How many days, weeks or months are left me to tell this story of my meeting with death? Can it be done? Words cannot do justice or fully describe the encounter; and my meager skills as a writer may not be helpful to the attempt.
And why should any attempt to describe death be made? Because everyone – no exceptions – will eventually experience death for themselves, should everyone wish for a preview? It could be presumptuous to offer my experience of dying as a model for anyone else’s death. Just because it happened to me, does that mean it will happen to you in the same way?
Even while these questions plague me, I feel compelled to let others know what I found on the other side. So please be patient, dear reader, and overlook my writer’s caprice, for it is for you that I make this effort, so that you may have a glimmer of what awaits.
Some People Do Come Back
Everyone has heard this skeptical idea, “We don’t know what it’s like to die because no one has ever come back to tell us.”
It turns out that this article of faith, while not wholly false, bears some contradiction. People do, in fact, “come back”. And they do tell their stories about what it’s like on “the other side”.
Some of the earliest and most studied human literature tells of those who experienced death and came back to report their experience. The earliest accounts are traced to the Myth of Er, recorded in the 4th century BC by Plato’s, “The Republic” , wherein Plato describes a soldier telling of his near-death experiences. In our modern world of instantaneous exaggerated news, stories of return from the dead are not uncommon.
Some of these stories are quite funny. For example, a recent headline reads, “Dead Man Walks Again”; the story of a man’s family and friends filing past his “corpse” to give their last respects, when one onlooker notices the deceased’s leg twitching. The ambulance is called, a miracle is revealed, and “Dead Man Walks Again”. According to the report:
“Stories of people assumed dead but waking up just before burial are weird, but are more common than most people think — especially in Third World countries where modern medical treatment is rare, and confirming death may sometimes be little more than guesswork.”
Throughout history, public uncertainty about the line between life and death (and fear of premature burial) was widespread:
“By the early nineteenth century, the danger of premature burial had become one of the most-feared perils of everyday life, and a torrent of pamphlets and academic theses were dedicated to this subject by writers all over Europe.
In almost every country, literature on this gruesome topic was readily available, ranging from the solemn medical thesis and the philanthropic call for more waiting mortuaries to pamphlets written by fanatics who claimed that more than 1/10th of humanity was buried alive …”
These strange occurrences of waking the dead are not always the result of mistakes. A few studies and scientific assessments have now been made on the phenomenon of death; a thing so universal and significant that one might expect science of all realms would dedicate itself wholeheartedly to figuring it out.
Because death is a taboo subject for polite conversation, not a lot of grant money is available for “death studies”, and we’re left wondering what really happens after. The best that medical science has done is to adopt a phrase, an acronym, to describe the incident of what happens when people “pass over” and then come back alive. That phrase is Near Death Experience (NDE).
The person who coined the term Near Death Experience (NDE) is Dr. Raymond Moody, whose best-selling books began the modern exploration of the phenomenon of death. Dr. Moody has, of course, been on Oprah, and all the talk shows, and his views are in high demand. His life work is grounded in philosophy, but not medicine or biology. Therefore, until now, scientists have been more than willing to doubt and discredit his recounting of thousands of NDE’s.
To hard – “objective” – science, Moody’s stories of passing through tunnels, meeting bodies of light and compassion, reflecting on one’s life in a hologram, are viewed as hallucinations brought on by chemical trauma of the brain at the time of death. This view has now been discounted by other scientists who insist that these rather “subjective” stories have a more profound significance, and in fact they are simply stating what many doctors have known for decades:
“Consciousness does not suddenly stop when the heart stops beating; and the line between life and death remains murky, even today. While it is true that no one is known to have survived clinical brain death (the medical absolute criterion), the adventure of NDE dying – of heart-stopping, no breathing, no pulse death – has commonalities across cultures and generations. Some people do come back to tell their story.”
There are anecdotal reports of people coming alive in the morgue, in a drawer with a toe-tag. There are stories of people re-awakening after long periods of being declared “dead”, in operating rooms and ICU’s, only to get up and live years beyond. There are also many who’ve been resuscitated in their homes with heart-shock paddles, to go on with their lives as if nothing at all happened.
Because few people take the trouble to recall it or write it down, what they experience during those minutes (or sometimes hours) of death is rarely documented. For many survivors, this is an epiphany awakening that they remember through the rest of their days.
People who have had a near-death experience may not be comfortable discussing their experience with others, especially when the NDE is understood as a paranormal incident. Nevertheless, I hope to convince you, dear reader, that what I will describe next is my best writer’s effort to describe an experience as real to me as anything I have ever lived through.
What Happened to Me!
For me, death came suddenly and unexpectedly in the bloom of my youth on a choppy sea. On a breezy afternoon sailing expedition decades ago, I was, in one instant of chaos, thrown unconscious into the sea, there to witness the terror and epiphany of my own death. The time I spent “dead” is uncertain – especially for me who had lost all sense of “time”. That “time” is frozen into an eternal moment for me – ever present.
We were sailing on a borrowed boat, and while that morning’s sailing had been quite smooth and comfortable, a squall had picked up across the Bay, and a strong chop was making it rough sailing. Because I suffer from seasickness, I had moved to the bow of the ship to ease the nausea that comes from a rolling sea.
Suddenly, the bow dropped into a steep wave trough and I saw the cold, grey sea coming directly at me as the boat dipped vertically, nose first into the wave. At the same moment, the boom of the fore-mast came about violently, striking me hard across the back of my head and ejecting me, unconscious, face down into the water.
Though unconscious, the terror of dying overcame me in an instant, a terror so strong in my memory that I can recall it vividly even now. Imagine a roller-coaster ride, familiar for its terror-inducing thrill of imminent death. But in this case there was no redeeming upswing – the down, down, downward drop just kept falling into darkness – no return. The horror was unbounded, absolute. And with the unrelenting terror came the profound awareness of the irrevocable end.
How to describe the finality of it all, and the uncompromising reality of life’s end? Here is where words fail, and any description can only appeal to the reader’s imagination. Try to envision, see in the mind’s eye the tunnel of darkness surrounding and closing off any ties to life. Feel the sudden realization that everything that existed before has now ceased existing, extinguished forever and without appeal – into nothing. Can you imagine the utter abandonment of being?
Try to sympathize with the plight of those who, finding themselves suddenly dead, watch their loved ones and all the attachments of life disappear into the unreachable. You may share this plight someday, so open your heart to feel the sadness of the dead. It is a profound grief that accompanies such an ultimate loss. It is the sadness of things left undone, love unshared, and the full bouquet of life’s richness now untouchable. For me, the yearning for a young life now lost was unbearable sorrow.
So far in the story, many readers will recognize the feelings of terror and unbearable loss described herein. Because terror and yearning are sensations we experience in life, these are familiar feelings to most living people. But the next part may not be so easy to imagine, or believe, because it describes a dreamlike event that is out of the territory of ordinary life.
Also, as mentioned in the beginning of this story, my skills as a writer may not be up to the task. Any attempt to put the feel of death and final inquisition into words may be useless. But please suspend judgment and disbelief, and allow yourself to follow along with the description, as feeble and insufficient as it may be. Try to allow your imagination free rein to see the overwhelming presence I will now describe.
The Being-o-Light with Two Questions
The dark and lonely tunnel of death showed a bright light, like a city appearing in the distance on a starless night. From that source, a “being of light”, neither man nor woman nor anyone identifiable, confronted me with high-stakes questions, an examination of my now-extinct existence.
There were two questions, although I came to understand them as two parts of the same inseparable one question. The questions were given one at a time; and were accompanied by a giant surrounding hologram picture of my life.
Many people have described the sensation of “seeing life pass before my eyes” at a critical moment, or “watching their life as if in a movie”; and this hologram was something like that. But it was more akin to watching my previous but not-forgotten life played out in a mirror, exactly as it had happened, as though it still existed as a living event in the mirror.
I shrank from the mirror like a criminal condemned. The vision was so painfully perfect, the events recorded there so identifiable and undeniable, that I could not bear to watch it and tried to turn away. It is awkward and shameful to admit that the details of one’s life are not pretty or joyous. Instead, they appeared sad and cruel and stupid and shallow and angry and trivial. Yet the mirror reflected all of this ugly drama in a perfect copy of my life. Most painful of all was the denial of love in a stupidly arrogant, thoughtless life.
The First Question
The first question challenged me in an examination I was completely unprepared for: “What did you learn?”
As was my usual strategy in such a case, I tried to b.s. my way through and come up with a convincing answer even though I was wholly unprepared and had never before considered the question. I looked into the mirror, searching for an answer to show my sincere devotion to learning. But what did I behold there?
To my embarrassment I saw an arrogant and ignorant young man with a prejudice against education, a pervasive lazy streak, and a careless attitude towards knowledge and wisdom. I was ashamed and stumped – how could I answer?
The consequences of a “wrong” answer or an incomplete statement were definitely high, although I cannot recall what they might have been. All I know is that I failed the first question. Miserably!
The real facts of my attitude towards learning came clear in the mirror, without any distortion or appeal to mitigating circumstances. I had failed to learn, failed to be interested in learning, didn’t even know what there was to learn in life, and didn’t care what I was supposed to learn.
So there you have it – a dull, arrogant youth without a clue, forced to admit that one of two most important questions of life and death – “What did you learn?” – was beyond a credible answer.
I was deflated as never before. I knew that half the examination was blown, that I had failed myself in life by failing to learn, and no excuse could resolve this tragic betrayal. I felt defeated as never before, and filled with remorse. Then came the next booming question: “Who did you help?”
The Second Question
This one, I felt, had to have an answer. Even though my family environment was not what some might call “altruistic”, we were involved with community service and church groups, boy scouts and the like. Also, since my college days I was religiously inclined, and I engaged with a large number of people seeking spiritual enlightenment. There must have been someone, I appealed, among all the hundreds of souls I had interacted with, who received help from my efforts. I summoned memories of encounters that might qualify as “helping” others.
The cold response came back NEGATIVE – “You did these things for yourself and your own egoistic gratification. You were not really eager to help others. Instead, you wanted recognition for yourself as a ‘good’ person.”
That hurt! I saw in the mirror that, in the interest of serving my own self, I had enlisted the idea of “helping” others in ways that were not particularly helpful to them and in some cases were extremely un-helpful. I had spent a lot of effort on pretense, and precious little on actual help.
I panicked, knowing that another failing answer might sink me eternally. I knew I was in trouble when my attempts at showing good examples of “helping” elicited the predictable mirror-visions of ego and corruption, of self-serving travesty. Wasn’t there someone I had helped at one time?
It’s not an easy question for anyone, because truly helping others is not easy. But for someone who didn’t think it was important…how did I help others? I realized I didn’t know the first thing about really helping people; and more critically, I hadn’t really considered helping others as important.
A Final Chance at Redemption
Then I got another chance. As in many such legends, I was redeemed by the merciful intervention of a woman.
As I searched the mirror desperately for at least one instance of truly helping someone, feeling heartsick at the scarcity of credible evidence, a memory appeared that saved me. It was a young lady I had met one brief time, at a gathering in my home. I watched the hologram play the scene.
We were engaged in a dialog in a group, and I had been nominated to answer questions. In the mirror-memory of my inquisition, perfectly portrayed as it had occurred, I saw our brief interaction unfold — how we had melded our minds in the syncopation-of-a-moment. I felt this young woman’s pleading question, her sincerity and my answer – each transcending words. Watching us together in the mirror, I experienced the sensation once again of two hearts, two minds meeting in perfect understanding.
I felt at that time that I had encouraged her at a crucial moment. I had recommended a path of faith and determination to enable her to overcome her suffering and find happiness. I knew I had touched her life and made a difference to her. I knew I had helped her. The sound of two hands clapping perfectly illustrates the encounter.
All at once, the image-in-the-mirror disappeared, and I felt myself transported up-up-up into the light. In that instant before I awakened, I recalled the message I had received from the being-o-light:
“Learning and Helping Others are one – this is the Mission of your life. This is all that counts at the end. Use your time to learn all that you can. Learn to help others find the light.”And Then What Happened?
I opened my eyes to see an angel’s face – a lovely young woman, trained in CPR, who had been giving me mouth-to-mouth respiration for some time – staring down into my eyes.
She said, “Are you there?” I tried to speak but couldn’t. Then I lost consciousness again.
When I awoke a second time I was sitting propped-up on the ship’s bulkhead, staring into the open sea. My body still wasn’t responding properly, and my mind was operating at “stunned”. I remained in a conscious-but-stunned state for many hours; not speaking much, groggy, but filled with the experience of death.
The rest of that day and night, and for weeks afterward, my sense of being “stunned” by what I had experienced stayed with me. More than anything, I felt incapable of expressing the magnitude of my experience with words.
I made feeble attempts to tell the news of what had happened when I was “dead”, but to my surprise the story was not that well received. Those to whom I tried to divulge my epic encounter seemed either politely interested but not really; or disdainful, as if I was spouting nonsense from a hallucination. Some people were irritated that I was recounting a morbid story they didn’t want to hear. I gradually lost the urge to tell anyone, and so I didn’t.
My life did eventually take a dramatic turn, but not right away. Although you might consider that an experience of such force would alter the way I ran my life subsequently, it took some years and another profound experience to wake me up to my mission of learning and helping others.
I was still an arrogant and selfish young man, and the lesson of death didn’t sink in right away. It took a reminder of the image in the mirror to make me wake up.
The Selfish Path to Nowhere Leads Home
I continued on a self-centered and hedonistic path, heedless of the consequences. I flouted rules and ignored others without mercy. Although I recalled my NDE every day of my wastrel life, I refused to accept the inference of a life devoted to learning and helping others. It just didn’t seem like I could accept a life of honest devotion. I was only interested in servicing my little self my way.
Years passed, and all this service to my little self was exacting a serious penalty. I was on a high-flying downward trajectory of money, airports, hotels, stress, business meetings, performance, federal agents, girlfriends, more stress, parenting, marriage, hypocrisy, drugs, more and more stress and craziness all ‘round. My life was more of a mess than I realized at the time, but I was aware enough to be full of anxiety about a future which might include jail or death or both.
That’s when the NDE came back to shine a light for me. In a perfect way that boggles my mind, I met the young woman I had seen in the mirror – the one I had truly helped. We met for a second time in San Diego, at a convention I had only barely attended, seven years after my NDE.
I was taking a lonely walk outside the convention activities to escape the noise and crowd. A woman I couldn’t recognize at first walked up to me and asked my name.
She said, “I think I know you! Aren’t you Jim Dinwiddie?”
It was surprising to be identified by someone I didn’t know, and right away I became defensive, not answering.
She became more animated, bubbling with joy, and continued, “We met at your house years ago. I’ve never forgotten you. I recognized you right away because you made a really big difference in my life. That time when you encouraged me was a crucial time for me. You really helped me.”
As my recognition of the young woman who had redeemed me from death’s inquest came into focus, the whole episode of my NDE came flooding back to me, and poured out in tears. I was overtaken by emotion, collapsing to the ground, crying.
From that moment, I became a devotee of learning and helping others. I changed my life and became a much more upright and trustworthy person. Until now, I have reformed my existence; dodged bullets to pull people from fires; refined my life towards learning and service; and created inspirations for many.
I’m a teacher now. My students are from every part of the world, and we share the joy of being alive together and learning every day. I help others continually, and I have a long list of those who have enjoyed my help in plenty of ways. Opportunities and ways to help others come to me without any effort – as treasures.
I’m writing this to help you.