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 christenobrien.com.
Sit up, the voice said. And so I did.
Now you can stand, it said. And so I did.
Walk back to your house, it said.
I gripped Virginia’s leash in my right hand and steadied myself. Looking down at her, I noticed the ground was dry. I looked behind us at the large tree…dry. Confused, I looked to the left and right at the grass in our front yard…completely dry.
It was just raining, I whispered to myself.
The place where I’d seen the leaves dancing with the wind was just ahead, but it was barren. A few minutes ago, I’d been an audience to a ballet of red, yellow, and brown leaves doing pirouettes in the air, but like an empty theatre stage after a performance, it was now merely a stage. Dry, black asphalt, not a leaf in sight.
We peered at the long, sloping driveway ahead of us. I could breathe again, but it was labored, my shoulders hunching forward with each inhalation, eyes half-closing with each exhalation.
Stay with me, girl, I told her without speaking. Stay with me, and I’ll get you home.
I knew what I’d just been given, and what I had to do. With each fearfully deliberate step I took, I visualized it, again and again:
Make it to the end of the driveway.
Open the metal latch of the gate.
Turn around and shut the gate.
Then you can die.
I immediately understood this was my gift, to make sure I could get Virginia to safety before I took my last breath. To make sure my husband didn’t lose his wife and his dog.
As we descended, we developed a repeating choreography. She would take one step forward and wait for me, looking back, and I would stare at my wobbly legs, pray to God or the Heavens or whatever force I’d just experienced, and join her side. Together, ever so slowly, we made our way down.
I could see the gate in the distance. Just make it to the gate, I told myself. Just make it to the gate.
When we arrived, I reached out and repeated the steps in my head as I followed them with my hands:
I opened the metal latch of the gate.
I walked through.
I turned around and shut the gate.
And I stopped, expecting to die.
But I didn’t.
“Thank God you’re alive”, my Mother said to me with tears in her eyes as I laid on the gurney, hooked up to machines that whirred and beeped rhythmically, the acoustic proof that life hadn’t given up on me yet.
In her eyes, I saw the pain she’d been pushing down for days. A mother who gets a phone call that her young daughter is in the ICU and might not make it. Who haphazardly throws clothes into a suitcase. Who reaches out for the boarding pass as the airline attendant catches the terror in her face. Who sits on a crowded plane for five hours staring out of the window, a full three hundred disconnected minutes not knowing if her little girl is alive or dead.
“Yes”, I said. “Thank God I’m alive.”
I didn’t like lying to my mother, but the truth wasn’t an option. I knew it was a truth that denied much of what we ascribe to in humanity; a truth about death that the living could never fully understand.
I knew they couldn’t understand it, because I watched the faces of my family and friends when they each walked into my hospital room. It’s imprinted on my mind forever. Dozens of emotions in one expression, like a chaotic painting you instantly grasp. A tangle of shades, all in the same color.
I could see their fear, I could recognize it as fear, but I did not understand it. I did not know it, and wasn’t sure I ever had. And I certainly could not feel it.
What I felt was separate, of this world and yet apart from it. I had just almost died, and though I saw and heard the regular, living world all around me now — the ticking of the clock, the plastic hospital band around my wrist, the television blaring, my family huddled around my bedside — it was vastly less substantial to what I’d just experienced.
To what I now knew.
I pretended to understand their fear, and because I loved them, it became my mission to do whatever needed to assuage it. So I cried with them as they recounted how scared they were when they got the phone call. I nodded when they said “Thank God you’re alive”. I joked and smiled when the nurses administered shots of anticoagulant into my abdomen. I changed the subject when the “what if” questions arose. I even cajoled them into Scrabble games.
But I was lying the whole time.
The doctor came in and said the blood clot was still there. If I had another pulmonary embolism over the next 48 hours, it would likely kill me.
Again I saw the fear on their faces.
Again I pretended to understand.
Again I diverted their attention.
It’s ok, I so badly wanted to tell them. Even if I still die, it’s ok.
What they didn’t know is something that to the living sounds unseemly or unnatural, but actually is a testament to those final moments: I wanted to die again. I wanted to go back there.
Near-death was a beautiful force field, and it was as if every cell in my body had been reprogrammed to a different electric current, pulling me inward, calling me back to where I finally felt…myself.
The magnetism of death was visceral. I felt it pulling my heart and my lungs and my shoulders toward it, reeling me into its calm while the living world tugged me back to their chaos. My body was now a finely tuned conductor for death’s magnetism, and I felt its benevolent energy circulating through me, metastasizing pure love throughout every artery, calling me homeward.
The magnetism of death was also spiritual. It was a beautiful song I had sung my entire life but just heard for the first time. It was that feeling right before you start to cry, the welling that begins deep in your abdomen, the undeniable sense of change, connection, inner awareness, and outer guidance. It was a knowledge — not of facts, but of truths that bring us to the destination we’ve been seeking all along.
I lay in the ICU, surrounded by my loved ones who felt nothing but gratitude for my survival, while I felt nothing but hope to die.
“You’re probably in shock”, my Mother said, perceiving my distance as only a Mother can. I nodded, pretending to understand. But I understood something different.
The way the clouds felt. The way the leaves danced. The rain that fell all around me, but not on me, in a symphony of percussions. The weightlessness that revealed what it means to shed the human condition, to escape the mental trappings that hold us prisoner. The voice that I heard so clearly, but not with my ears.
I understood the truth now, and I quietly vowed to never share it with anyone. It was too sacred, and too unfounded. But I was sure of it. I’m neither religious nor wise, but for some odd reason, after I almost died, what I became was sure. I don’t even understand it myself, but I am absolutely, positively, unequivocally — sure.
The truth is deceptively simple, obscured by design.
And the truth is this:
In the end, there is no loss. There is only love.
Our humanity obscures the profoundness of this truth. It sounds simple, because we are seeing it through the lens of human being-ness. Through a wider lens, it is beautifully complex and infinitely wondrous. But our lens is designed to avoid loss — physically, that keeps us safe. And perhaps spiritually, it presents us with life’s highest calling — to rise above our own physicality in order to realize the universe, if we are so brave.
To rise to life’s highest calling, we must confront that to avoid loss, our nature is replete with three core mechanisms of loss-prevention: fear, guilt, and shame. We move through the world, accumulating the burden of fear, guilt, and shame, but they are all simply defenses to avoid loss.
The only thing we fear is loss.
The only reason we accept guilt is because we caused loss to others.
And the only reason we carry shame is because we lost ourselves.
Fear, guilt, and shame flood our conscience like a virus, quickly spreading to any hospitable corner of our lives — our marriages, our friendships, relationships with our children, even our sense of self. But they are not actually a virus — they are vaporware, a perceived reality that obscures the real one. When you strip every molecule of fear, guilt, and shame from our conscience, all that remains is love.
Yet like a well-guarded castle, our human nature reinforces its defenses. Until you can fully strip the vaporware, you cannot fully grasp love. Its magnitude is beyond our human-bound perception. “Love” is a word and concept that permeates our lives, yet we’re barely scratching the surface of what it really is.
Love is not simply a feeling, nor is it temporal. Love is not a feature, an upgrade, or an attainment. Love is not just a relationship, nor is it just action.
Love is not a sideshow. It is the only show.
Love is where we started, where we are now, and where we will continue.
Love is truth.
As I lay on the asphalt inches from death, and as I lay in the hospital after, inches from life, I was living between two worlds. I could not see something others could — fear, guilt, and shame. And so, I could see something others could not — I could see love, in as close to its fullest magnitude any living person could know.
The intensity of love I experienced in those moments and days showed me why we need not fear death. But many years later, as I started to unwrap the reasons why, as I further articulated what I could now see, I realized it was so much more profound than that. I now saw clearly what so many of us are missing in life, yet so few will ever know.
In the end, there is no loss. There is only love.
You will understand this in its entirety one day. But as you move through life, as you grapple with the painful sense of loss we must endure here and that you are programmed to avoid, and as the fear, guilt, and shame flood your conscience, there exist Four Understandings that can bring you to solace, closer to this love:
1. Loss is the Universe Realizing Itself
2. Control is an Illusion, Resistance is its Illness
3. You Are More than You Know & Less Than You Think
4. Moving Forward Means Turning Inward
Our understanding of loss is constrained by our own constraints — our humanity. And so, we try to avoid loss by exerting control over anything that could cause it. In doing so, we actually are generating resistance which prevents us from actually living. And because we are constrained, we rely on what we think more than what we already intrinsically know, creating a vicious cycle that makes overcoming the fear of loss and living a full life impossible. To truly move forward and to truly live life, we must turn inward.
We already have all the answers.
During my first few days in the hospital, I felt this truth so powerfully that it is impossible to translate into words. Yet as each hour and day passed, with each injection of anticoagulant, the magnetism of death weakened. The living pulled me back outward, closer to their world, and the human condition slowly moved in like a thick fog, obscuring the view I longed for with every cell in my body.
With each arrival of the 5:00pm dinner tray, after a day long of drugs pumping through my system and expert medical analysis, I sensed the prospect for return waning. It was the feeling of being in love and being sure your lover would come rescue you, confirming all that is right and magical in the world…only to be left at the altar, waiting.
When they discharged me, I didn’t just return to my house. I returned to life.
Life is a blessing, they say.
Life is a gift, they say.
Life, they say, is a miracle.
All of that is true. But death, I am sure, is transcendent of anything we know here in life.
Coming back to life was a gracious endeavor, but it was also a deeply heartbreaking journey. It was the hardest break-up I ever had, being that close to the purest love, to my soul, and then ripped away, back into the doldrums of the human condition. Back into the limitations of the human construct.
Coming back to life showed me just how little we understand about death, and just how much we forsake in living.
Coming back to life revealed to me that our fear of loss is precisely how we forsake living. It is natural and understandable; and yet it is a resistance to life itself, to the evolution of others and ourselves.
Coming back to life was the beginning of an evolution for me, one that is still turning and churning and ablaze. It was a recognition that my soul, the deepest part of my essence, is all I ever needed. It was my soul I came close to that day, and my soul that I longed to return to. It was my soul I pined for, and my soul that seemingly left me at the altar. My heartbreak was for how very close I’d come to my soul, and how far I felt now.
Coming back to life eventually shined light on something that before, for me, was just darkness — that in order to return to that love, to our souls, we must rise above the human condition as much as we are able. We must muscle past the fear, shame, and guilt that keeps us from understanding love. And then, we must journey for the rest of our lives through the Four Understandings so that we may begin to know there is no loss; in doing so, we may begin to realize love.
Coming back to life showed me that the journey of life is not what we most often believe. On the surface, it appears as a journey outward — towards things, people, organizations, achievements. But in truth, it is a journey inward — towards the soul. Toward becoming who you actually are, no matter how far outward you have to travel in order to find your way home, to where you belong.
Coming back to life is not something that requires almost dying. We can all come back to life again. Even after horrible, painful, heartbreaking loss.
But only when we start coming back to ourselves.
Only when we realize we are the journey, and we are the destination.