Following the birth of my youngest child, I needed to undergo a hysterectomy to curb the life-draining menstrual hemorrhaging I’d been experiencing for many years.

As far as I’m aware, the surgery went smoothly. I woke in the recovery area feeling slightly confused and was taken to my shared room to rest. Nothing remarkable from a medical perspective, other than my utter lack of pain, which nonplussed my nurses. They insisted I needed to take strong pain medication, and I refused, preferring not to be dragged back into semi-consciousness. Otherwise, I was a run-of-the-mill case, and the nurses soon let me be.

As the fog of the anesthesia cleared from my brain, though, a painful sensation began to overwhelm me; not a physical pain, but an excruciatingly painful awareness. I was aware of having just been made to get back into this body by someone I was unable to resist. I knew with absolute certainty that I had resisted going back to my body because of its density, weakness, slowness, heaviness, and eventual decay towards a painful death. I absolutely knew, in an indelible way that I find difficult to describe, that I had left my body and returned to my true self and that it had been glorious.

I knew myself as Light. I felt my powerful strength, vast understanding, and connectivity to All That Is. Not power as in “power over” anything, but the innate ability to go anywhere in time and space, to gain knowledge of all things, to create and flow and BE. I was huge. I was clear. I was neither male nor female, but both, and more, at once. I was JOY. I was LOVE. I was part of the whole, one with my soul group.

Being forced to re-enter my dark, heavy, small physical body was incredibly painful on an energetic level. The feeling of desolate isolation from my real existence, from whomever I’d just been with, hurt so badly I couldn’t bear it. I was intensely aware, as I had never been before, of the body’s gradual decay. Of its inability to access the freedom of mind and connection that I had just enjoyed once more. I felt so sad and heavy and even angry, and it seemed that my life would not be able to contain the force of my feelings. I wanted to go home! I wanted to be my real self! And more than anything, I did not want to have to stay in this horrid physical meat-body and feel what it felt, all the way through what I seemed to know would be a very long, painful dying process.

And yet, I knew in a way that I’d never known before, that pain and decay was the only way to be free of it. There was no other exit. It was like the moment when you’re locked into your seat on a big roller-coaster, and the cars begin to bump forward, and you know there’s no way off that ride except to ride it. Only, it was so much more intense than any roller coaster could ever be. I did NOT want this! I felt so out of control of what was happening to me.

For the hours of the rest of that day, I felt only agony. Not physical agony, but the depression was almost a physical pain, it gripped so tight. I was unable to express what I was experiencing when my husband came to visit. He didn’t understand. I can’t blame him. I didn’t understand either.

It wasn’t that I’d never heard of NDEs. In fact, a couple of years before, when I was pregnant, I’d been impressed to stop in at the library in the small town where my midwife practiced, and guided to a shelf with several books on NDEs. That started me on a quest to find out everything I could about these experiences. What I read transformed my spiritual life in small but powerful ways. I could no longer believe in the idea of an angry, judging God or in a single right way to worship “him.” Much of what I read felt so familiar and brought me a self-acceptance and peace that I’d never known up to then.

A few days before my surgery, I prayed somewhat sheepishly for permission to experience an NDE of my own, if it was in harmony with my good and the good of my family. I wasn’t really expecting anything dramatic. I certainly didn’t want my family or doctor to have to go through the trauma of thinking I had died! I just wanted so badly to visit the “home” I could almost remember when I read some of these experiences of others on the Other Side. Something in me missed it so. My life to that point had held so much trauma, and I was totally exhausted. The unconditional love they spoke of felt so familiar to me, even though nothing in my life to that point had prepared me to recognize it. I hoped, without really expecting, that God would work out some way that I could experience it for myself, could bring that experience through my life as a kind of life-preserver to buoy me up when things were just so hard and exhausting.

One thought that came to me with a bitter irony, as I lay in my hospital bed that evening following surgery, was: be careful what you pray for! I had no doubt at all that I’d been out of the physical, that I’d been somewhere magnificent. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew utterly that I’d been at least on my way Home before I was forced or persuaded to re-enter my body; and yet, I had absolutely no memory of the experience. What I had was the withdrawal symptoms. A kind of ironic cosmic justice.

In my desperation to release some of the anguish that threatened to overwhelm and drag me under, I began a drawing, a representation of my dual awareness of my spiritual self, magnificent and joyous, taking flight from the cold flesh of my physical self. The nurses who came in to take vitals expressed astonishment at it but didn’t seem to want to hear what it meant, and I was too spent to try very hard to explain why I was working intently on a drawing of a nude corpse-like man with a glowing powerful-looking specter of light joyfully bursting out of his chest. I poured all my feelings into that drawing. Art has always been my way of touching wholeness and joy, but nothing could shift the despair I was feeling.

After midnight, the semi-quiet of the ward shattered with a wailing, moaning voice that progressed down the hall towards the room I was in. A team of nurses wheeled in an elderly woman, her hands flailing as she cried out that she was in pain, that no one cared about her. Her daughter helped the nurses to settle her into her bed and spoke soft, soothing words to her. I lay listening to the turmoil and rushing about. She wept and occasionally screamed a distressing animal-like noise. The nurses told her daughter that if they couldn’t get her calmed, they might need to restrain her. The daughter insisted that would not be necessary and would not help, clearly determined that her mother receive dignified care. She continued to answer and re-answer the same questions for her confused mother, who mostly didn’t seem to recognize her and kept asking for her daughter who would take good care of her. Eventually, the elderly woman seemed to have exhausted herself and fell into a shallow, intermittent sleep. I was so glad her daughter was so patient with her. It was somehow a great relief, in the midst of my own deep distress and hopelessness.

The next day, as noon approached, the nurses urged the daughter to go home for a few hours of desperately needed sleep herself. Her mother was finally in a deep sleep. Not 30 minutes after she reluctantly left the hospital, her mother woke and began to wail. She cried with fear and grief that her daughter had left her alone there. “She doesn’t love me…,” she wept loudly.

The overworked nurses spoke loudly and clearly to her, enunciating carefully as they’d probably been taught to do with the elderly and confused. They told her she must calm down. They told her that she really must calm down. They told her they were going to have to restrain her, if she didn’t calm down. As they spoke, she grew more agitated, and louder. I couldn’t bear her suffering, on top of my own. The thought of her daughter coming back and finding her beloved mother tied up and out of her mind was unbearable.

That was when the second part of my NDE began. A silent voice in my mind spoke very clearly that “this is the point of it [mortal life] all.” As the voice said this, my understanding filled and expanded beyond the confines of my despairing sense of entrapment. I realized that we are all “trapped” in these bodies, unable to avoid the full experience of physical mortality, as if in individual canoes, on a river of difficult, painful, terrifying experience, and the only thing that makes any of it worthwhile is the moments when we can reach from our own boat and for just a moment ease the loneliness and suffering of someone else in theirs. To connect in kindness and love as our boats touch in the current of life.

My whole feeling transformed, and I was flooded with a kind of love and courage to reach out that I’d never experienced before. All my normal reserve and shyness dissolved. Each person in that hospital became utterly precious to me, utterly beautiful. I could see them as the graceful beings they were, not as the small, broken creatures they thought themselves. I could see what they needed, really needed, and I had the heart and the spirit to offer it.

I got out of my bed, threw a shawl around my shoulders, and went and sat next to the elderly woman. I took her hand and spoke to her softly, doing my best to channel her daughter’s way of being with her. I told her how much her daughter loved her. At first, she argued with me about that. Something inspired me to remind her of how she used to make her daughter take naps when she was a little girl, and to explain that her daughter had stayed up all night, and was so very tired, that she was only taking a nap, and would soon be back with her. I reminded her of how much she loved her daughter, what good care she’d taken of her daughter, and how much her daughter needed sleep right now. She quieted and grew peaceful and eventually dozed off as I sat and held her hand, warm in my own. That felt like a miracle to me, but there was a wordless miracle of transformation going on inside me. A fountain of joy seemed to spill forth inside me. The revelatory aspect was that I still felt trapped, and still felt incredibly sad and cut off from my true self and my home, but this ability to comfort another trapped, embodied soul brought grace to my state, rendered it meaningful and mysteriously beautiful, as painful as it still was. Joy and anguish at the same time, in the same body. I felt I’d been given the meaning of Life.

It’s only now, some 18 years after this experience, that I’ve realized that many of the changes and disturbances that have come into my life since then are exactly the same as the aftereffects of NDEs. I don’t know if what I experienced fits the accepted definition of an NDE, but I do know that it has fundamentally altered the landscape of my life, changing my spirituality, my relationships with myself and my family, and changing my goals, desires, and way of being. It really helps to learn about the recognized aftereffects of NDEs, to give some context for some of the more puzzling changes I’ve experienced in myself.