At the brink of death

tunnel+light

As soon as I posted requests for “near death” accounts on my personal Facebook page and on the groups I am a member of, I started wondering if I would be able to pull off getting a Muslim, Christian, and Jewish person to share their story with me.  I am not exactly writing a book on this topic, and neither am I in the academic profession to have access to research subjects that relate to the topic.  But I went ahead anyways, unsure who would be willing to share their story, and yet hopeful that God would guide me to the right people.

A Jewish experience

The first person who responded to my request, was a lovely Jewish woman by the name of Jill Sevelow.  She forwarded to me her written story about the time she nearly died and had an other worldly encounter with God.  I wanted to know more, so I contacted her and she graciously agreed to a phone interview. Below is an edited version of my interview with her.

me: It’s a really interesting story you have.

Jill: Yes, it really changed my life. It’s one of those pivotal moments when you realize how precious life is and how tenuous it is and how easily it can go away. It was really quite incredible.

me: could you go over from the beginning with your story?

Jill: My neighbour had a house on an incline.  To the left and right of the steps, there were stacked flagstones. He was getting it pulled out and he was going to make a brick wall there. And he said anyone who wants flagstones can get free flagstones. So my girlfriend and I, we’re avid gardeners, we decided one afternoon to get some flagstones. She was pulling it out of the wall and throwing it on ground and I was picking it up and stacking it in my jeep. Then she screamed and I looked up and literally saw this swarm (of bees) come out of a hole in the flagstone inside the wall.  She started screaming and ran. She ran straight and they went right after her. I turned right from the back of my jeep and ran around the side, away from their path. I had swung my left arm out and I got stung in between my knuckles. I got stung once and she got stung 6 times.

I waited until they disspiated.  I paid no attention to my sting, which felt like nothing at the time. But she was miserable. So we stood in the street looking at everyhting, and decided we should get home and get her some benadryl or something.   We packed up my car and got into her driveway only a couple blocks away.  As I was getting out, I felt a rush of heat so intense. lt was like lead and heat in my body, and I said something’s happening!

I started itching uncontrollably. I remember I felt like I could have dug through my bone and wouldnt have been able to quence the itch. We ran inside and I remember I pulled down my pants in the middle of her living room because I was itching and scratching so badly. And she said, “I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”  She called her husband, who was a doctor, who said,  “Pump her with some Benadryl and get her to the hospital right away!”  In retrospect, we probably should have called 911.  So she threw me back in the car and it was a convertible.   We started driving and I just remember I was scratching everywhere, and I was getting really nervous and really agitated but had no idea how bad it was.

I remember rather than wait at a red light, she cut through the parking lot of a grocery store. As she drove through the parking lot,  the whole landscape of everything around me started changing.  It was middle of the day and it went from looking really light to the best way I can describe it is it got black but it was gold.  It was beautiful but it was haunting.  I could feel I was going very far away and I couldn’t come back to tell her I was dying; and I knew this. I was already going and I don’t actually remember a small chunk. I don’t remember her asking me, “What are you saying, honey?” Because she said I was muttering and I turned to her and told her that I wasn’t talking to her, I was talking to God.  She just flipped out because I looked completely like a balloon. I was swollen up, my eyes were swollen shut and my body was swollen. I didn’t even look like a human being, she said. It was terrifying, and she said I went back to discussing and arguing.

What  I remember is saying with such conviction, ”No! I am staying right here!”  It was almost like in a cartoon, how someone is stretched so thin and part of them is way over somewhere else. That’s what it felt, that I was so way far away but I was still tethered.  I pulled myself back with all my might. This is what’s so funny: my eyes were swollen shut and I could see the hood of car.  I sat there looking at that and hunkering down, physically and spiritually.  I made myself stay and we got to the hospital and someone pulled me out and then I blacked out.

When I woke up and started piecing everything together, I realized that I had almost died.  They kept me there overnight because my blood pressure was really low. This is a funny story: I remember a nun came in and said, “Can I pray with you?”   I said, “Sure, but I’m Jewish.” And she said,  “Same God!” She held my hand and we said a prayer.

me: did you have a feeling that it was different than talking to God in normal life?

jill: Yes, I knew I was going far away. I could feel myself going.  All I know is I was too far away to tell my friend I was dying and I was close enough to be talking to God.  It was just the two of us.

me: what made you feel like you were very close to God that you could talk to Him?

jill: Because i was there.   Where ever I was, I was able to have a conversation with God.  I know my argument was with God.

me: when you were talking with God, did you feel a response or something back from God?

Jill: I felt just a presence. There was no speaking back that I remember there was just a knowing;  that I was having a moment where there was a decision being made, and I felt I had to weigh in on the decision.

A Muslim Experience

I stressed every day, wondering which Muslim I could interview for their near death experience. Nobody from my community got back to me with anything.  I contacted one of my cousins in the Toronto area who has connections to many people in the community, but even she didn’t know of anyone.  Then one day, in a flash of insight, I remembered how many years ago, my father had told me about one of my uncles (my mom’s brother in law) who before passing away from stage 4 rectal cancer, had talked about experiencing something unique.

I knew I had to speak with my uncle’s daughter (my cousin).  But the problem was that she was in Pakistan and I didn’t have her contact number.  However, I realized that one of my cousin’s daughters was on my Facebook friends list, and so I messaged her asking if I could speak with her mom about my uncle’s death.  She quickly responded back with her contact number and a suitable time to speak her.  Relieved, I called my cousin. Below is an translated and edited version of my conversation with her.

me: What happened in uncle’s last days?

cousin: He used to see his childhood days as if they were happening in front of him again, and the other important thing was that the night before he passed away, he saw angels.

me: could you tell me more about that night?

cousin: He could not speak in full sentences, as he had grown really weak. when I gave him breakfast in the morning, he didn’t eat much. He had been bed ridden for the last 2 months and I was sitting with him around midnight. I was holding his hand when he suddenly said to me “angels.” It felt like the floor had been pulled from under my feet! I asked him, “Abu (father), did you see angels?” He nodded, meaning yes.  “How are they? Are they beautiful?” He couldn’t answer that because it was a long sentence so he stayed quiet.  I thought that since he’s seen angels, his time was near.

The next morning, everyone had gone to another relative’s funeral, and my younger daughter and I were the only ones home with Abu.  My daughter and I performed the ablution and sat down and recited Chapter Ya Sin (chapter 36) of the Quran. We didn’t get up at all.  Then I felt like Abu’s breathing was irregular.  I went and sat next to him. He was struggling to complete his last breaths.  I saw his eyes turn upwards as he drew his last breaths. I thought he was gone and so I hugged him, but then I heard him take one last breath and then he was truly gone.

Earlier on, he would recall all these events from his life that we weren’t even aware of. He could see, hallucinate things.  I don’t know if it was hallucination or reality or what.

me: so he could see his life in front of him?

cousin: yeah, it was like flashback, like his life in rewind.

me: do you think he referred to angels in a positive way?

cousin: He was not scared or worried, he was totally calm.

A Christian experience

I had trouble finding a Christian person for my post, so I thought about contacting my friend, Rev. Cheryl Gaver, to see if she knew anyone who would be willing to share their experience with me.  Surprisingly, she got back to me, offering to share her own brush with death and her unique experience with the Divine.  Below is Rev. Cheryl Gaver’s story in her own words.

“I had just graduated from university, moved back home, and found a job.  One evening, as I was settling in, I had to put something on the top shelf of a bookcase.  I stood on a chair to reach the top of the bookcase.  I started to fall off the chair but managed to regain my balance only to have the back of the chair hit my stomach essentially with my whole weight.  I ended up on the floor in a lot of pain and knew I had done something very serious.  I rested for a bit.

When I went to the bathroom, there was blood in the urine, and I was beginning to pass out I think.  Mom took me to emergency – I remember she was pretty scared in the car; I knew that it was serious enough that I could die, but somehow I also knew that I wouldn’t die. Mom mentioned internal bleeding and I was being seen by the doctor right away.  They did X-rays and other tests but I don’t remember much of what was going on.  What I do remember was not being afraid.  I knew I was going to be OK.

Two doctors came in.  They told me that somehow I had managed to cut my kidney almost in half.  I would have to have surgery but it was very serious.  One doctor said that I wouldn’t survive the surgery because my blood pressure was too low (60 over something).  The other doctors whisked him away – I guess he shouldn’t have been that blunt with me.  It didn’t matter though.  I was perfectly calm because I knew I was going to be ok.  I remember the doctors kept trying to get me to see how serious the situation was and to get me to understand – I understood fine but I knew that everything would ok.

Eventually, they decided I was too weak to survive surgery and that I would just have to lay still for a few days to see if the kidney began to repair itself (it did).  I was in and out of consciousness for about 4 days, but in the end everything did come out OK.

It was a near death experience in that I did come close to dying.  I didn’t see bright lights or anything.  I didn’t even hear God speaking to me in anyway.  But I was filled with a perfect sense of peace – I could not even make myself be afraid in response to what the doctors were telling me – the sense of peace filled all my being. ”

Below is the question I asked Rev. Cheryl about her experience via email, followed by her response.

While going through the sense of peace, did you think about God, and did you know at the time that God had blessed you with that sense of peace?

“I don’t remember if I had thought about God – if I had, it would have been to look after my mother.  At the same time, my relationship with God was so strong at that time that I  knew the peace was from God.

Having to lie still was pretty boring so I had lots of time to think and pray.   I remember wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I had a B.A. in French literature which didn’t count for anything in Quebec.  I had just begun working as a typist with Shell Canada and knew that being a typist was not what I should be doing with my life.  I wondered what God wanted me to be.  I heard a voice in my head say, “Be a minister.”  My immediate response was, “I can’t.  I’m a woman.”  And the answer – “So what?”  That shut me up.  I didn’t go into the ministry right away, I had a number of things I needed to settle in my life first.  In fact, I didn’t enter seminary until about 4 years later but that was the call.”

Final thoughts

Although these near death accounts do not perfectly fit the patterns studied by researchers, I still think they are profound, because they show how faith, culture, gender, and other factors that mould our experience do not limit our relationship with God.  These three stories are about three completely different people from different faith backgrounds and cultures.  They had and have no connection to each other, and yet, they are connected by their experience with the Divine.

Ms. Sevelow felt herself leave her body and was allowed to make a case in front of God for continued life on earth.  My uncle, although eventually succumbed to his illness, somehow experienced a life review of sorts with his life playing backwards for him while he was still in his physical body, and at the same had some encounter with angelic entities, which he was unable to express adequately on his last day on earth.

And God spoke with Rev. Cheryl through her spirit, filling her with His presence: unwavering peace, as she lay in that hospital bed with a severely damaged kidney despite a fleet of doctors who had already given up on her.  The answer to whether or not she would live was given to her by God Who maintained her sense of peace and filled her with the knowledge that she would be fine.

The most important lesson these stories have taught me is that God belongs to everyone, and although we may dearly love our faith, our spiritual path, over other people’s, God’s love for humanity is transcendent of all creeds, labels, and boundaries.

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