The Gray Zone: Life After a Near-Death Experience

Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN


September 24, 2021

Approximately 10% of the population has faced a near-death experience (NDE).

I was one of them.

Mine occurred 6 months ago, during a planned cardiac procedure. Thankfully, a precordial thump and 2 minutes of CPR brought me back to life.

The amount of information I gathered from the 180 days since the event has been invaluable. I hope to be able to share a portion of my knowledge with readers.

The concept of NDE is not new. It is rumored that Socrates may have suffered an event. However, it was not until the works of Dr Bruce Greyson, published in the book After, that NDEs began to be widely accepted and discussed by medical personnel. Another early pioneer, who coined the phrase "near-death experience," was Raymond Moody, whose book Life After Life began the field of empirical study examining similarities between those who shared their near-death stories.

NDEs are defined as events that are triggered by "life-threatening episodes when the body is injured." These episodes can occur during massive trauma, during an operation or procedure, or when the body is deprived of oxygen, such as during a myocardial infarction or massive stroke, or even drowning or hypothermia. Blunt trauma with massive tissue shock, such as a high fall, could also cause an NDE.

Survivors of NDEs share basic experiences, although despite widespread beliefs, not all NDEs are positive. My experience was not. When I awakened, I was overcome with a sensation of struggling, as if I had been held down (the CPR?). I had an awareness of fighting to "come back." Nonetheless, a basic commonality did stay with me, and that was an awareness of peace, that death itself no longer frightened me. I believed I had been to a quiet, calming place, and I was not afraid to return.

Others discuss seeing their bodies from a distance or talking to relatives or friends (long deceased). A few report seeing activities in alternate rooms where they could not possibly have known what was happening while they were under duress. Many also report bright lights or being bathed in a white aura. I did not experience these events. Neuroscientists have long argued whether these phenomena might occur due to chemical processes in the brain caused by hypoxia or other biological changes as the body is undergoing complex physiologic changes.

They argue, do we comprehend what is the mind vs what is merely dying brain tissue? Do we really know what synapses occur as the body is transitioning toward death?

People who deal in the metaphysical appear to have less difficulty explaining NDE narratives than those who deal strictly in scientific processes, although NDEs occur with equal frequency in both secular and religious patients, according to the same source.

Unfortunately, for me, understanding the NDE and the process of being a survivor was the easy part. The tough part began when friends and colleagues had firm opinions of what "life after death" should mean. You become a survivor in "the gray zone," a life that has been returned, a person given a second chance. What does that mean?

Should you be different, more "grateful"? How do you navigate expectations?

I spent approximately 1 month angry with myself for not planning for an emergency. How ridiculous. The chances of predicting a complication occurring during the procedure I had were < 1%. As my anger evaporated, I realized that my NDE was exactly what it seemed to be: fortuitous. I was a survivor, but I was still me, with the same flaws and personality traits as before.

If I began to examine the experience too deeply, I reflected on one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies. (Like my mother before me, I am a movie buff and find that great movie scripts explain the bulk of life.)

In this Oscar-winning movie, the "bad guy" begging for his life says, "I don't deserve to die like this." Clint gruffly responds, "'Deserves' got nothin' to do with it."

Not a bad philosophy when you think about it. I assume the inverse must also be true: Life in the gray zone is not a reward, but it is time that should not be wasted.

Tell me what you believe: Does the mind stay active as the brain is transitioning? Or is the NDE a result of something far deeper?

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

About Diane M. Goodman
Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN, is a semi-retired nurse practitioner who works from home contributing to COVID-19 task force teams and dismantling vaccine disinformation, as well as publishing in various nursing venues. During decades at the bedside, Diane worked in both private practice and critical care, carrying up to five nursing certifications simultaneously. Yet she is not all about nursing. She is equally passionate about her dogs and watching movies, enjoying both during time away from professional activities. Her tiny chihuahuas are contest winners, proving that both Momma and the dogs are busy, productive girls!


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.