I’VE LOOKED AT DEATH FROM BOTH SIDES NOW
“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all”
- Joni Mitchell
Believers in god and heaven and all that stuff will tell you that when you die you will see again the loved ones who went before you.
They may be right. But not for the reasons they think.
My father died twice. He died for real in 2002 but about 19 years earlier he died and was brought back (when he was exactly the same age that I am now). He suffered a major heart attack at 2am one morning. Apparently this is the most common time for people to die. It has been called the soul’s midnight.
My mother, waking beside a dying man, had the sense to ignore the telephone and ran to the house next door. Our neighbor was a paramedic. Although at that time in England we didn’t use that word, he was just an Ambulance Man. Luckily just an Ambulance Man was precisely what was needed. When he entered the bedroom my dad was dead. Two minutes is how long they say the brain can go without oxygen before severe damage sets in. The Ambulance Man went to work, yelling at my dad at the top of his voice while performing CPR.
Have you ever wondered why part of CPR training is to yell at the person you are trying to bring back?
According to my dad it’s because at that moment the person trying to save you is in a literal fight to the death with your dead relatives.
It was quite some time before my dad would speak in any detail about his experience. He always maintained that after this event his memory was not as sharp as it used to be. I guess a good portion of those two minutes was used up.
When he did finally open up on the subject, what he told me was astonishing.
He awoke in great pain and was momentarily aware of what was happening to him but had no time to do anything about it. The darkness closed in. And then, in what he described as the most clichéd vision he’d ever seen, he saw a light. A light at the end of a dark tunnel.
There were people’s faces within the light but at first he could not see who they were. Then, as he approached closer and closer to the light, traveling down the tunnel effortlessly and with no sense of fear, he began to recognize the people who were calling to him from the light. His mother, who committed suicide when he was 13. His father. His brother who died a stranger to him at just 46 (he never did tell me the cause of their falling out). Men he served with and, sometimes expected to die with, in Asia during World War ll. All urging him to come into the light.
Then, he said, he became aware of another voice.
This other voice sounded angrier than the others. It was a voice raised in desperation. “You are not leaving, do you hear me? You are not going. You are coming back. You are coming back, do you hear me?”
This voice seemed to my father to get louder and louder. And he clearly remembered hearing his name called over and over and over. He said he remembered thinking, “He sounds serious, I should do what he says.”
At that moment my father began breathing again. He recalled traveling backwards along the tunnel, away from the faces in the light, feeling a little sorry that he could not continue towards them.
And opened his eyes to see the Ambulance Man, exhausted, bending over him.
The ambulance had been called. He was taken to the hospital where he would have a second heart attack and be brought back from that also.
In the years that followed my dad only spoke of all this once. And I don’t think he ever fully figured out what it all meant to him.
Is the light heaven?
Those who believe it is are, of course, free to continue in that belief.
Me? I think of it in a rather different way.
I have gone over this experience in my mind many times since that one, startling conversation with my dad. And I have wondered why so many people who have been brought back from the brink of death tell the same or very similar stories.
I have come to believe that there is a program in our brains. I know that’s not the perfect word but the computer is the only analogy we have in this life when talking of our mental processes. Just as cookies and viruses are hidden on our hard drives until called upon to do whatever it is they were designed to do, so I believe we have ancestral, deeply buried knowledge in our brains that we are unaware of most of the time.
I believe there is a dying program in all of us. It has developed as we have developed and serves the purpose of making the final moments of our existence a more pleasurable experience. It's in that 90% of our brains we don't use.
So many clichés, it seems, turn out to have become clichés for the very reason that they are true.
Like a drowning person seeing their “life flash before their eyes”. Same thing, different situation.
I believe the brain – more complex than any hard drive yet invented – empties itself at the moment of death. It knows the memories gathered over a lifetime are not needed any more. And so it sets them free.
The most powerful of those memories involve the people we have been forced to live without because they died before us. And the brain chooses to have these long-remembered, long-missed faces be there for us at the end. What could be better than to feel we are rejoining them, calmly, willingly, warmly, forever?
Whether the faces in the light are the last thing we see in this life, or the first thing we see in the next, will, quite rightly, continue to be a subject of disagreement.
But the point is this, believer or not, you will see your loved ones again.
You have my dad’s word on it.
©2011 Dave Tutin