Death: OK talk at Reed College

My talk at the Death:  OK conference at Reed College about my own out-of-body events and how these happenings increased my awareness of myself as both an earthbound and a spirit form connected with participants’ own experiences.

The talk was titled Caregiver Response When the Veil between Life and Death is Lifted. Sharing how my own personal experiences opened me to being receptive when patients described their near-death events and when the dying talked to those I could not see was not done without trepidation. Each time I begin such a presentation, I have before me a group of people whose predilection to believe me or not is an unknown. I realize some in every audience will be thinking I am wrong to believe in the spiritual form of being. But, I would be lying if I said I did not.

Before I give these talks, I call on God to guide me to say what He wants said for I do not know how I ended up on this path… I did not design it. I just walk it. I pray for my loved ones who have died to send me strength, patience with myself, and attentiveness to the audience’s needs.

Many healthcare workers have come across the patient who has had a near-death event or is talking to people who are long dead. But, most nurses, doctors, EMTs, paramedics, and chaplains hesitate to talk about such experiences for fear of being thought a little looney.

As it turned out, I could see the audience’s interest as measured by their nodding and sitting forward in their old school chairs. I could feel their acceptance by their tearing up and blowing their noses, the laughter (Yes, death may have its funny aspects.), their clapping and saying aloud, “Oh, yes!” The audience’s demeanor helped me relax and break from a lecture format to a conversational, story-telling way of presenting. I could leave my notes and embrace them where they were, stopping to answer their questions along the way.

As the years pass I begin to worry that I will forget the details and not give a fully understandable picture of out-of-body and near-death experiences. But, as I find again and again, the stories I tell are about real people and their reality. I cannot forget them. They haunt me in a good way. For, I think, I am meant to be to be their voice and scribe. One participant at my session said, “You clearly are a mystic.” I thought, “Wow…I better look up mystic in the dictionary.” My goal was to make the transcendent I know visible. I am glad some followed me along to that place.

I have been conscious of my spirit form for as long as I can remember.  I had polio as an infant. When one’s nerves are damaged as with polio, the muscles they serve spasm often unceasingly. This causes pain.  Imagine a leg cramp that lasts for hours and then for days.

As a child, whenever my muscles got tired or cold, I experienced excruciating, unrelenting pain.

  • Sometimes when the pain went on and on, my spirit moved out of its body to a place where I was conscious that I had both a body form and a spirit form.
  • I could see my body but I was not in it. My spirit could separate and rise above my body.
  • I believe my body form let go of its spirit willingly and for good cause. The reason was my spirit form did not experience any pain.
  • Often, while my body lay motionless in bed, one leg strapped into a metal brace so heavy I could not roll over, I found myself as a spiritual form floating above my bed. My consciousness was with that floating spirit form. I was looking down at the body form. Was some part of my brain responsible for the business of releasing my spirit?  Maybe so.

Gregory Gallagher, biographer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt also had polio—as did President Roosevelt. Gallagher, too, describes going out of his body and floating above it when the pain was just too bad.

I can remember vividly one experience when I was in grade school.

  • In an after-school Girl Scout meeting, we made wicker plant containers for Mother’s Day. This was the most special thing I had ever created. A greater task however was carrying it home. It was heavy and big so I could not see well in front of me. It was cold in My legs hurt.
  • I dreaded falling with the present.  I knew that every one of my steps had to be good. No stumbling.
  • Then, suddenly, I found myself high up looking down on my body walking home with the present. I watched my body form cross streets. I watched it step carefully.
  • I saw that an angel was up there floating with me, carrying me along. In my spirit form, I again transcended the pain. I stayed with the angel all the way to my home’s front door. Then I popped back into my body – my mother’s wicker plant present intact.

Before my out-of-body experiences (OBEs), I hear an aura.

  • An aura is a sensory warning that something is coming.
  • My aura is a pleasant ringing sound.
  • As a child when I heard the aura, I knew I would be leaving my body and pain. I was not afraid. The movement of my consciousness—its changing places from the body form to the spirit form—came instantaneously after my experience of the aura.

I am not consciously able to choose to go out of my body. I have tried. I could be experiencing intractable pain of long-standing, such as for days, and still be unable to consciously exit. Even though at these times, I know leaving my body would bring welcomed pain relief, this is not how the system works.

I realize that I have been fortunate to clearly understand I am both a body and a spirit. This has helped me understand the near-death experience. The first time I realized near- death events occurred when I resuscitated a patient in a cardiovascular surgery ICU.  I was a new graduate nurse. When Sally coded, I was the first to the bedside. I was nervous. Although I had seen CPR enacted dozens of times while a student nurse, and done it with other nurses and doctors, this was my first professional experience alone. I followed the protocol. Within minutes, Sally was okay. I was relieved. I stayed at her bedside to assess her.

Then Sally began to tell me she came back from “the tunnel.” My face probably looked puzzled, so Sally continued, “When my heart stopped, I could see you up on the bed doing CPR on my body. I saw you breathe for me. I saw you press down on my chest. But I was drawn into a tunnel that had a bright light at the end. The light seemed to call me to it. I looked back and you were working hard to revive me. Suddenly I found myself “popped” back into my body. So here I am. Only when I came back could I feel the pressure of your hands. You are stronger than you think.”

Do I ever wonder if Sally came back from the tunnel to help me out? I do. At first I thought she may have been so kind as to come back to get me out of a crisis. As the years progressed and I heard more and more stories from patients who had near death events, I realized Sally awakened me to the process of listening to patients who had similar experiences.

Other nurses poked fun at me for believing the patient’s story that she watched me do CPR. Some said that the patient was probably having a dream made up by her mind to make her feel okay during this life-threatening event. Several thought that at the time of CPR, the patient was not getting enough blood to her brain causing a phantom belief that she separated from her body. Still others said, “Sue, you have no proof.”

Frankly, I do not care what the physiological and/or psychological rationale underlying a person having near-death experience might be. I know there is an invisible realm around me. Just as having out-of-body experiences is real to me, near-death events are real to the persons experiencing them.

As a nurse, it is the person’s world I must enter in order to help them. In nursing, we call this empathy. It means that we look at events from the patient’s point of view because that is their reality. If a nurse looks at a clinical situation only from their own frame of reference, the nurse is not being helpful. Then, the patient’s concern goes unanswered.  So when a patient says, “I am in pain,” the nurse does not say, “You already had your dose of medicine.” Instead the nurse says, “Tell me about your pain.” When a patient says, “I looked down on you climbing up on the bed,” I say, “Tell me about it,” and take some time to listen.

As the spiritual care nurse for a university hospital, I met ambulances. The family left behind had just been told their loved ones were dead or were surely going to die. This scene was horrible. I struggled at first with what to say that could console them. Those who lost loved ones often met me with vacant stares, rocking back and forth to console themselves. They shuddered. They moaned. They pounded on the walls. Parents who lost children were the worst off. Their loss was like a bloody, gaping wound. No one could fix that.


One particular event got me started using the words of near-death experiencers to help those who grieve. I was in the ER with parents who had just been told their child had died at their babysitter’s house. The death had a preliminary diagnosis of sudden infant death syndrome. The parents were given a private area. The mother would not make eye contact with anyone. She bent her body, curling it forward into a ball as she cried. She rocked back and forth, back and forth in her chair. The father stared forward as if looking at something I could not see. I was kneeling on the floor next to a chaplain who also met the parents. The rocking and the wailing continued. No one really talked in the beginning. I know I was thinking, “What can I possibly say to console people who have lost a child?

When the crying let up I explained how people who were resuscitated said that dying was not painful. I hoped this message would comfort them. The family did not immediately respond so I could not tell. Our eyes still had not met.

Weeping again filled the space between us until the father looked at me and said, “I am glad Jenny did not have pain when she died.” All of us except the mother nodded.

I took a chance and again filled the gap between us by talking more about what I had been told by those who had died and returned to life. I mentioned how near-death experiencers were met on the other side by welcoming family and loved ones. Only then did the mother stop weeping and look up. She said to her husband “Do you think your mother was there for her?” The father took his wife in his arms and said, “Yes, that is probably what happened. I can see my mother meeting Jenny.”

Because of my knowledge and acceptance of near-death experiences, this family learned their child who died was not alone and was in no pain.

Lessons gained from being with patients who survived CPR were translated into words that helped those left behind.

Glimpses of death shared with me were now helping a family deal with a world previously unknown to them.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons near-death experiences occur — so others touched by death may be comforted.

After Death: OK, I had dinner with a friend who was a Buddhist monk for 20 years and now is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. We talked about karma. “How,” I asked, “could I have done something so bad as to be afflicted with polio as an infant?” He explained that karma is not something I created in another life. Rather karma is the flow of energy through time and people. This force may not have anything to do with anything anyone did in a past life as is so commonly assumed by us of the Western world. He said, “You became who you are because there was a life force that needed you to be.”

So, although, it takes time and energy and angst to give talks about out-of-body and near-death experiences and conversations of the dying, I will continue to do so knowing there is a life force in the universe that flows through me and makes me who I am.


Feedback from the event:

She was a very good speaker and storyteller and the information was very relevant to the day. I appreciated her work and honest sharing of her life experiences personal and professional. I have been sharing her work with other people.
Super informative and interesting!
This was not what I was expecting with the title but it was an awesome testimony to NDE. This session was phenomenal as Susan is a very experienced nurse and it gave some very good insight. Many of us have had some connection to this topic and it was great to see an organized lecture on this. We have more to discuss here.
She was a very good speaker and storyteller and the information was very relevant to the day. I appreciated her work and honest sharing of her life experiences personal and professional. I have been sharing her work with other people.
important transition from this life to what comes next. VERY IMPORTANT conversation. It’s a very needed change, that people would be treated with respect and be heard and taken seriously when they experience pre-death and near death experiences.