“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

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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

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