Eternal rest, paradise, reincarnation—everyone has their own ideas about what happens when we die. But very few have gone to the edge of existence and made it back to tell the tale.
Jump ahead to these sections:
So what happens when you die? Those who’ve had what’s known as a near-death experience have offered us a range of possible answers to this question.
Scientists and researchers are still investigating the phenomenon of near-death experiences. But even though we might not know exactly what’s going on, it’s interesting to learn from those who may have crossed over to the other side and come back.
Below, we’ll pull back the curtain on the top things people have seen when they died but returned to the world of the living. It may surprise you how much these near-death experiences have in common. Still, it’s up to you to draw your own conclusions.
Can You See Things When You ‘Die?’
There is a lot of confusion around what happens to your spirit when you die. Depending on your spirituality and religious beliefs, you might have a few ideas already.
Scientists have found that those who have near-death experiences often experience many things in common. According to neuroscientists, these are:
- A feeling of returning to their bodies from somewhere else
- A sense of peace
- The presence of a light or lights
- Encounters with people or spirits
It’s important to note that there’s a difference between clinical death and biological death:
Clinical death is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood. They’re still capable of being resuscitated, sometimes resulting in these near-death experiences.
Biological death is when someone is well and truly dead—there’s no bringing them back. Biological death usually happens between four and six minutes after clinical death, leaving a period of time for near-death experiences to take place.
Though research is still ongoing, those who experience clinical death sometimes report interesting findings. Some people don’t see or feel anything at all between clinical death and resuscitation. On the other hand, many people have some sort of experience during these moments hovering between life and death.
Below, we’ll highlight the most commonly reported experiences from those who have died and lived to tell the tale.
1. Climbing a Stairway
Like the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven,” many people who have near-death experiences report feeling like they’re climbing a brightly lit stairway. As they climb the stairs, they might recall the experiences they had during their life. The top of the stairway is usually covered in bright, blinding light.
Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon, had an experience just like this when he was struck by lightning in the 1990s. He told The New Yorker he felt like he was being propelled quickly up a set of stairs, and he was overcome by a feeling of peace. Like the Zeppelin song, he had bought a “stairway to heaven,” but it was gone too soon.
2. Messages from Deceased Loved Ones
Another common experience for those who face death is feeling like they’re reconnecting with their loved ones who have already passed. Many people describe feeling like they’ve entered a room or space full of loved ones. These individuals might have a message of hope, peace, or love.
Though these are deceased relatives, there is no fear. It’s simply a source of peace, knowing that you’re surrounded by those you love most. In her book, What If This Is Heaven?, author Anita Moorjani describes feeling close to her deceased father after slipping into a coma.
3. Seeing a White Light
One of the most common and well-known near-death experiences for those who die and come back is seeing a bright, white light. This white light isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, most report it coming with a sense of peace or even happiness.
Many have speculated about the symbolism behind the bright light. It’s said to be the light of God, Heaven, paradise, or even just entering the void of nothingness. Either way, it’s not seen as something to be afraid of.
4. In the Presence of Angels
Another popular sighting is angels. Through the bright light, the individual is often greeted by angels who welcome them with open arms. These angels bring peace and compassion at a time that might otherwise be scary.
One woman explains how she was greeted by angels when she faced a near-death experience rafting at the age of 19. She felt the “light of God” on her skin and met with the angels. She writes, “The angel took me up higher, and I felt like I was soaring endlessly.” Until she returned to her body, she felt at peace.
5. Emptiness and Time Itself
In many books about life after death, some people report not feeling much of anything in that space between life and death. It’s described as blackness—as falling into time itself. This vast emptiness is sometimes seen as scary, but most who have been there themselves saw it as a collection of experiences and history.
Like joining a universal consciousness, this is a way to feel connected to the great beyond. Some describe this as feeling nothing at all, while others felt tapped into a universal being and togetherness.
6. Out-of-Body Experiences
As depicted in many TV shows and film plotlines, some have experienced out-of-body experiences. This is when it feels like you’re existing outside of your body. You might be hovering nearby, watching the scene unfold like a bystander. Other times, it’s like watching yourself from behind a curtain, from another room, or from above your body.
In these out-of-body experiences, it’s like being sucked into a vacuum away from yourself. The individuals might see doctors or loved ones tending to their body, or they might see themselves in a new one. These are usually described as very moving experiences.
7. Flashback or a Happy Memory
Finally, when having a near-death experience, some people go through their past. Instead of experiencing something completely new, they return to a time or place in their memories. This could be a flashback of their highs and lows, or it could be like reliving a favorite moment.
Flashbacks are frequently explored in fiction and storytelling, and they’re a way to remind us of the importance of the little moments. If there’s anything we can learn from these near-death experiences, it’s that your relationships, feelings, and memories matter most in the end.
Learn from Other Near-Death Experiences
There are so many ways people interpret the end. “Slipping beyond the veil,” “going into the other room,” and “fading to black” are all used to describe the end. With so many different stories about the end, which is the “truth?”
In actuality, there is no concrete truth that any of the experiences above are what happens when we die. While there is much to learn from these tales from beyond the living world, it’s also clear that there’s so much variation in what each person experiences.
The Near-Death Experience Research Foundation seeks to make sense of these stories. Their platform lets users from across the globe submit and explore stories that have been translated into different languages.
These stories might not give us concrete evidence about the afterlife or what comes next, but they still offer hope that our next stage of mortality isn’t something to be feared.
The Next Great Adventure: Death and Near-Death Experiences
While near-death experiences are undoubtedly frightening in many ways, the stories these individuals bring from the land between living and dead are worth their weight in gold. Not only do these people claim to have a unique understanding, but they sometimes go on to do great things with this knowledge.
Whether or not there’s a single “reality” that takes place after death is something we’ll never truly know while we’re on this Earth. Each person takes on the next great adventure beyond the veil at some point; some people, though, cross this border multiple times and live to tell the tale.
- “Laurie L NDE.” Near-Death Experience Research Foundation. www.nderf.org/Experiences/1laurie_l_nde.html.
- Moorjani, Anita. What If This Is Heaven? Hay House Inc., 12 September 2017.
- Sacks, Oliver. “A Bolt from the Blue.” The New Yorker, 16 July 2007. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/07/23/a-bolt-from-the-blue.
- “Temporality of features in near-death experience narratives.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Cognitive Neuroscience, 13 June 2017. www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00311/full.
- “Healthcare provider BLS, anatomy, physiology, clinical vs biological death.” American AED CPR Association. www.aedcpr.com/online-cpr/heart-attack