My near-death experience taught me not to fear those final moments

Illustration: Dadu Shin

I remember the very instant the blood clot careened into my heart.

The palpitations were like nothing I’d ever felt, and the taste of blood filled my mouth. Milliseconds later, like a ricochet of bullets, the clot exploded in my lungs. I fell to the ground, gasping for air, each breath more shallow and pained than the one before. I am dying, I thought with a clear certainty that I’ll never be able to explain. My systems were shutting down, one after the other, and my body instantly knew what my mind could not refute.

I did not feel fear…

No one tells you what it’s like to put your dog down, to lay with your best friend as they take their last breath.

No one tells you how it feels to go through the final years by their side, to watch their body weaken against their will. To run across the room and lift them after they fall, only to feel them collapse into your arms in gratitude for your friendship, even now.

No one tells you what it is to witness a soul grip onto life with all its might, to see them tremble and stumble and struggle…

The beginning of the actual divorce long predated the beginning of the legal one. You could say it started when his business sank into oblivion, and like a determined sea captain refusing to abandon ship, he submerged with it.

But really, the divorce began long before that.

Starting his own company meant starting again, from an earlier point than anyone — even he — understood. The company was a chance to rewrite history — to right the wrongs of his story.

When he sat at his drafting table in the evenings, while his wife thought he was sketching a new…

Human ashes as seen under a high-powered microscope. (credit: Gabriela Reyes Fuchs)

Everything changed for Gabriela Reyes Fuchs the day she got that phone call from her Father. A physician who saved many lives during his long and successful career, now his own life was at stake. He had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and things didn’t look good. Gabriela hung up, and caught a flight to Mexico where he lived.

Six days later, her Father died.

She watched the scene before her as he lay on a black bag, ready to be zipped up. She was perplexed. How could this be it? How could life be so…final?

What did dead even mean?

The O’Briens pose for our high school yearbook photo

In my high school class, I was the only white O’Brien. My Aunt Judy had adopted seven children from Brazil many years earlier, two of whom were black Afro-Brazilians. When the teacher took attendance, she struggled to pronounce their names correctly. In our yearbook photos, they’re pictured surrounded by a sea of white people. When they dated whites, they often faced disapproving parents and racial slurs. And when we walked into church each Sunday, the scowls on the faces of our fellow Catholic parishioners were anything but subtle.

Lived Through This

She helped me survive with a new understanding of the world around us

A black and white photo of the author’s shadow along with her dog’s shadow.
A black and white photo of the author’s shadow along with her dog’s shadow.
Photos courtesy of the author.

The day I almost died, my dog was at my side. Now in her final stage of life, I pay tribute to her by sharing what she did as I lay dying, in hopes it helps others find meaning through these, and all, difficult times.

Virginia changed my life. She woke me each morning, just past dawn, and brought me into the woods, among the trees. She taught me to rise early when the world was silent and my head was silent and my heart was open.

Every day, little by little, my dog woke me from the sleepwalk that…

“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m steppin’ through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.

For here am I sittin’ in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet earth is blue
And there’s nothin’ I can do…

- David Bowie, Space Oddity

Life in a spaceship is upon us. Here, hermetically sealed away from existence as we knew it, we sit in our square wooden boxes, passing through time. We are living through glass panes. Peering out windows at the dangerously beautiful universe out there. …

It wasn’t until I almost died that I began to understand death. After surviving a massive pulmonary embolism that the E.R. physician described as “a miracle I’ll be talking about for the rest of my medical career”, an inexplicable switch flipped in my consciousness. I didn’t cross to the other side, but I did get a glimpse of something over that fence that rendered me unafraid of “the end”.

What I experienced when I almost died was just the opposite of “the end”. I’m neither religious nor righteous, but almost dying felt like a continuity of my truest self where…

Today Show appearance, August 16th 2019.

On January 1, 2019, I was lost.

Over the year prior, though I kept it quiet, I’d been losing a lot.

I was losing several people I loved deeply.
I was losing my dog.
I was losing the everyday life I cherished.
I was losing the future I’d planned on.
I was losing my cover.
I was losing my security.
I was losing my equilibrium.

I was losing my way.

Loss — great loss — is a powerful force. It is a wave that crashes over you, tossing and turning you as it pleases, disorienting any sense of place and…

This is the complete version of my recent essay, How It Felt to Come Back to Life. After I first shared the story of my near death experience (What It Felt Like to Almost Die), it went viral, was made into a short documentary due 2020, I was featured as a guest on The Today Show, and it continues to be read by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. You can read more at

Sit up, the voice said. And so I did.
Now you can stand, it said.
And so I did. …

Christen O'Brien

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more:

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