He looked the same on screen as I remembered: sheepish smile and dewy eyes, with a 14-year-old’s energy though now he was 35. Not the look of someone who almost suffocated from collapsed lungs on numerous occasions, left his body, talked to a white light, and then came back again. In fact, he looked good. Better than me.
I was jealous, just a little, of his tan and air of relaxation from a life lived outside. In the Skype window, I saw my smile and sincerity didn’t hide my pale skin and tired eyes from city life and family life, from trying to do too much. He was cute, like I remembered. We were never flirty, but people who share extraordinary moments in their backgrounds connect almost involuntarily. They feel it in each other, and it binds them, like distant relatives with the same blood, or soldiers who fought and survived the same war.
Have you ever heard of an extraordinary moment? An extraordinary moment is an incident in which your senses tell you information in ways that defy the laws of science. You hear a song on a radio, and you know, somehow, it is a message from a deceased grandparent. You receive a phone call from an old flame the day before she is struck and killed by a commuter train. You feel physically held by loving arms in a moment in which you are entirely alone and despairing. Extraordinary moments are subjective. They are usually private, and unverifiable by others. They beg huge questions about how we are invisibly entangled with the larger world, with loved ones, and with ourselves.
I am no stranger to extraordinary moments. I have made them my beat for the last year, collecting hundreds of stories for an online collection called “The Extraordinary Project” while living a fairly ordinary life as a mother, a wife, a writer and a 40-something in the Midwest. I was pleasantly surprised by how most moms at pick-up actually got the idea of the extraordinary. How many volunteered a story about a vision they had during pregnancy or a weird dream predicting their father’s demise. “How’s your project?” they would ask right after asking, “How were your holidays?”
It takes a particular type of willingness to publicly own an extraordinary experience. The concepts of telepathy, clairaudience, precognition and remote viewing are foreign to most, but while our vocabulary is imprecise, our wonder is enormous. When I found Greg Sklar, whose Near Death Experience altered the course of his life, I saw a unique chance for a full answer to my perennial question: how do we change as a result of extraordinary moments? What kind of power do they have over our lives?
The Near Death Experience has a name in every culture: experience de la mort iminente, Nahtoderfahrung, experiencia cercana a la muerte, kinh nghiệm cận tử, Mauta kā pāsa sē anubhava. One of its traits is the impression it leaves with the Experiencer that part of our consciousness, or soul, survives death. My Skype chat with Greg, I learned later, put me in the position of Caregiver, or one who bears witness to an Experiencer’s incident. Caregiver to an NDEr is an empathic role. The term is borrowed from the world of terminal illness, but according to IANDS, the oldest and largest informational resource on Near Death Experiences, NDE Caregivers facilitate a different type of comfort. Caregivers acknowledge the Experiencer’s out-of-body and near-death process. They listen and say supportive phrases, like, you are not alone, and you are not crazy and this experience may change your life. Caregivers encourage the Experiencer to accept the incident, to integrate their memory of the fantastic details. They suggest that the Experiencer claim their emotions, to see the event as real, and allow themselves to feel the physical and psychological changes in the aftermath, which sometimes include lower body temperature and heart rate, and a higher sense of altruism and life purpose.
In short, Caregivers give a type of care that the NDEr might go insane without. They validate without judgment.
Like most NDE Caregivers, I have never had an NDE myself, but took comfort in the statistic that millions of testimonies have been collected around the world. You don’t have to be a special personality type to have an NDE, not particularly sensitive or religious or prone to mental flexibility. Car salesmen and factory workers have had NDEs. Soldiers and surgeons have had NDEs. NDEs do tend to occur as a result of a health care crisis, but you don’t need to flat-line or stop breathing; just the intense fear of dying is enough to trigger the phenomenon, which Greg explains as a wakeful drift into dissociated consciousness.
I ask Greg to spare no detail, and am struck by his equal parts comfort and hesitation. In 20 years, he has had time to integrate the experience, but that process has been arduous and isolating. What happens in the other state of consciousness doesn’t always make sense, he says, and people lose their sense of grounding in the process.
You can tell me, I say with my best, beckoning eyes.
Like most, I have pondered the end of life on numerous occasions. Unless it’s up close -- a friend’s spouse or a dear, dear loved one -- the empty chasm that awaits us all is abstract, and doesn’t bother me. I can say things like, death happens to everyone, death is a part of life, like a pro. I am a natural caregiver, supporter, empathizer. The idea of entering a Near Death state during a health care crisis makes perfect sense to me. Why wouldn’t there be a state of consciousness between life and death? How can we be sure there isn’t?
But as he started to talk, and we stared at each other through the magic of Skype, with bed head and coffee cups and the forced intimacy created by the interface, I realized a part of me, a teeny tiny part, already sort of doubted.
Not Greg, but the whole thing. Despite my best intentions, I was an NDE denier.
Denial is the skeptic’s tool. It is protection against asking the question, “How will I change if this is true?” Denial plays a huge role in our culture; it keeps the NFL running, the incidence of college campus rapes high. Denial provides safety from the unknown. I started my project in order to build a bridge between the known and the unknown. So I put my denial aside, and listened.
Like many NDErs, Greg laid in a hospital bed aware his body was doomed. He had been sliding in and out of consciousness as a result of a bilateral pneumothorax, a spontaneous collapse of both lungs while on a ski vacation with his family in Vail, Colorado. One minute he was an elated teenager ordering up soup in the lodge from a pretty girl, the next minute he gasped for breath because of the weight of the collapsed lung in his chest. He went back to the table, embarrassed, feeling stupid, unaware that the collapsed lung would end his life by the end of the day.
Short of breath, he skied down the mountain on the patrol runs, hoping someone would see he needed help, but no one did. He lay in a heap, counting and directing each breath, until his parents picked him up for dinner. By that time, his second lung had collapsed. The pain was so great he could no longer speak. He pointed to the sign for the hospital, and his father took him. Anticipating a diagnosis of altitude sickness, Greg’s father asked his mother to order them dinner. They would probably be back in 20 minutes. Once Greg was admitted, he stayed for nine days.
The story took me away like a good movie, with details so familiar and human I found myself picking up on every nuance; his teenage embarrassment at not being able to impress the girl, his failed efforts to find ski patrol, the vulnerability of being young and hurt. It came through in his voice. So did his hesitation in telling me the story, which is particular to many as they remember extraordinary events. It comes from the tension between memory and the trauma itself, and the secret wish that the outcome was something a bit more understood by them, and by me.
The ER took x-rays, administered oxygen and confirmed diagnosis of bilateral pneumothorax. Their options were limited. An emergency airlift to a Denver hospital for surgery would kill him; the rise in altitude from 8000 feet to 10,000 feet too taxing on his non-working lungs. The temporary fix, a decompression puncture and chest tube to let the air out of his chest (demonstrated in the film “Three Kings”), was also life threatening in a cold, high altitude with no facility for back up. So there he lay, slowly dying, one compromised breath at a time, while everyone hoped for unlikely acclimation.
And this, he said, is where it starts to get weird.
Greg closed his eyes, and rose up above his body. He had no pain or trouble breathing, and he left the hospital room once he found he had the agility of a superhero and 360 degree vision. He flew fast through a tunnel of darkness and into space, relieved to breathe again. He saw all the beauty of the natural world, and knew he was in a place between life and death. He didn’t care. He was free.
A flickering, far away star called to him. Before he could reach it, a beautiful light stopped him in his tracks and spoke to him, mind to mind. It asked if he was certain about the choice he was making: the choice to fly to the star, and not return to his body.
“Yes,” he said.
The light hesitated. He would spend a long, long time trying to reach that star.
“That’s OK,” he said, “I still want to do it.”
Are you sure, the light asked again.
“I’m sure,” he said, and he was. It wasn’t hard for him to accept the circumstances; of dying, leaving his family, his friends. Death was peaceful. He felt content.
But the bright light wouldn’t let up. It implored, Someone on the planet needs you, you in particular, in order to survive. Though usually stubborn, Greg found he could not deny the possibility. He agreed to return to his struggling body, to the life he knew. He recalled transforming into a blue light, traveling from space into to the hospital room. He shot back into his bed-ridden body, and like blowing up a balloon, he reanimated his sunken chest with blue.
I had no idea what to say. The collapsed lungs juxtaposed with the wild adventure, and the dying teenager, at once thrilled me and made me want to cry.
After a year of research, I have wired myself to understand glimpses of insight that come in inexplicable forms—white lights, disembodied voices—when people speak of them. They occupy a place in my mind somewhere between I believe they believe it and What if it’s true? But without my own first-hand experience of an NDE or the sibling phenomenon, the OBE (Out of Body Experience) to draw on, I felt bewildered by his story. Even as I nodded yes the whole time, I secretly gripped to the safe, sensible party line that NDEs may be hallucinations of a stressed brain.
But when he told me his lungs collapsed five more times in the next six years, that doctors predicted he would die by age 30, I couldn’t deny his survival was a medical miracle, and that the NDE has something to do with it. Even if the NDE didn’t heal him, or fix him, or vaccinate him against future health problems, the crisis reframed how he saw time (by each breath, not by each hour or day or week or decade) and provided him with comfort around the end of life that itself seemed otherworldly.
What must it feel like to walk half way between life and death, to visit the destination? How does he live in this world after seeing that one? How does he live with the disconnect?
There are after effects, he said with frank clarity, like a groovy old Rabbi who has seen it all. I wonder if his manner, this ease with the puzzle, is one of them. He now knows death as a peaceful, comfortable experience, and the one experience we share with all beings, including plants and animals. He has an expansive, less romantic, concept of love since the NDE. He is less competitive, rejects previous limitations in life and “role-playing,” and lives by a passionate mission to help other people and animals. He now works as a wild horse whisperer, and after personally taming and saving several dozen horses from slaughter, he intends to save all 50,000 in the U.S. or die trying.
I’m not surprised to hear he has found this mission, or that he has lived five years past life expectancy. He is quietly unflappable, almost heroic. It’s hard not to see him as the hero in a Hero’s Journey, the young warrior who goes on a quest, experiences a trauma, and comes out with an otherworldly transformation. Such myths have shown up on cave walls, gilded pages, and silver screens for thousands of years; it is one of our earliest cross-cultural narratives. Perhaps our entire sense of story stems from the NDE, our struggle, our demise, and our return.
If there were such a thing as a Near Death Experience checklist, Greg’s story would check every box. Journey to space? Check. Ability to see and feel yourself flying, knowing, and communicating without effort? Check. Freedom from all bodily pain and limitations? Check. Euphoria and desire to continue? Check. Conversation with a wise, bright light? Check. Decision to return to the planet to teach/help others? Check. A clear visual of re-entering his hospitalized body via a blue light? Check. In fact, up to 15 common characteristics can weave their way through an NDE, and in all testimonies that have been collected around the world, exactly none lack less than two of these traits. Many Experiencers remember the same details. Survivors often recall the same message: go back, it's not your time.
I wish there was an equivalent checklist list for the Caregiver. The range of sensations that come after bearing witness to an Experiencer’s NDE are significant, and not unlike a visit to an ancestral homeland: Tingling under the skin? Check. An eerie familiarity? Check. Fluctuations in body temperature? Check. Guilt and relief that you weren’t the one who suffered? Check. Some of the sensations stem from sheer empathy. Our sensory regions are triggered by the sounds of descriptive words, like “tunnel” light” and “darkness” scientists now know. To hear a descriptive and effective story is to feel it as though it is real. It is how humans are both inspired and traumatized by the past.
But comprehending the phenomenon itself also causes emotional shifts. Every time I considered the veracity of Greg’s NDE story, the walls, the world around me, wavered. Life became slightly foreign. Returning to the doubt, to the probably not, brought immediate relief. The safety of denial, the choice to feel grounded, normal, always won.
“Don’t take this on,” he said, perhaps noticing my unease. It is the opposite of what most storytellers want. Most want the audience to feel your narrative, to live it as they did. Greg’s caution is precisely what makes me believe him. He didn’t want me to risk feeling too much. Even after having one, he said, taking on the full ramifications of an NDE—that we have a complex consciousness that extends far outside of our bodies—could blast a sensitive person’s system.
In recent years, a neurosurgeon-turned-author tried to parlay his very similar NDE into verifiable proof of heaven, using his neurosurgeon status to make the idea stick. His claims of an afterlife are common conclusions drawn by NDErs, but to me they seem beside the point. More pressing to me is accepting the phenomenon itself, not just mapping the brain mechanics but listening to testimonies, letting them have bearing on how we live and understand each other.
We’re far away from this, from closing the gap between testimonies like Greg’s and material science’s claims. Even author and neurologist Oliver Sacks characterizes NDEs as complex hallucinations. They feel real because they employ the same physiological systems as perception. “When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated,” Sacks wrote in an essay in The Atlantic, implying that these brain mechanics explain why the NDE feels objectively real to the Experiencer, even though it isn’t.
But hallucination doesn’t explain why the phenomenon happens in the first place, or why 85 percent of NDErs have permanently altered psychology and sometimes physiology, while other experiencers of ordinary hallucination do not. It also doesn’t explain how NDErs who were clinically blind from birth also saw the same telltale images—tunnel, stars, light—that non-blind NDErs could see. It doesn’t explain a lot of things.
Although it’s not in a Caregiver’s best interest to throw hard science at an NDEr, Greg is patient when I do. He shrugs when I suggest that the incident occurred due to a meaningless misfiring of brain electricity, and I am immediately sorry for suggesting it.
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe we’re just a bunch of machines.”
Greg is kind to indulge my doubts, given the breadth of his testimony. That, too, is a quality of an NDEr. They understand that people don’t get it. They value how most people need to feel safe when it comes to the unknown. How doubt is our best defense.
In this response of his, I see the answer to my question of how he lives between worlds. He values, but is quiet about, what he has seen. He protects and nurtures his personal relationships, which he sees as the most important element of life on earth. He accepts that his sense of the universe, and his place in it, has reorganized. He is resigned to the fact that science is an incomplete narrative; it doesn’t tell the whole story of our existence, our relationships with each other, or what happens when we die. He realizes that science, that life, is full of holes.
To cope, he has become a wild horse caregiver.
Sigmund Freud feared, in the 1921 paper “Psycho-analysis and Telepathy,” that cooperating with the occultists would lead to the collapse of critical thought. That’s shorthand for saying once you leave scientific knowns, people run wild with imagination. His statement is less true than it once was; science has flourished, and so has critical discussion of extraordinary incidents. Plenty of knowns exist for the NDE: they are not a sign of mental illness; they cannot be traditionally observed, tested or measured in a lab; millions of testimonies confirm the experience feels hyper real to the Experiencer; the after effects of NDEs change people’s lives.
Yet hundreds leave US hospitals every day confused about the tunnel of light, their telepathic conversations, the contrast of otherworldly beauty with a traumatized body. Many of them are veterans; many of them are children.
I now understand their fear that no one will believe them, that no one will say you are not alone, you are not crazy, you may change as a result of this experience, and very possibly for the better. Their loneliness is particularly remote. Their concern, and it’s a valid one, is that people don’t want to believe them. That it’s too much to think about, too scary, too fantastical, too worm-holey, and too time consuming to reorganize one’s position on whether or not a world exists between and after death. Who wants to do that on a Saturday?
But as a Caregiver and someone who does want to know, who is willing to take on such an esoteric subject on a Saturday, I can honestly say walking away from denial in order to listen to someone’s NDE memory brought unique benefit. I felt awe and uncertainty in one moment, trust and fear in another. I felt safe with what science knows, and wary of its insistence. I felt moved by Greg’s recollections, impressed with how he coped, and inspired that he changed for the better, despite his shortened life expectancy. Everything, even waiting in the carpool line, has become a bit more complicated and precious.
I felt love without really knowing, or for the moment caring, why.