paid in full. I strongly, strongly recommend that everyone who can looks into pre-need funeral service plans! You take care of your wishes the way you want them done; you have everything completed for your family during a time when making decisions totally sucks; and you can make payments or hold off payment completely until after you have died. Although preferences can be specified in wills, they’re simply not as binding as pre-need plans.

        Don’t fear! The industry is finally starting to catch up with the fact that those of us who are secular exist. You can have the ceremony you deserve without the pomp and circumstance of a church service.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

          Thank you, Heather!

        • Heila

          That’s interesting Heather, thanks. At the age of 40 I’m lucky enough to have only attended a handful of funerals (all church based) and I’ve never had to arrange one. So I’m not sure how these things work here in South Africa but I will do some research.

  • Summer

    I’ve had one of these as well! Like the comment above mine, it also makes me feel there is more to life than what we can detect with our senses. I’m non-religious (I joke that I’m a “recovering Christian”), though not a “materialist.” Personally, I find the research into near-death experiences so fascinating and important. I don’t know if you’ve read any of Raymond Moody or Pim Van Lommel’s books, but there really is no singular physiological theory that can explain away every single experience (of course, this does not mean there is not one) and the theory that it’s just the result of an oxygen-starved brain (“dying brain theory”) is actually filled with flaws. There is also a physician who has begun something called the AWARE project, where hospitals are asked to question patients after cardiac arrest to see if they noticed an image placed on the ceiling, to see if they were really “out of body”. How interesting, right? Because of my experience and this research I’ve been reading, I tend to lean toward 50% thinking consciousness isn’t a product of the brain (more like a receiver) and continues on in some way and then the other 50% of me thinks we just cease to exist. So, there’s lots of arguing in my head. =) I think it may have been mentioned on here before, but if you haven’t read Fringeology by Steve Volk, you definitely should. In fact, he may be a good person to interview for your blog (stevevolk.com).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Yes, I did read Fringeology after someone mentioned it in a comment. He definitely has some interesting ideas, although not all of them I agree with. Thanks so much, Summer!

  • Leslie

    Oh, I definitely believe there are more to these than meets the eye. What? No idea! But that’s why I find them so fascinating. :)

  • Jennifer

    While I have no Doubt in the power of the brain, and I know there is much still we do not understand. Maybe its part of our life experiences, but why does that invalidate the possibility that some people have a heavenly experience. Isn’t it possible that maybe those who have had an experience like Ben Breedove see more religious things because God is bringing them to Heaven, and maybe ur experience God wasn’t bringing you to heaven.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      That’s a very good “religious” take on this. Thanks!

  • robotnik

    I read that DMT is secreted by your pineal gland when you sleep and when you you are dying. It is allegedly the chemical that facilitates dreaming. Some people extract it from plants and ingest it, which induces a waking dream trip. It is the most illegal substance on the planet, yet our bodies naturally produce it.. The reason I bring it up though is that the people who use it tend to describe very similar experiences. Out of body experiences and bright lights are a common theme, as well as meeting sentient beings. The DMT users often see ‘Machine Elves’ which they describe as conscious, jeweled orbs, and when they relate their experiences to one another some people even begin to think that they exist. Perhaps the DMT being released in near-death experiences explains the similarities of the near-death phenomenons as well as the purported realism of what these people have experienced. It is fairly annoying when people try to cite near-death experiences as evidence for their god… as if their beliefs couldn’t have brought on that experience to begin with… I’m glad you touched on that point.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Very interesting!

  • Joseph Grenon

    I have come across many near death experiences. My problem with them is that they are all “near” death. We may not be able to account totally for what experiences people have. Should they wish to deify the experience, fine. I would like to hear from someone who has actually been dead for a week or two. That would be testimony worth hearing. Even better if there could be a recordable and reconstructible conversation with someone who has been dead for a substantial amount of time, say 20-50 years. I could call that evidence. Everything else is subject to much controversy. As of now,near death does not equal death. If you can recall anything of the experience and tell about it, ipso facto you were never dead. It all amounts to campfire conversation and will follow the prominent beliefs to the story teller and the audience.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Hear, hear.

  • http://www,elvisinmybasement.com Kmuzu

    I have MS, which means that my brain kind of short circuits now and then .. and I have experienced many of the NDE symptoms during a bad MS run .. Which means all of this kind of stuff is probably just the brain rebooting.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Interesting! I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  • Luke

    Another commenter on this page has already stated, specifically in reference to the naturally occurring chemical DMT, that the ‘experience’ is very similar to experiences of near-death. I have to state this succinctly, rationally, and with as much fervor as a I can: If you’ve never had a powerful psychedelic experience at least once in your life, you are missing out on very huge cosmic understanding of the questions ‘what?’, and ‘why?’. This includes DMT, LSD, Amanitas, Psilocybin, Ayahuasca and Mescalin. All different colors of a very similar palette.

    Abandon your per-conceived notions of “drugs” and humor me for a moment. Human beings have experimented with different substances and the way they affect our brain chemistry for ages. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine just happen to be a few that have been legally sanctioned by our government. But why not psychedelics? Does anyone remember how the last generation influenced by psychedelics tried to change our world? World peace? “Drop acid, not bombs”? “All you need is Love”? What would have resulted would have been a huge shift in the status quo. Ever wonder where this stuff came from?

    You see, I’ve been to that ‘white room’ in my waking state, and when you’re staring ‘IT’ down right in the face you realize that God isn’t some floating man-like entity in the sky, there is no heaven and hell. All of these are man-made ideas to explain one thing, the one thing that can’t be explained with words, the source of it all, the space and connection between EVERYTHING. Trying to talk about what it is will only lead you in circles, circles that surround the ‘point’ but never actually hitting the bullseye. The Taoists wrote an entire book about this called ‘The Path’, The Tao. When read you get that very feeling of circling some great message but leaves its understanding up to the individual. The only way to know is to experience it, I mean, isn’t that the way life works?

    I don’t claim to know even if appears as though I do, I can only tell of my experience, as the saying goes the wise man knows only that he knows nothing. It happens like a dream, a dream that gives you a message but only if you’re looking for it and after its over you immediately begin forgetting the details. You can and will spend the rest of your life trying to conceptualize that experience, put the puzzle pieces of the moment back together, try to find words to fill the void but ultimately all you’re left with is that peaceful, calming feeling, what Buddhists call the ‘Inner Peace’. Don’t you see? God is just a word we created to contain the greatest mystery, never ever expecting anyone to truly understand what it means. That’s why ancient Hebrews used the word Yhwh because we weren’t supposed to even speak it; supposedly impossible for us to grasp its meaning. We’re all apart of this string of events, from the big bang to the closing credits, what may be the greatest ‘Rube Goldberg’ ever, and it all works out. And when you’ve received the message you understand that there’s no reason to harm anyone, no reason to take your happiness from another person. No reason to make judgments or feel self-conscious. I imagine that that guy named Jesus probably had a very similar revelation, perhaps not under the influence of drugs, but as stated before DMT is naturally produced in the brain, so ponder that.

    Life’s kind of like reading a mystery novel. If you want to wait it out and read to get to the end of the book that’s all sunflowers and roses, good on you. But if you’re like me and get a greater enjoyment from reading the end first and then reading the novel just to see how it all plays out and how it could possibly come to that conclusion then perhaps psychedelics are right up your alley. Trust me, it’ll save you a lot of time worrying if your characters are going to be all right. We all get to the end in the end anyway, right? We’re all explorers of this realm, how deep are you willing to go?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Well, I’m not sure I can back the use of psychedelic drugs on my blog (and wouldn’t want to, frankly) but I will say that I agree with virtually everything you’ve just said — and you said it very well! I think what you’re advocating, in general, is finding ways to expand your mind, to take it in new directions, and to gather a different perspective on the world, our existence and each other, yes? Certainly, as an experiment, LSD will do the trick on that score — but I think there are other ways, too. Legal ways. Yoga and meditation, for example, or really great literature. Thanks so much for writing!

      • Ray

        I have never accepted religious dogma, despite attending a Catholic school in my young childhood, as I understand it is nothing more than fables made up to explain things which were not previously understood. I am a junior in university now, studying psychology, religion, and history, and a class which I am currently taking requires the reading of the book “Lessons from the Light” by Kenneth Ring, Ph.D. This book is the product of his decades of research and investigation into near-death experiences (NDEs), and it literally changed my life. As soon as I started reading it, the accounts of what happens postmortem just felt right. Not far into the book, I read a certain passage and suddenly felt my heart fill with a joy I have never felt before, which I can only describe as divine love, and I burst into tears. It was the most intense, real feeling I’ve ever had, as if everything else I had experienced before then had been muted. Now, I still don’t agree with any of the world religions, as I think they are all either partially or completely man-made, but I do believe in a higher power. I don’t know if it’s one God or many gods, or even if they are gods at all, but I do know that my personal truth is that something created us for the sole purpose of loving one another unconditionally. I don’t know if my brain chemistry changed or what, but since that experience I have had a radical change in my personality and affect, all for the positive, without any effort. I have also noticed that people seem to be much more interested in talking to me, or even just being near me, as if they feel comfortable with me even if they are complete strangers. I don’t claim to be a beacon of hope or anything, but I do know that something happened that day, and despite my atheistic background (it was pretty militant in fact) I feel in my heart that it was divine intervention. I implore you to read that book.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

          Implore! Strong word. Seriously, thanks for the recommendation, Ray — and for taking the time to write! I really appreciate it.

  • Scott

    I mean, if you get right down to it, you saw a funeral, which would have occurred after your death, so really, you experienced an after-life too. Yours was just, well, slightly less enthused. I would argue that your “near-death” experience is more geared towards proving your point than accuracy in detail, or properly stream-lined logic.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks, Scott. But, wow, did you misunderstand this post. I’m not saying I literally saw my own funeral. (That’s actually the opposite of what I’m saying!) I’m saying that, at a time when my body was in grave danger, my brain produced an image for me. Not sure how I can stream-line my logic any more than that.

  • Cindy

    What if…. what you believe… is exactly what you get in the end, no more, no less?

    Believers go on. Non believers do not, because they don’t believe they do.

    In other words, what you believe determines your fate. Faith in a being to save you, saves you. Faith is nothing, brings you nothing. As for the feet, perhaps your view is looking down, instead of up. Have faith that there is something out there that made both you and Ben. And it loves you beyong measure. It has faith in you to find it.

  • Mt

    Everyone’s experiences are fascinating. I agree with Cal that using the specific example of the dying young man was in poor taste. Regardless of how is was written, the author has no idea what the family feels…what would or would not be hurtful, she simply did not give it any weight in her pursuit of making her point. So to justify it afterward is self-serving. The author should demonstrate some honesty there – hey, I write what I write and if it is harmful, so what? The “I can’t imagine” answer is (if not patronizing) not credible.

  • Luke Nilsen

    I have read of near death experiences like the one you describe containing corroborative detail. A woman who was pronounced dead on an operating table and revived described a canvas basketball shoe on a windowsill to a friend while recovering, who went to verify this and found it where she said it would be. I knew my father had died and saw him before anyone informed me which was witnessed and verifiable. Having said all this i do not want to believe in false hopes and wonder about it all. What would be interesting with the funeral is if theres anything you shouldnt be able to know. Then again who knows what to think

  • http://www.jamiemiles.com Jamie@SouthMainMuse

    Interesting comments and all — but I’m more worried about you and the nuts. Good grief. You’ve got to be careful. Obviously you have been since 1995 was a few years ago.

    So you think the brain is still firing and on its last gasps our own death references leap to mind? Is it not possible that your experience was so different than “the believers” experience — because he did have faith? I don’t know if God would reveal himself to anyone who didn’t chose to be united with him. Maybe that choice continues on after death? Who knows? And please stay away from the nuts.


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