The Psychology of Life after a Near Death Experience
My fiancé and I recently saw the movie The Big Sick. If you haven’t seen it, we both highly recommend it. I don’t want to spoil too much, but in the movie a man and a woman are dating, and early in the relationship the woman gets ill and falls into a coma. There is much more to the plot, but eventually, the woman, Emily, awakens from her coma. Sometime after she starts to recover she says, in regard to life after her ordeal: “You think every day is going to be amazing afterwards, but it’s still real life. Everyday life.” To say this quote hit me in the gut is an understatement. I have never heard something more relatable. Only seven years ago, I was in the hospital for weeks with a life-changing illness.
The Psychology & Research
A near death experience can be anything from a critical illness like I experienced, to an accident, or a serious suicide attempt. There have been a lot of first hand stories of those who have been near death: they experience a tunnel, a light, even having out of body experiences, but I want to focus on what life is like after these experiences.
Life does change.
Here are just a few examples that psychological research has found about life after a near death experience:
Increased spirituality – not necessarily religion, but just a sense that something is bigger than us as human
Increased sense of an inner-self and seeing things outside one's self – Similar to spirituality, those who have been through a near-death ordeal are able to easier identify things within oneself (think: feelings, thoughts, ideas); they have a higher sense of what is often unconscious in many; they also find a more concrete meaning to their lives than others
Changes in values – such as higher tolerance for others, appreciation of others, self, and nature, and higher concern for social justice
No more fear of death - This may be directly related to that out of body experience many have, that one’s mind tells itself: you have already died for a brief moment, and it was peaceful, there is nothing to be afraid of
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); - though those with a near death experience tend to be more aware of the symptoms more than those experiencing some other kind of trauma, this can look very different than the above examples - this is also a good note for those after a suicide attempt: those depression symptoms do not disappear with the above expereicnes
I experienced all of the above and more. When I started to recover from what could have been a deadly illness, I told myself: My life is going to change, my life is going to be amazing, I am going to be thankful for every day and live life to the fullest! But the reality is: that’s not always reality.
I focus a lot on thankfulness. This truly was, and still is, helpful for me, and research has shown its impact too, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Your mind wanders. I found myself wondering: What if I had died? What does the afterlife look like, if there even is one? How would my family and friends react? But then you catch yourself: Why am I even thinking about this?!
Because I’m human.
And that’s OK.
After my near-death experience I found a few things for myself.
I learned life is a roller coaster. We all know this: life has its ups and downs. But now I am really able to see this outside of myself, like the research mentioned. My fiancé reminds me: The best way to make God laugh is to make a plan. Whatever your God, or higher power and science looks like, you know plans don’t always go as planned. Events aren’t perfect. Life plans take different turns; but stepping beyond that, you can notice the same thing happens in day-to-day life. Just yesterday, I was feeling stressed about my new job, my Ph.D. courses, my dissertation, wedding planning, etc… I was feeling totally overwhelmed. A few hours later, I had a great session with a client. All those overwhelming thoughts drifted away, and I went home feeling excited about the day. So much can change in just a few hours, a few months, and of course, over the years.
Another thing I found for myself, and maybe most importantly, was an acceptance and appreciation of the roller coaster that is life. I appreciate those overwhelming days because it means I’m human. Bad days–those mean you’re human too. And to me, the fact that I’m alive and feel pretty shitty sometimes: that’s pretty amazing.
Resources of validation are helpful for me too. I just finished reading the book Life of Pi. If you haven’t read it or watched the movie, it’s about a boy lost at sea for over 150 days, stranded on a boat in the middle of the Pacific with an adult Bengal tiger. It’s about his struggle for survival and relationships. In the beginning of the book, you learn about Pi’s childhood in India, his family, and his love for Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Pi mentions multiple times, that though he is curious of all religions and even political stances, it takes this curiosity to understand that it’s OK not to always understand.
Real Life Takeaway
Though I certainly hope you haven’t had, nor will ever have, a near-death experience, it is important to appreciate the ups and downs together. We all experience life differently. Again, that doesn’t make it easy. We all make assumptions about others, but it is important to challenge ourselves.
Is it hard to have this appreciation for life in the moment? Absolutely. But those good days, which are most days, where I’m truly living in the moment and life is its best self: those are worth it. Those are the reminders. Remind yourself of that as well; no matter what you are going through.
A popular saying right now seems to be: Live Life Authentically. That means all the spins and ups and downs and loop-de-loops that are an authentic part of being a vulnerable human.
So, is every day for me amazing after being so close to death? No. Like Emily says in The Big Sick, it’s still everyday life. I’m still human.
Am I thankful I’m still alive? Every day.
I do hope you have to struggle from time to time. And my wish is that your perspective is ever challenged and ever changing.
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