How a Near-Death Experience Changed Her Perspective

After a heart attack, she saw prayers surrounding her

- Posted on Nov 9, 2018

Heart shaped cloud over cloudy and sunny sky with sunbeam

I collapsed onto my bed and closed my eyes. Fifteen family members would be arriving at our house any minute for my husband Tom’s birthday party. I should’ve been greeting our guests. Instead, I was in our room. I was just so tired. If I wanted to make it to the dessert portion of the evening, I’d need to lie down. So I’d snuck off to my bedroom for 10 minutes—15 max—of rest.

Served me right for pushing myself too hard. I’d been in full-blown hostess mode since 4 a.m. First, I’d scrubbed every corner of the house until it was nearly spotless. Then Tom and I put up the Christmas decorations. It was only November 30, but I was so busy these days with my job as spiritual director and retreat leader that now seemed as good a time as any to get the house ready for the holidays. Tom and I hung wreaths on every door and strung lights on the tree. Around 6 p.m., I put the finishing touches on dinner: salad to start, then salmon and broccoli with sweet potatoes, followed by birthday cake and ice cream. I set the table with the good linen napkins, folded elegantly, and put a timer on the food in the oven.

I wanted everything to go smoothly. Better than smoothly—I wanted things to be perfect. I had a lot riding on the evening. Tom’s children and grandchildren were coming. My relationship with them had always been a little awkward. I’d been close to their mom, Betty, be-fore she passed away 12 years earlier. She’d fought a long battle with cancer. I’d acted as her hospice chaplain through it all. After Betty died, Tom and I stayed in touch. Years later, we fell in love and got married.

I knew it was hard for Tom’s kids to see him with someone who wasn’t their mother. His youngest daughter, Denise, especially, seemed to have trouble with it. She was always polite, but holidays and family get-togethers were strained. I wanted us to be a family, and this dinner was an opportunity to make that happen.

I tried to get comfortable in bed. I twisted and turned. I threw the covers on, then off. It felt as if the air were being squeezed out of my lungs. As if I were trapped inside a giant accordion. Perhaps all the stress was getting to me.

The bedroom door creaked open. Tom’s head popped through.

“You okay, Kathleen?” he said. “You got a migraine?”

“No,” I said. “But could you bring me an aspirin anyway?”

Tom returned with the pill. And with his daughter Debby and daughter-in-law Barbara, both nurses, to check on me. I could feel sweat coating my face. My pulse quickened. After a brief discussion, we came to the conclusion that it could be low blood sugar or dehydration. Still, they said, “Kathleen, you don’t look so good. Let’s get you to the hospital.”

Their faces swirled in front of me, going in and out of focus.

“Hospital?” I said, protesting. “No…the party…”

Tom and the girls didn’t listen. They helped me out of bed and into the car.

“Take the salmon out of oven at 7:15….” I struggled to say to the gathered family, then collapsed in the passenger seat.

The next several minutes were a blur. The slamming of car doors. Traffic lights. Unknown hands putting me in a wheelchair, then on a gurney. Beige hospital walls zooming past. Florescent lights flashing above. The sound of beeping everywhere.

This is a nightmare, I thought.

“Oh no, this is very real,” a voice answered. Neither male nor female. Gentle yet firm. “But you will wake up, Kathleen. And you will be just fine….” Then everything went black.

When I came to, I was in another all-white space. This one was filled with light. So blindingly white, it put the hospital’s fluorescents to shame. Where was I?

The space was empty except for clouds. Dozens of them. Large, billowing and towering above me. They were dense yet warm and welcoming. Like a thousand down comforters. I was alone, yet I sensed I wasn’t really.

The clouds swirled around me until I was surrounded. They gathered beneath me. Lifting me higher and higher. I should’ve been terrified. But I was filled with peace, mesmerized by the cloud tower.

“What is this?” I said. My voice echoed in the silence.

“This,” a voice said, “is all the love and prayer being offered up for you.” I knew that voice! The same one from the hospital.

Love and prayer? I thought. For me? But these clouds were huge. As tall as a skyscraper and getting taller by the minute. Just then, faces came to me. All the people who were praying for me at that very moment. Tom. My family. My friends. Tom’s kids. Denise. Yes, even her.

Before I could ask questions, the voice spoke again.

“You can ride this cloud to the other side,” it said. “Or you can go back. The choice is yours.”

I wanted to reach the other side more than anything. But…what about Tom? What about our family? Suddenly my mind felt clear, clearer than it had in a long time. On this cloud of prayer, my worldly concerns seemed so small. The Christmas decorations. The table settings. My worries about Tom’s children. I thought about Tom and the life we’d built together. Had I even wished him a happy birthday that morning?

“Tom isn’t going to lose a second wife,” I said. Just like that, the cloud tower vanished. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a zillion tubes.

Only later did I learn what had happened. I’d had a heart attack. And not just any kind—a widow-maker. During the time I spent in the clouds, I’d had quadruple bypass surgery. Afterward, I’d bled internally and been rushed back to the OR. I’d coded several times that night before doctors stabilized me.

Tom and his kids took turns at my bedside and never left me alone.

“Kathleen, I don’t know what Dad would’ve done if we’d lost you,” Denise said to me. “I don’t know what our family would’ve done.”

She described the scene in the waiting room, where all our friends and family had gathered the night of Tom’s birthday dinner.

“I prayed every prayer I knew,” she told me. “We all did.”

I squeezed her hand. “I know, sweetheart. I think I saw them.”

The rest of Tom’s children had flown in from all over to be with their dad and with me. Tom’s oldest daughter, Teri, and Denise stayed at our home for 40 days and 40 nights after I was discharged, to care for me. Between bandage changes and shared meals, we all grew close, especially Denise and me. I didn’t try to be perfect in front of her. I didn’t have to. Our relationship was built on something much stronger—a cloud of love.

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