Ben Breedlove died on Christmas. The Austin teen suffered from a heart condition that brought him to the verge of death multiple times over his eighteen years. He described his near-death experiences in this two-part video, posted a week before the heart attack that killed him. (First part | Second part)
In the video he doesn’t speak, but tells his story with note cards, from time to time flashing a smile that hints at the things his scribbled words leave out.
In Ben’s telling, what he felt as he drew close to death was an overwhelming feeling of peace. “I had no worries at all, like nothing else in the world mattered,” he wrote of a near-death experience when he was four. “I can’t even describe the peace, how peaceful it was.”
The feeling returned when he collapsed earlier this month. His heart stopped beating and he wasn’t breathing for three minutes before emergency personnel revived him. While he was unconscious, Ben wrote, he had a vision of an endless white room. At that moment he felt utterly content with his life, and all he had done: “I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Ben saw his brush with death as a gift. It brought to my mind a nearly fatal accident I had a decade ago. In my case there were no visions, no white lights — just the visions of heavy narcotics, and the flashing lights of an ambulance. But I felt I could understand, in part, Ben’s gratitude for seeing a mystery that few get to approach before the very end. I recognized, too, this desire to remember a sacred memory that drifts away with time, in all the pettiness of our day-to-day lives and selves.
Watching the video also reminded me of a book by the late journalist Studs Terkel. In Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, ordinary men and women talk about death — their fears and faith, their experiences caring for the dying, their memories of lost loved ones. One section of the book is devoted to interviews with people who went through near-death experiences much like Ben’s. Some of the stories are comforting, some less so.
But these are just shadows playing on a wall — suggestive but inconclusive. Perhaps near-death experiences are just hallucinations of a blood-starved brain. Perhaps they are something more. Shakespeare called death the “undiscovered country,” and said that our inability to truly know what comes after drives much of the folly, and heroism, of our ordinary lives.
The skeptic in me thinks of hard-charging Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his recent death from cancer. A lifelong spiritual seeker, Jobs continued to doubt the existence of an afterlife up until his death. As his time ran out, Jobs said he was “believing a bit more” in the possibility, but he added, “sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone.” Yet Jobs, a man of tempestuous anger and energy, seemed to arrive, too, at a sense of profound peace in the very last moments of his life. The final words he spoke, on his deathbed, were almost exultant.
Watching Ben’s video, I found myself like Jobs — wanting to believe “that when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on.” I wanted to believe, in my doubting heart, that there was something behind Ben’s Mona Lisa smile.
Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the coauthor of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.