In My Time of Dying: How I Came Face to Face with the Idea of an Afterlife

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Release Date: 
May 21, 2024
Simon & Schuster
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Sebastian Junger’s journey through the murky labyrinth of the near-death experience begins with an eerie series of events, if not premonitions, as if he was preparing for his death while fighting for his life. He clears a road to his very rural house and suggests a private afternoon with his wife, saying “It’s such a beautiful day, and no one ever knows how many of these they have left.” As he had for months, Junger ignores the growing pain in his abdomen, but ponders his dream of the night before, when he saw his family crying while he floated above and beyond them, all while his dreaming self realizes: “I’d died because I hadn’t taken my life seriously . . . I’d been careless, and now it was too late.”

Then his pancreatic artery ruptures leading to an ambulance ride, ten units of blood transfused to replace blood lost during his hemorrhage, and hours in the emergency room where, rather like the cat in quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment, Junger is held in a limbo of statistical possibilities, at once there and not there, perhaps to die and perhaps to live.

Ever the journalist, Junger details his emergency room experiences and the limited options his doctors had to save his life. He alternates this with the many times he could (and arguably should) have died, whether solo surfing in the North Atlantic during winter or being confronted by Nigerian rebels.

When he sees the doctors exchanging knowing looks, when the emergency room fills with a darkness that’s tugging at him, Junger sees his long-dead, scientist father above him, reassuring him that death will be alright, he’ll be safe, he’ll be protected. Says Junger, “I loved him, but he had no business being here. Because I didn’t know I was dying, his invitation to join him seemed grotesque. He was dead, I was alive, and I wanted nothing to do with him.”

Junger survives, yet he can’t quite leave the land of death. “The extra years that had been returned to me were too terrifying to be beautiful and too precious to be ordinary,” he writes. That knife’s edge awareness turns Junger’s attention to his near-death vision of his father “who didn’t believe in anything that he couldn’t measure and test. (Which, as he’d point out, isn’t actually belief.)”

Junger plums the medical research that supports yet questions experiences too common to be disbelieved, but too unbelievable to be trusted. Across time and cultures, even though their brains are so oxygen deprived that no thoughts should be possible, many of those who almost die, or who are revived after death, report seeing their life in review, or encountering dead friends and loved ones who encourage them to cross over (or return to their bodies), or having the sensation of leaving their bodies yet watching and hearing the reactions of doctors, nurses, and family members.

In a universe where existence is against all odds, would life after death be so unlikely? That launches Junger on a review of quantum physics, where every theory behind the existence of reality edges close to mysticism (or quackery) and terror. In another odd coincidence, one of Junger’s relatives had an affair with Schrödinger, whose work focused on the probabilities behind electrons, and therefore what we understand to be existence itself.

Adding to the many questions that (understandably) Junger can’t answer is whether consciousness itself is woven into the universe, just another unexplored quantum force, with each person at once an individual particle and an eddy in an endless wave.

The only way to answer these questions is to die, but few people want to do that just to find out if there’s something beyond life itself. Yet it’s hard to read In My Time of Dying and not wonder if the quantum theorists give too high a priority to consciousness and too little to love.

Perhaps love is not just an emotion but one of the enduring forces in those mysterious realms that underlie what we call reality. There were so many times when Junger could have died yet didn’t. Instead, his near death happens when he has something to lose, namely a beloved wife and two daughters.

Junger’s father was “a distracted and distant father, a germophobe who hesitated to pick up his children . . .” and yet “He appeared when I needed him most. It was quite possibly his greatest act of love toward me.”

Junger ends his brief exploration with the story of how he saved his father’s life during a camping trip. Concludes Junger, “There is no other thing—no belief or religion or faith—there is just . . . the knowledge that when we finally close our eyes, someone will be there to watch over us as we head out into that great, soaring night.”