‘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.’
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.
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