These people caught a glimpse of what may come next.
First, there’s the classic near-death experience, popularized by Raymond Moody’s 1970s bestseller, Life After Life. It’s typically a dreamlike encounter imbued with light and bright colors, visions of departed loved ones and the presence of some sort of godly or angelic figure.
Then there’s the kind Charlie Weiss experienced a year ago, as he lay comatose at Sutter General Hospital recovering from pneumonia and near-fatal septic shock: gritty, gray and frightening.
In his experience, Weiss was standing on a narrow, grimy concrete ledge overlooking a dark, bottomless abyss. A large maintenance worker stood next to him. Weiss clung to the wall, convinced the man was going to push him off. A moment later, he found himself safely outside of the building and on the street.
Weiss, marketing director of the Sacramento Philharmonic and a former radio disc jockey, came out of the doctor-induced slumber eight days later. To this day, he can’t remember a single thing about his hospitalization or the days leading up to it. His only memory is of his dream. Even in my foggy state, I was like, â€˜Whoa. That was really intense,’ he says.
His illness came after a year of unparalleled stress, including the break-up of Weiss’ 30-year marriage, a bicycle accident, and a major and fairly unpleasant job change. The memory of his efforts to repel himself from the abyss fueled a renewed appreciation for life.
Life is about facing challenges and learning from them. I knew that before, but now I know it more intensely, says Weiss. I try to keep my cool. [Life’s] not rocket science. The day-to-day issues will work out one way or another.
Whether they’re the stuff of dreams or a genuine, if alternate, reality, viewed in Technicolor or black and white, near-death experiences are a captivating topic. The Moody book has sold some 13 million copies since its publication, and countless books on the subject are published every year.
But for every believer, there is a skeptic. And for every study attempting to prove the credibility of near-death experiences, there is another to discredit it. Physicists, medical doctors and psychologists have weighed in from every conceivable angle. Back on defense, debunking the debunkers is a popular sport among folks like Kevin Williams of Sacramento.
Williams read Life After Life 25 years ago and says he was so enthralled, he became a self-described near-death nut. He has read most books on the topic, self-published his own (titled Nothing Better Than Death), and has dedicated no shortage of time and resources to his own website, near-death.com. The site is an exhaustive exploration of NDEs, containing personal accounts, afterlife jokes and a Skeptic’s Corner.
Williams’ passion is more than academic. Until his immersion in near-death accounts, he was a fundamentalist Christian who read the entire Bible several times. He once believed that sin was a stumbling block to eternal salvation. But the more he has explored this phenomenon, the more his views have mellowed. God and love are paramount, he believes. Religious doctrine and denominational differences are too confining.
Basically, no matter what the religion is, people who have near-death experiences experience things that are beyond religion, that are at the core of what God is, says Williams, who has a medical disability and is largely housebound.
God allows us to make mistakes. . . . What people view to be evil is really ignorance of higher law.
Williams has never had his own near-death experience, but says he has gone through the converse: a series of after-death communications with his mother, who died in a car accident in 2001. The most striking one, a visitation, occurred several months after her passing when she came to him, Williams believes, in an invisible beam of love and ecstasy.
His mother comforted him in his grief and enveloped him in memories of his loving childhood, he writes in his website account. She also gave him a glimpse, or a sense, of the heaven awaiting us when we pass on, Williams says.
It is just a matter of time before scientists and mathematicians corroborate the existence of life after death, says Williams, who is encouraged by the increasing number of legitimate studies on NDEs.
We’ll be able to prove that life is continuous, that energy is conserved and not destroyed after death. We’re really close to being there, he says.
Jo Davis of Sacramento was at the peak of her career, living in Los Angeles and uncomplainingly working 16-hour days as a television costumer. Then life intervened. One day, she was on the set of Beverly Hills 90210; two days later, she was being wheeled in for coronary bypass surgery.
A decade later, and life has never been the same for Davis, who’s now 57. After the surgery, she tried going back to work but no longer had the stamina. She battled depression and had a second bypass surgery in 2000. Through it all, Davis was sustained by the memory of what she calls this other-side experience, which occurred while she was on the operating table the first time.
Davis recalls leaving her body and crossing over to a meadow steeped in brilliant colors and infused with light. In her vision, she was talking to someone. God? An angel? She still isn’t sure. They stood together by a stone fence, watching Davis recuperating at home.
The woman lying in bed was filled with anger at the direction her life had taken following her surgery. But as the two looked on, laughter bubbled up within them. Davis believes that she and her guide were discussing the need for her to change course in her life&emdash;and poking fun at her resistance.
I had an amazing job. I loved my job. [The entertainment industry] is just a world that so few people get to experience, says Davis. I think God was saying, â€˜It is your time to do something different.’
After Davis awoke from surgery, she says the brilliant light she experienced stayed with her for several days. The skies were bluer, the grass greener. But then the colors started to fade, and Davis grappled with depression over the next two years. Still, she says, she drew immeasurable strength from her encounter and believes it has helped in her recovery.
Even in the depression, I could see it in my head. I could hear us laughing, Davis says. Even at my lowest, I could see . . . that my time had not yet come, that my road has been chosen.
Davis has switched gears. She moved out of L.A. to Tuolumne County and, recently, to Sacramento. She has pursued her own artwork and is using it as a therapeutic tool to help children with mental disabilities. And she is comforted in her belief that heaven does exist.
Occasionally, Davis shares her story with others to mixed reactions. But she also has seen her near-death experience bring great comfort to others. While Davis was working at a friend’s fruit stand one summer, a customer with cancer returned several times simply to talk with Davis about her spiritual encounter. It will touch the people it’s meant to touch, she says.
Sometimes that touch is palpable. For Vince Migliore, learning about somebody else’s near-death experience changed his life. The Folsom man was working as a cardiac nurse in a hospital at the time, more than 20 years ago. Most of his patients were visibly anxious, Migliore recalls. Except for one.
I came into this room, and this guy just glowed with happiness and security, Migliore recalls. I said, â€˜What’s with you?’ The patient related that he had recently had a near-death experience and was clearly comforted by it. When you witness that level of transformation, it’s remarkable, Migliore explains.
Then, in 1985, when he was 41, Migliore says he had his own otherworldly experience during the course of a severe depression over a broken engagement. He was on his bed at the time when a light beamed into his room, then into his chest. I could see my body was a shell. I was transparent, he says.
According to Migliore, three orbs of orange light (angels or some other spiritual beings, he thinks) entered the room and showed him a window into another world. I was given 10 or 12 visions, all very personal and very symbolic, he says.
Some were abstract, like the image of the Egyptian Pyramid at Giza with a second pyramid above it, facing upside down. Others were seemingly trivial but steeped in meaning, such as the telepathic voice he felt, reassuring him about his recent dilemma over whether to buy a new suit. The message: If you can purchase the clothes, do so only because you deserve them and not to impress others. If you can’t afford them, said the voice, Wear your rags and hold your head up high because you are my beloved son.
For Migliore, who grew up one of 12 children in a cash-strapped Brooklyn home and suffered from poor self-esteem as a result, the words were both liberating and loving. He got out of bed and danced around the room.
The biggest thing was the knowledge, the certainty, that there’s a God who cares about us and that our mission here is important, he says. And the surety that there’s no death, that we go on to something else. That gives you an empowerment of â€˜What have I got to fear? What’s the worst that can happen?’
While some choose to keep such experiences to themselves, Migliore says he became a proselytizer for the afterlife. He began actively seeking out a spirit guide, using meditation tapes as a tool. During one session, he says he had an encounter with Jesus Christ and felt the presence of his own friends with him.
You deserve every loving thought you have for your friends and every one [that they have] for you. That’s what heaven is made of, Migliore says the figure told him.
Migliore has become active with the International Association of Near Death Studies, which has a Stockton-Sacramento chapter. He recently took nearly 800 of the group’s case studies and tabulated the findings.
There are skeptics who say we can duplicate this with certain chemicals, he says. But they don’t have the transformative experience. These people come back convinced of God’s love for us.
Michelle Shackelford felt a different sort of love when she was lying facedown on the asphalt along Interstate 80, knocked off of her motorcycle by a speeding car: the love of her mother, who had died of ovarian cancer exactly seven months before that day.
Shackelford was a California Highway Patrol officer at the time. She was pulling back into traffic near the Madison Avenue offramp when she was struck by a car. Her bike flew into the air, then crashed back down on her head.
She remembers the presence of her mother and, in the background, the presence of her paternal grandmother who had died of a stroke a month or two before. There was a sense of peace. For the moment, Shackelford did not feel her injuries.
I think, â€˜Great! I get to be with her now,’ says Shackelford of her mother, to whom she and her two younger siblings were very close. I told her, â€˜I’m going with you.’ She said, â€˜No. It’s not your time. Your brother and sister need you now.’
Shackelford resisted her mother’s words. It felt so good to be with her. To have to go back was like, â€˜Are you kidding me?’ She remembers being overcome with sadness. And when she came to on the road, she was screaming in pain.
She thinks about the encounter every day and finds comfort in knowing her mother is doing OK. Yet sharing her experience with others is a sensitive matter for Shackelford, who owns a personal training studio in Sacramento and lives with chronic pain. You have the fear of people going, â€˜Yeah, right,’ she says.
Shackelford still struggles with how to define or explain what happened. But, she says with a small smile, There were no pearly gates.