The shrapnel entered through the armhole of Steve Price’s bullet-proof vest just as he was firing his rifle, and a mortar fragment pierced his lung. When the medics finally reached him, they airlifted the 24-year-old Marine from the Vietnamese jungle to a military hospital in the Philippines for surgery. During the operation, he left his body and had a blissful experience of light, warmth, and peace. The burly, heavily tattooed, self-described schoolyard bully became tearful when he described to me what happened:
“Suddenly I realized I was up near the ceiling, looking down at my body. A brilliant, white light embraced and encompassed me. It took me in. I felt such warmth and peace and was bathed in the most peaceful, joyous feeling imaginable. I found myself in a place like the Garden of Eden. I didn’t say the word God for a long time, but now I can say that the light was God. It was like the most loving mother embracing her infant, only a million times more than that. On the other side of a stream bubbling through the garden was my long-dead grandfather. I went to move toward him, but it was over.”
After his recovery, he tried to return to battle, but found that was difficult: “I led my unit. I did all the things I was supposed to, but I couldn’t shoot my gun. All I ever wanted was to be a Marine, but I realized I could no longer do my job. The NDE had an incredible effect on my life. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fire my rifle. After 23 years, I left the Marines and now I work as a lab technician. I joined the National Guard, because it helps people instead of killing them. I’m now mild-mannered, thoughtful, and a lot different from the hard-charging, macho Marine I once was. I’ve become so sensitive that when other people hurt I can feel it. I talk to people about metaphysical things. Before, I would’ve made fun of people who talked about such things.”
Many experiencers like Steve report that after their NDEs their previous lifestyle no longer felt comfortable to them or was no longer fulfilling. As a result, some do change their professions, as Steve did. Among the experiences I’ve studied, one-third changed their occupations as a result of their NDEs, and three-fourths reported a marked change in their lifestyle or activities. These changes are most marked with experiencers who had been in a profession that involves violence before the NDE, such as law enforcement or the military. Joe Geraci, the 36-year-old policeman who almost bled to death after surgery, described a life change comparable to Steve’s after his NDE: “I was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed cop. My NDE changed all that. I left the hospital a completely different man. After being a cop used to bloodshed, I found I could not watch TV because it was too violent. After endangering myself and my partner on patrol because I couldn’t fire my gun, I quit the police force and retrained as a teacher. Although I found teaching high school fulfilling, I often found myself reprimanded for becoming too involved in my students’ personal lives.”
And Mickey, who collected money for the Mafia in the 1970s, also had a profound reversal of his personality and transformation after an NDE. Immersed in the material world of “quick cash and getting ahead by butting heads,” his last job prior to his NDE was a chief steward of a mob-owned resort, where one of his prime functions was providing sexual and other kinds of illicit entertainment for celebrities who performed at the hotel. In this capacity, he was in charge of a number of high-class prostitutes whom he often treated roughly. Then, during a heart attack, he had a near-death experience that included blissful feelings, seeing the light, and communicating with a divine being and with a much-loved brother who had died many years before.
He came back from his NDE with similar aftereffects to Steve and Joe. He felt that cooperation and love were the most important things, and that competition and material goods were irrelevant. That change in attitude didn’t sit well with Mickey’s Mafia friends, but they let him leave the family circle. It was his girlfriend who complained when he changed careers and started helping delinquent children and victims of spousal abuse. One day after he was out of the hospital and they were eating lunch, she burst out crying and told him, “You’re not the same person anymore!” When he asked her what she meant, she replied, “You’re not concerned with things of substance anymore,” meaning money and jewelry and fast cars. The relationship soon collapsed. Mickey compared his attitudes and behavior before and after his NDE in graphic terms:
“Before the experience, my attitude was that people have to help themselves. You know, if they don’t help themselves, to hell with them. I had a pretty cynical attitude toward people. I couldn’t imagine myself in any sort of helping professional before the NDE. But afterwards, I’d find myself counseling people. I’d find myself listening to people. They said, ‘You really listened to me. You really understand how I feel inside.’Before, I would say, ‘Listen, pal, I ain’t got the time. God helps those that help themselves. So get your butt out there and help yourself. Because it’s war out there, on the street. Make sure you always cover yourself out there, because it’s a war.’
“Before, I thought, ‘I have to make my way the best I can. Survive.’ Whenever I started to feel sorry for somebody, I’d say to myself, “Goddam it, I’m not my brother’s keeper!” I was hard-bitten. But after the NDE, my whole outlook changed. I can feel when people are in pain. Before, sometimes I had to cause people pain. I couldn’t do that anymore after my heart attack. Before, I had to take care of number one. If I gave myself to a job, in gambling or whatever it might be, I would carry it out. That was the rules.
“The experience made me more sensitive to and aware of others’ pain. I still get very teary about others who are in pain. People I know can’t understand that. Sometimes I sit down and look around at myself and say, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I could be making ten times this money.’ But I don’t want that. My needs are simple. I’m very content. I could live in one room. I used to have a big Cadillac, a luxury apartment. I needed those things. They were necessary for my identity. Now, to tell the truth, it doesn’t make any difference whether I make ten dollars a day or ten thousand dollars a day. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s not what’s important in our trip here on this earth.
“Right now, I’m up to my ears in bills. I got all kinds of bills. But it doesn’t really upset me. I’m not driven for the money itself anymore. I can’t do the kinds of things I used to anymore to make quick money. I can’t do that. It’s not that I now think that God, the Big Thumb in the Sky, is gonna get me. It’s something, instead, between Him and myself.”
From After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
This excerpt was featured in the April 4, 2021 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.