Within the course of a couple days I had conversations with two people who had nearly died recently. Each of them was hospitalized in critical condition, and in each case family members were summoned because the patient was more likely to die than not. Each managed to pull through, but when we talked each was still quite weak and still needed a good deal of medical care for the condition that nearly killed them.
I have thought for a while that there are benefits from occasionally stopping in the middle of our busy lives and reminding ourselves we are going to die eventually. In the middle ages, there was a spiritual discipline called memento mori, Latin for “remember you will die.” The idea is that calling your eventual death to mind will help you be grateful for your life and evaluate your daily activities from the perspective of eternity. What if you don’t just call death to mind but are suddenly confronted with impending mortality? Do you still benefit?
It seems that these women did. One woman had been abandoned as a child and was depressed much of her life; she had often thought that she would just as soon die as go on living. When death was imminent she realized that she didn’t want to die but wanted to live. This was a revelation to her and is already changing how she looks at her life. The other woman is quite religious and believes in the afterlife. When she nearly died she didn’t feel fear, confirming how she thought she would react. She was reassured that she felt peaceful when confronted with the possibility of death.
I asked each of them what changes they had noticed in their lives since almost dying. Relationships were one area of change. One woman had previously questioned whether her husband and adult children loved her. Two of her three children spent considerable time with her at the hospital and the third, who lives far away, didn’t come but called constantly. “I realized how much they cared,” she said. There was an even bigger change in how she came to perceive her husband. He was distraught about possibly losing her, and this convinced her that he was with her not out of obligation but because he wanted to be there. She had harbored unforgiveness her whole life towards her mother, who had abandoned her as a child. She now has told her mother she forgives her, and feels the burden of resentment lifted.
The second woman also found that the near-death experience revealed things to her about relationships, but the revelations weren’t always favorable. On the positive side of the ledger, her husband stayed by her side and did everything he could to help. In contrast, her children started fighting over property they hope to inherit from her. She still is shocked by what they said and did during the time she nearly died.
Almost dying affected the women in other ways as well. One of them said she had always felt guilty, as if whatever she did for others wasn’t enough. That feeling is gone. She also began having positive childhood memories; she had previously thought nothing good happened to her as a child. The other said that she sees her daily activities differently now. She has more clarity about what’s important in life and what isn’t. This has helped her to focus on the important and not be concerned about the rest.
So, are there benefits to be had from almost dying? The experiences of these two women suggest that there are. Not that I want to go through what they did in order to reap the rewards! I’m hoping that practicing memento mori will provide benefit enough.