How It Felt to Come Back to Life

Coming back from near-death was a gracious endeavor, but it was also deeply heartbreaking

Christen O'Brien
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readMay 28, 2019


Photo: Bernd Friedel/EyeEm/Getty Images

“T“Thank God you’re alive,” my mother said to me with tears in her eyes. I lay on a hospital gurney, hooked up to machines that whirred and beeped rhythmically, the acoustic proof that life hadn’t given up on me yet.

In her eyes, I saw the pain she’d been pushing down for days. A mother who gets a phone call that her young daughter is in the ICU and might not make it. A mother who haphazardly throws clothes into a suitcase, who reaches out for the boarding pass as the airline attendant catches the terror in her face, who sits on a crowded plane for five hours staring out the window at the clouds, a full 300 disconnected minutes of not knowing if her little girl is alive or dead.

“Yes,” I said, as the tears streamed down both of our faces. “Thank God I’m alive.”

But it was a lie.

A lie I’ve told for almost a decade, until now.

In that instant, I lied out of respect for what my mother had just been through. But thereafter, that lie protected a sacred truth only I knew. A truth that I didn’t want to share, for fear of sounding irrational or condescending. A truth that eventually became my reason to live more fully — but taken the wrong way by someone else, might be a reason not to.

A truth about death that the living could never understand.

InIn my wildest imagination I could never have realized the impact it would have when I published my story about almost dying from a pulmonary embolism. Hundreds of emails began pouring in from complete strangers. Stories of husbands lost, wives lost, parents lost, children lost. Cancer. Heart attacks. Old age. Suicide. Long emails. Some were essays, others practically poetry. Detailed accounts of the final months, the final moments, the struggle to understand it all. Regrets about not being there by their side.

Deep angst about not knowing, for sure, if it had been peaceful.

The not knowing for sure. That was the common, residual pain each of these people carried with them, every day, since they lost their loved one.



Christen O'Brien
Human Parts

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (

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