mind-body-spiritA lot has been written about near-death experiences, and the phenomenon by which a person’s spirit leaves their body briefly, only to go back in, once the body is revived.  This phenomenon is real, and does no permanent damage to, or has any lasting impact on, either body or spirit.  But there is a phenomenon that is a companion to this, that occurs when the body is working but comatose, and the brain is profoundly damaged.  I call this state of existence “bumped out,” because that is how it appears to me — like a person’s spirit got bumped out of their body, and then refused to go back in.  The causes of this may vary slightly, but the spiritual sentiment is the same: that the brain is too damaged and too limited in its functioning, and the soul would rather be out than in.

To be clear: I have not seen this in cases where there is profound physical disability, only in cases with catastrophic, irreversible brain damage.

I have seen this many times now, but the first time was with a man I barely knew.  I met him at church, did not know him or his wife except by name and reputation (lovely people), and am still not sure how his spirit knew to seek me out.  But I am forever grateful that he did, as the experience taught me a lot.

In life, this man was a vivacious, outgoing, 70-something-year-old who loved helping people and volunteered practically everywhere.  He also loved traveling, and returned from an epic trip with a cold.  Not one to “lie around,” he kept to his usual routine, and wound up in the hospital intensive care unit a week later with pneumonia.  And a few days after that, suffered a massive heart attack.

Because he was in the ICU at the time, a cardiac team was at his side almost immediately, and began resuscitation.  It was not an easy task, and in the end they were successful by their standards, but not by his.  He had to be defibrillated nine times, and his brain went without oxygen for a significant amount of time.  He was alive, but never regained consciousness after the heart attack, and tests showed virtually no brain wave activity.  Two weeks later, his family made the agonizing decision to discontinue life-sustaining treatments, and he died shortly thereafter.

If we define a living person as mind-body-spirit, however, then this man actually died at the time of the heart attack.  With the profound damage to his brain, his spirit had no interest in being in his body.  His spirit bumped out, stayed out, and hovered nearby.  So, as weird as this sounds, what his family agonized over was body only — no mind, no spirit.

During this time of alive-but-bumped-out, his spirit contacted me, and a back-and-forth dialogue began, with him asking me questions, and then me asking him.  I was desperately curious, because I had only ever observed the bumping-out phenomenon with people who were just about to die (as with end-stage cancer), never with anyone who might recover.  I wondered if he was about to die.  He didn’t understand what was happening and wondered if he was already dead.  We sorted that out, and then together we sorted out much more.  Turns out that while the body is still alive, the spirit can bump out, but it can’t go far.  The tether that binds our body and spirit together is a strong one, and until the body is dead, that binding cannot be broken for the spirit to move freely about.  In his case, he wanted the binding to be broken.  It surprised me, but he saw no hope for the recovery of his body, saw the inevitability of death, and his spirit yearned to be free.

I cannot say if this is the case for every person with profound, irreversible brain damage, but I have found it to be true of every case of this sort that I have encountered.  Among others, it was true of a young man who was in a nearly-fatal car accident and a young woman who was the victim of a hit-and-run.  In both cases, their minds were left in a vegetative state, and their spirits bumped out, stayed out, and yearned to be free.  Their bodies were just bodies, their souls already separate and waiting to move on.

With the two cases mentioned above, they did not die after their accidents, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine.  And their families chose to keep them alive.  But I am not convinced that this was the best choice.  I am a hopeless optimist, so I understand families who make this choice, but in all three of the cases I described, I heard a common refrain from their spirits: can i go now? can i GO now? can i go NOW? and finally, CAN i go now?  And I think when a person’s mind is irreversibly, catastrophically damaged, and consciousness is not and never will be possible, we should be more open to answering, “Yes.”

We worry about a person being trapped in a body without a working mind.  But we should be worried about trapping a spirit in a life that has ended.  I know that this is hard to hear.  It is hard for me to write.  But the truth is, death is a natural part of life, and it isn’t always the worst thing.

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