“A trip to heaven taught me the key to lasting joy”
When spinal surgeon Mary Neal, M.D., drowned in a kayaking accident, she had a near-death experience that was more beautiful than she could’ve ever imagined. Here, she shares the story of how her journey helped her through the most heartbreaking loss a mo
Dr. Mary Neal pressed the phone tightly against her ear as the world began to spin sickeningly around her. Willie, my sweet boy… hit by a car… dead. On June 21, 2009, Dr. Neal had called her 18-year-old son to share the happy news that she’d finished the final draft of her first book. They were supposed to laugh and celebrate and share in the joyful moment, but instead, she was told that a tragic accident had claimed Willie’s life.
As her happiness was replaced by unspeakable grief, Dr. Neal realized she’d never see her son’s radiant smile again or hear his voice. She would never be able to hug him or say one last “I love you.” But despite her deep, soul-shaking sorrow, she felt a small ray of light shatter the pain and darkness. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Willie was in heaven—where there is no pain… just sheer love and immeasurable joy. She knew it with complete conviction because 10 years earlier, Dr. Neal says she made a journey to heaven herself.
A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN
On a sunny January day in 1999, Dr. Neal had set off with friends to kayak the Fuy River in a remote area of Chile. Shortly after paddling into the swiftly moving rapids, her kayak had veered off course, plunged over a steep waterfall and got wedged under a rock.
Trapped under eight feet of raging water, she had fought to free herself, but the weight of the waterfall was too much, and she’d soon realized… she was going to drown. “I’ve always loved the water, but I thought that drowning would be one of the most horrible ways to die—being filled with panic, air hunger, struggling,” she shares. “Maybe it was my training as a surgeon, but I felt incredibly calm.”
When she realized she wasn’t going to survive, she simply prayed, God, Your will be done. “I’d said The Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times, but for the first time in my life, I meant each word,” she admits. “I was no religious zealot. I went to Sunday school. I could say, ‘Yes, I believe in God.’ But I had a good life, and honestly, I didn’t think I needed God. But I consciously chose to say, ‘God, I am Yours… regardless of the outcome.’”
The moment Dr. Neal said that prayer, she recalls feeling an incredible peace wash over her. “I felt so held by God,” she says. “It was like when you’re holding a newborn baby and you’re just pouring all of your love and hopes and dreams and your very being into that little person— but I was the baby! I felt so purely and completely known, loved and cherished.”
She then recalls being shown a “review” of her life. “It was the most life-changing part of this entire experience because not only would I reexperience an event from my life in real time, I’d also reexperience it from the perspective of everyone else involved,” she describes. “It gave me such a deep compassion and a new understanding of grace because if there was a time I felt resentment or anger, it all disappeared as I understood what pain or suffering had brought those people to that point in time. I felt exactly what they were going through.”
During her life review, Dr. Neal says she was still aware of her physical body. “I could still feel the pressure of the water, the plastic of my kayak,” she recalls. “I was never conscious and then unconscious—I was conscious and then more conscious. I believe the spirit world and our world are the same. It’s simply a matter of perspective. A different dimension.” She remembers suddenly feeling a “pop” as her spirit separated from her body, and hovering above the river watching her friends frantically pull her ashore.
“I could hear them begging me to take a breath, and that’s the first time I thought, Well, I guess I died!” Dr. Neal says with a chuckle. But as she watched them administer CPR, she says 15 radiant beings appeared by her side. “They were overjoyed to see me,” she recalls. “They were there to welcome me and they were overflowing with love, not only for me but also with pure love of God. They beckoned me to follow them… so I happily did.”
HELD BY LOVE
Dr. Neal recalls walking through the forest, surrounded by the group of “radiant souls,” and being awed by her heightened senses. She saw breathtaking colors and smelled captivating aromas of flowers and trees. “Everything was all colors at once, like the Northern Lights,” she describes. She then recalls coming to the threshold of a glorious domed structure where hundreds of thousands of other souls cheered her arrival. “It was like the building was built with fibers of love and it was so radiant and so alluring and beautiful. It was iridescent,” she describes. “All I wanted to do was be there. As all of that awe-inspiring love flowed through me, my guides told me it wasn’t my time.”
She had no intention of going back. “I had a wonderful life,” Dr. Neal shares, “but even the love of my children, which is the most intense love I can imagine, paled to the intensity of being in the presence of God’s love.” But she says the radiant souls insisted that she still had work to do on Earth and warned her that a painful hardship was approaching—that her 8-year-old son, Willie, would die before adulthood. Moments later, she awoke on the riverbank in her body.
RISING ABOVE PAIN
Dr. Neal was in the hospital for several weeks and had multiple surgeries to realign two broken legs. As her body recovered, she says her spirit struggled to adjust to the physical world. “For a week, I felt neither here nor there,” she says. “I had one foot in God’s world and one foot in ours. I didn’t tell anyone about my experience because I was still figuring it out.”
She also grappled with the warning she’d been given. “It didn’t come as a complete surprise because when Willie was 4, he’d said that he would never be 18,” says Dr. Neal. “He’d say, ‘But Mama, that’s the plan.’”
She soon recovered and returned to her life, and eventually began writing her memoir, To Heaven and Back, about her near-death experience. As Willie approached his 18th birthday, the loving mom hoped God’s plan had changed… but on that fateful day in June, she discovered it had not.
“I was as devastated as a mother could be. I still love Willie more than I could imagine loving anyone,” she shares with a voice filled with sadness. “I would still give my life to have one more day with him. But I will also say that on my saddest day, I am still filled with joy. Joy and happiness are two very different things. Joy transcends everything. Because of my experience in heaven, I have absolute trust that God’s promises are true. It’s this trust in God that allows us to transcend our suffering and get through the pain.”
HEAVEN IS REAL
Today Dr. Neal continues to embrace all she’s learned from her experience in heaven and has spoken with thousands of others who have had similar near-death experiences. One thing they all have in common: “I know for a fact that heaven is real. That God has a plan of hope, grace and beauty for each and every one of us, and I trust that my son’s life and his death were part of God’s plan,” she says. “I know for a fact that death is not to be feared, and I trust that Willie will be the first one to greet me, saying, ‘Took you long enough.’ Most of all, I know for a fact that God loves us infinitely, and there’s an eternity of joy and peace to look forward to.”
Dr. Neal in the spring of 1999, recovering from multiple surgeries after her accident
In 2015, Dr. Neal returned to kayak the Fuy River where her life- and spirit-changing accident took place
Read more about Dr. Neal’s incredible journey in her new book, 7 Lessons from Heaven (Convergent, 2017; Paperback $17, Kindle $12, Nook $12)
Dr. Mary Neal with her son, Willie, and husband, Bill, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2007