As I Stood on the Edge of Death

Christen O'Brien
8 min readAug 18, 2021
Photo by abdullah ali on Unsplash

Imagine being pushed into a pool. Perhaps a memory you have of childhood summers, that frozen moment in time when you are suspended between air and water. Between two places, the ground where control seemed possible and the absence of it where you learned it was not. Did you feel fear? Or did you just hold your breath and fall, instantly accepting without thought that which is nearly impossible to do with it?

Realizing I was dying was like being pushed into a pool. No sliver, no ounce, no existence of control. Every day we make choices to control our world — how many do you make? Hundreds, I’d bet. Maybe thousands. What cereal, what shirt, what bus, what seat? What email, what meeting, what phone call, what candidate? What kid, what school, what vacation, what’s for dinner? What dreams, what desires, what plans, what future?

But when you’re dying, control is stripped complete, and you know it mid-air.

In the instant the blood clot collided with my heart and exploded, I felt no fear. My heart raced. My lungs closed. I was, truly, “out of control”. And yet, what I saw, and felt, and heard in those moments rewired my entire understanding of what it means to die, and to live, too.

I kept my story secret for a decade — I just didn’t know how to describe it in a way that would sound believable. That would sound sane. But each year, as I watched people lose loved ones — husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, siblings, best friends — an ember within me kindled, and sparked, and spread. A burning need to share what I’d experienced as I lay on the pavement dying, my dog by my side.

The day I almost died, I went to a place everyone will eventually go. I just happened to be, inexplicably, one of the few with a round-trip ticket.

“I am dying”.

It was a realization so immediate and clear as I fell to the gravelly pavement at the top of my driveway one sunny Spring morning, each breath in stabbing my lungs, each breath out getting shallower, as if an elevator floor was rising through my chest. Higher and higher, now at my lungs. Higher and higher, now at my throat.

“I am dying” is the most concentrated form of holding not a sliver, not an ounce, not an existence of control. I believe it was that realization, that space between the ground and the pool, that opened me to another place, another plane. It has consumed my thoughts every day since.

My dog somehow knew what was happening. She moved to stand over me as my breath shortened, holding guard while my eyes turned upwards to the sky.

They were clouds — but not the clouds you see now. They were the ones you saw as a kid, the ones that glided purposely and gracefully, merging and parting, carrying out a choreography in which coming somehow occupied the same intent as going.

But they were also not the ones you saw as a kid, because this time I could feel them. There was no “other”. I knew they were clouds, I was looking at them, but I also…knew them.

They were me.

How did my dog know? She moved to my right now, and my eyes focused directly ahead. Two friends side-by-side in a dark theatre as the curtain opens wide. The wind began blowing and from the stage, the black pavement at the top of my driveway, a troupe of leaves rose into the air. Twirling, swirling, dancing in pure delight. I watched them but I could also feel them, as if they were an extension of myself.

Had I never seen leaves before? The red ones took center stage and I felt my energy, my passion, my humor, my playfulness. Then the orange leaves and I felt my warmth, my kindness, my deepest self, an infinite well of compassion. And now the brown, and I felt home, rooted, that place inside where you were loved regardless, where everything will be all right.

The wind stopped blowing and the leaves stopped dancing. The clouds moved in again, and a light rain began falling. I could see the rain and hear its patter on the ground all around me, but I could not feel it. Yet I understood it.

It was me.

My tears, those months and years I weathered through alone, all the loss I ever endured. Surrounding me now. But it was not loss as I’d known then — it was, somehow, okay. It was part of the whole thing. And so was I.

I could no longer feel myself breathing.

Just then, a wave of emotion overtook me, pulling me from shore to a sea where all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of forgiveness. Not for others, though — it was forgiveness for myself. All the fear and guilt and shame dissipated. The sense I could control, the drive to keep loss at bay, the feeling that I was not enough. A crippling, heavy weight I didn’t realize I’d been carrying with me, accumulating like a collection of bricks, all those years.

Then a new wave washed over me. Now in the absence of loss, I felt one thing, and one thing only. The world around me — clouds, sun, leaves, my dog, my husband, my family— they were continuations of the other. Not separate, but coordinated. Tuned and timed to come together and move apart with the same intent, bound in perpetuity. I knew still that I was dying, but I did not feel that I was leaving.

I felt only love.

I sensed the pavement below my body now. My breath returned and was deepening. My heart was no longer palpitating. “Stand up”, something beckoned me, and ever so slowly and delicately, I did.

In a few hours, the doctor would tell me I had the most massive pulmonary embolism he’d ever seen, a blood clot that ricocheted off my heart and exploded in my lungs. He would say that he teaches medical school, and he would be talking about my case for a long time. He would look at me square in the eyes, and tell me that for all his belief in science and medicine, he could not explain why I survived.

What I could not explain was what I’d seen, and felt, and heard that day.

I spent the next ten years on a revision of the most personal kind — I was searching for the words, stringing them into sentences, and piecing together how I would make sense of life after coming that close to death. I was rewriting my constitution, I suppose.

It reads today as follows:

We do not control anything, in the end. Our charge is to make the best choices we can, knowing there are forces at work beyond us, beyond a single cell or collection of them. Maybe it’s science or God or something that will never be known. Maybe those are all the same thing. But it’s not our burden to bear.

We are way too hard on ourselves. Loss appears controllable. And yet all around us, the world is speaking. Clouds become wind become rain become sun. It is dominoes set to mysterious physics. A life fully lived is one where loss is a teacher, not a competitor, and compassion starts inward.

Not losing dominates living for far too many. Ours is a culture obsessed with winning, but not losing is the root of not living. Look around you, and you will see it everywhere, the entropy of not losing. Fear of losing what we love. Guilt for causing loss to others. Shame for losing ourselves. But true gains, lasting gains, are the result of extraordinary loss.

Loss is not what we think. It is real and palpable and terrible for the survivors and still, what feels lost remains there. Shapes shift beyond our perception. The human senses have limits that are easily reachable. Why is it that when we think of those we’ve loved and lost, we still feel some trace of them remaining? We are but mere atoms, and atoms do not disappear — they transform. Love binds us in perpetuity. Nothing ever dies, because love never dies.

Dying is not what we fear. It is that place between ground and pool, where the mirage of control disappears and the burden of our humanness lifts, opening a curtain we never knew existed to something we always knew was there, inside us. We felt it most when we were children, when we were closer to the ground, closer to the wonder from which we came. I am neither religious nor righteous but somehow I know for certain that death is not an end.

Animals and nature are more conscious than we know. I still can’t explain why my dog stood guard over me when she normally pulled away. Or how it was that she took a seat by my side and watched the leaves blow in the wind with me, when her concentration neither before nor after lasted for more than a few seconds. It was as if she was my guide, in cahoots with what was happening. Years later, I held her as she left this world, two best friends side-by-side in a dark theatre as the curtain opened wide, guarding her passing to a place where I knew she would be okay, and she would be my guide still.

Life is short and time is fleeting. It is cliche until it is true. But ask yourself: Are you sure you are doing what you always wanted to? Are you sure there isn’t a way, a path, to get there? If you left this earth tomorrow, what would be left undone, unsaid, to the people who must go on without you?

Standing on the precipice of death shocked me alive. The image that will stay with me forever is the X-Ray of my lungs filled with hundreds of tiny blood clots. Shining stars in the dark Cosmos. The aftermath of an asteroid that collided with another planet and exploded, creating an entirely new universe. My own personal big bang. In this new world, I move differently. I can march to the beat of the modern drum, but inside I am ancient, rooted, interconnected to all that surrounds me. Flowers sway in the wind and I see them dancing. Clouds move above me and I feel them, reminding. Dogs pass by me on sidewalks and our eyes meet, knowingly, as if we are fellow travelers of a secret plane.

Pain still stings and loss still aches. And I will never understand why I was the one with a round-trip ticket when so many others are gone too soon.

But I know this to be true:

It is not dying that we should fear. We should fear not living. We should fear not giving enough, not forgiving enough, not accepting, not loving, not trying, not moving forward, not releasing our grip, not letting it go.

Because death is too beautiful not to understand it as such.

And life is too precious not to live it, every moment we get.



Christen O'Brien

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (