It’s one of life’s unanswered questions: what happens after you die? Does Heaven exist — and do those on ‘the other side’ guide you back to life if it’s not your time?
The subject has fascinated theologians and scientists alike, with the latter attempting — yet not succeeding — to convince the former with their explanations of neurochemical responses in a dying brain.
A new series on Netflix, Surviving Death, speaks to people who are convinced they’ve seen what lies beyond. Here, JILL FOSTER speak to five survivors about their experiences…
A SHADOWY FIGURE LED ME BACK TO LIFE
Steven Robinson, 57, is a motivational speaker from Leeds. He says:
When I was 18 I was in involved in a motorbike accident that resulted in the loss of my right arm. My lungs were punctured, I suffered internal damage and lost a lot of blood.
The operation to try to save me took nine hours, but I later learned my heart had stopped and I’d ‘died’ three times on the operating table — I presume that’s when I had my near-death experience, although it may have happened during the coma I was in for several weeks.
The strange thing was that it was really very pleasant and, if I had the chance to do it all again, I would. It was pitch black, there was no light at all, but I remember such a feeling of peace and security, as if I were being protected by something or someone.
I’ve no idea how long I was in that place — possibly the edge of death — but, at some point, the ‘someone’ I’d sensed seemed to lead me back into consciousness.
Steven Robinson, 57, (pictured) claims a shadowy figure led him back to consciousness
What was really strange — and this did make me jump — was that when I opened my eyes from the coma, the figure who I instinctively knew had guided me was standing at the bottom of my bed. I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, it was just a shadowy figure in a human adult form and I thought I was imagining it.
I rubbed my eyes and even hid under the cover for a few seconds, convinced that when I came out, it would be gone. But it wasn’t.
It stayed with me for quite some months afterwards, even after I’d come home from hospital five weeks later — never saying anything but simply standing at the bottom of my bed — and I felt comforted by its presence.
I later learned this phenomenon is well known in spiritual circles as The Third Man — a usually unseen being that intervenes at critical moments to give comfort.
I’ve closed my mind to it now, so no longer see it, but for all I know it may still be there. That doesn’t scare me.
The nurses were quite worried because I seemed so happy afterwards. I don’t recall telling them about the figure, but my mum says that I had yelled that there was someone in my room.
Before the accident I’d been religious, always praying before bed, but now I felt I didn’t need to do that any more. I felt religion was a man-made construct, but that there was an afterlife and a spiritual world, and I’d made a connection.
The experience gave me so much confidence to do things in life that I wouldn’t have done before. I’d been afraid of flying and horses but, after the accident, I trained as a pilot and competed in dressage.
I was also super-shy as a youngster, but now I give motivational talks to hundreds of people at a time, and was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list in 2017.
The logical side of my brain says that what happened to me was the drugs or my brain playing tricks. But I truly believe it was more than that and that it transformed my life.
I COULD SEE MYSELF IN THE HOSPITAL BED
Molly Murray, 33, is a life coach specialising in helping people heal after trauma. She lives with husband Gordon, 39, a teacher and minister, and son Jack, five, in Ayrshire. She says:
When I was 15 and on a boating trip with my family, a speedboat driver wasn’t paying attention and crashed into the side of us. His boat came down on my head, causing severe traumatic brain injury.
I was airlifted by helicopter and put in an induced coma at the hospital, while specialists tried everything, but they couldn’t stop the inflammation on my brain and my family were told to expect the worst.
Molly Murray, 53, (pictured) claims she saw herself lying in a hospital bed through a light
While in the coma I had one very intense experience of being drawn towards a bright, white light which seemed to be calling me forward. I wasn’t scared at all.
The light was circular and radiated out, like a vision you might imagine if you were about to see an angel. I was bathed in this light, and it felt hopeful and inspiring.
I’d always been religious and something told me that this was Heaven. I felt so uplifted.
Through the light, I could see my body on the hospital bed. I could see the details of the hospital room — the lamp, the curtains, the cabinet — and watched myself as I lay there.
Somehow, I knew that my body needed me to return.
I could have happily gone into the light, but I just knew it wasn’t the right time.
When I woke up, the details of the room were exactly as I’d seen them, even though there was no way I could really have seen them because I was in the coma.
It took me years to recover from the accident, having to learn to speak, walk and read again. But what happened that day gave me a deep peace about death.
Although I want to live a long time, I’m almost excited by what will happen when I do die.
MY DEAD GRANDMA SPOKE TO ME
Bill Fenton, 33, is a chef. He is married to Vicki, 27, and the couple live in Thurso, Highland. He says:
The last thing I remember before my near-death experience in 2019 is an anaesthetist telling me I needed to be put on a ventilator.
A couple of days earlier, my wife, Vicki, had phoned for an ambulance after I’d woken up in agony, coughing constantly and screaming in pain.
At the time, I was in remission from Hodgkin lymphoma — cancer of the white blood cells — but I’d developed pneumonia.
Bill Fenton, 33, (pictured) claims he saw his late grandmother appear from a bright light during a bone marrow transplant
As I’d had a bone marrow transplant nine months earlier, doctors at my local hospital were so concerned that they had me flown by helicopter to a larger hospital, and my family were told it was unlikely I’d survive.
While unconscious on the ventilator, I remember seeing a very small, white light, like an LED bulb in the distance, getting closer and closer. I couldn’t tell if it was coming towards me or if I was going towards it, but suddenly I saw a figure.
It was my granny, Isobel, who had died three years earlier, and she was as clear as day. She was wearing tartan trousers and a blouse, and her hair and features were exactly the same as I remembered.
She said to me: ‘Not yet, it’s not your time.’
It was scary because I realised she was talking about dying, and it makes me emotional even now to think how close I came.
After that, everything went blank and the next thing I remember is waking up in hospital three days later, not knowing where I was. But the experience was so vivid I still remember it clearly and feel so thankful and lucky to be alive.
Ever since then, I’ve felt so much more positive about life and am no longer scared of death. I had to go into hospital several times afterwards and nearly died of sepsis, but I don’t recall another moment of seeing my granny.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t put in a coma or I wasn’t as close to death.
Incredibly, despite being told that my cancer was incurable in 2017, I am now in remission and feel so confident about the coming year. My mum says that I’m a ‘walking miracle’.
SCENES FROM MY LIFE FLASHED BY ME
Stella Ralfini, 73, is a yoga teacher and natural health expert. She lives in Hertford and has one daughter. She says:
Moments before I got into the car, after leaving a party with my boyfriend, I had a flash of intuition: I was going to die.
I was only 16 and I’d never experienced a sensation like it before, but in that instant I was convinced that it was my time.
My boyfriend told me to stop being silly and, eventually, I got into the passenger seat so he could drive. But he was drunk and, moments later, he was racing against a friend when he skidded and crashed, and I was thrown from the vehicle.
They say your life flashes before you when you die, and that’s what happened to me.
Stella Ralfini, 73, (pictured) claims scenes from her life flashed before her eyes after being thrown from a car
A film of clips from my life played before my eyes in very quick succession — shots of me collecting spinach in the fields with my father who was a chef; a time when I was standing on a balcony crying as a little child in my first home in Finsbury Park, North London; being picked up and put on the shoulders of a Pearly King as we danced in the street.
I could see each shot so clearly and I remember them all distinctly, even today. Then I could feel myself looking down at my bloodied, lifeless body at the side of the road.
I wasn’t in pain, but could see that my boyfriend and our friends were all standing over me and crying.
Someone had called for an ambulance, but I could hear them saying, ‘She’s dead’. And I remember thinking: ‘I’m not dead, I’m not ready to die, I’m not even 17 yet, I want to get back into my body.’
I felt I had a choice about what I could do.
Then . . . whoosh! I was back in my body and being lifted into an ambulance.
I don’t recall much about what happened next, but I had some terrible injuries and still have the scars today.
Ever since that moment, I’ve felt completely blessed in life. I have a deep connection to the spirit world and feel spirits around me all the time, and call on their help when I need it.
Even though I didn’t want to die then, I don’t fear death.
I’ve had so many great opportunities that have come about through sheer luck, and I put it all down to that one night when I felt ‘protected’.
For instance, in my early 20s I walked into a job as PA to the Rolling Stones, simply by being in the right place at the right time.
Then, while three-and-a-half months pregnant with my daughter, I lost a lot of blood and the doctors thought I was losing her. I called on the spirits to help me and she survived.
And when I was diagnosed with melanoma at 70, doctors said it was the type of cancer that would kill me within a year. I recovered.
I’m grateful every day that whatever happened to me on the night of the car crash has helped me lead a remarkable life.
I WANTED TO GO BACK TO ‘HEAVEN’
Cemanthe McKenzie, 40, is a self-employed photographer. She lives in Ramsgate, Kent, with her husband Simon Hoult, 44, who works in retail and son Jamie, nearly two. She says:
When I was in my 20s, I was drugged by a stranger in a nightclub — I assume it was something like the date-rape drug Rohypnol, as I was completely knocked out and I hadn’t been drinking.
Thankfully, I got to hospital safely, but ever since I’ve experienced blackouts which doctors can’t explain. I’ve had countless tests, but no one has ever found anything wrong with me.
In 2013, I was delivering a seminar in a library when I felt a headache coming on. I excused myself to go to the loo and remember feeling weird and leaning forward. I suspected a blackout was coming. But what happened next had never happened before — or since.
Cemanthe McKenzie, 40, (pictured) blacked out in 2013 and claims to have found herself walking through a yellow-coloured field
I suddenly found myself walking through a warm, yellow-coloured field, with my arms trailing along the tops of the long grass behind me. I heard a group of people laughing and walking behind me.
Although I couldn’t see their faces, I knew they were friends, and we were walking towards a farmhouse at the end of the field.
I felt incredibly calm and warm as I walked towards the sun. The light was a beautiful golden colour. I was wearing a white outfit and had long flowing hair, even though in reality, my hair was short. I had no sense of time but knew I was completely content in this place.
Suddenly, I was back in the real world, my head was on someone’s lap and I was surrounded by paramedics. I heard the words, ‘She’s back!’ I remember crying and saying: ‘No, I need to go back, please, I need to go back.’ The real world felt all ‘wrong’.
I later found out that I’d been out cold for at least ten minutes. The paramedics also said my heart had stopped for a few seconds, but that I’d come round before they needed to intervene.
For months afterwards, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was meant to be in that other place, not here. It upset me, and I couldn’t help crying. I remember telling my mother I shouldn’t be here, which slightly worried her as she didn’t want me taking matters into my own hands to get back there.
Even now, occasionally, the feeling creeps back and I miss that feeling of total contentment.
I have no idea if what I experienced was my brain dying or if it was Heaven.
I’m not religious, but this has given me an inner reassurance. That place had the same all-encompassing warmth I imagine you would have felt in the womb. Now I have no fear of death.