This week on Game of Thrones, we witness the main protagonist, Lord Commander of the Night’s watch, Jon Snow’s, resurrection. The scene had a particular significance to me, because, I, too, have been brought back from the dead, albeit for a much shorter period of time than Jon Snow. Having gone through the experience myself, I found the scene moving, yet chilling.
In the opening scene of season six, episode three, Jon Snow gasped for air, as he returns from the dead, much the same as someone would if he were coming to the surface of water after an extended period of time. His breaths resounded in fear, confusion and personal struggle. Once he caught his breath, he sat upright, naked, vulnerable and confused, and pondered in silence to absorb and grasp the reality of the situation. He had been murdered by his own people, stabbed in the abdomen and heart, including by a 12-year-old boy, several hours prior, and, despite bleeding to death, he was, again, alive. It is an experience like no other.
Last year, I was rushed into emergency surgery to implant a nephrostomy tube in order to externally drain my kidney, as the flow of urine was obstructed by a massive kidney stone. The stone had caused a severe infection, which quickly led to sepsis. I entered the operating room, was placed on the table and was given some sedation to ease the trauma. The next thing I remembered was coming to with a tube down my throat, which was connected to a ventilator. My hands were tied to the bed to prevent me from pulling out the intubation. I had the tube in my back, and a central line in my jugular. And I had a blood pressure monitor glued to my groin with a substance that caused a severe chemical burn.
In utter confusion, trauma and excruciating pain, I thrashed in the bed like a wild animal chained to a cage. I choked and gagged, feeling as though someone was trying to choke the life out of me. I tried to speak, but the intubation disabled my vocal chords. So I could do nothing more than loudly moan and cry. I couldn’t understand why they had done this to me.
I was informed that I had gone into septic shock during the operation, causing my blood pressure to bottom out to nothing and my breathing to stop. They had to place me on a ventilator because I would not breath on my own. And the blood pressure gauge was affixed to my groin, because my blood pressure was so low, a standard cuff could detect nothing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Unable to communicate in return, questions remained unanswered, and, at that point it was irrelevant. I was in terrible pain and panic, and the doctors couldn’t give me any sedation or pain medication, due to my practically nonexistent blood pressure. So the gravity of the situation had not yet been realized.
A nurse was pushing me quickly down the hall, and I felt my body and spirit lose all strength or will to live. The nurse, in a frenzy, radioed for help because “I’m losing her!” And then everything went black. They managed to inject me with enough “pressers” to bring my blood pressure back up before I flat-lined again. Once I regained consciousness, the trauma only worsened. I made the most horrific muffled sounds of anguish and tragedy, gurgling through the intubation. Though it seemed like days, I went without any form of sedation for nearly 24 hours.
The fact that Jon Snow never screamed, thrashed or rocked in pain is highly unlikely and unrealistic for someone with open wounds all over his abdomen and chest. But the subsequent scene was so moving, I couldn’t help but to recall my own experience and relate to the magnitude of the situation. Melisandre, the priestess who brought Snow back from the dead through prayer, and who was grappling with her religion and the existence of her god after her own personal tragedy, looked upon him in disbelief and reverence. The inevitable question followed: “What did you see on the other side?” His response was chilling. “Nothing.”
Once I was given pain medication to ease my suffering, my brain was able to reflect on the event of my death. I didn’t even remember it. There was nothing on the other side. There wasn’t even an “other side.” There was no tunnel. There was no bright light. There were no angels or family members greeting me at the entrance. And there were no burning flames awaiting my eternal damnation either, a concept, to which I never subscribed anyway. But as a devout Jew, I was devastated. Like Snow, I saw nothing, and it was deeply troubling. Was it all a fraud? Is there really no world to come? Is this all there is to our existence – just one tragedy after the next?
Ser Davos urges Snow to get back up and keep fighting – that there was a reason for him coming back. Again Snow responds in such a profound and human way. He says “But I failed,” referring to the circumstances, which led to his murder. (Allowing refugees to immigrate to Westeros in flight from an army of the dead, ironically an issue our world finds itself in today with ISIL, Assad and the Syrian refugees). And Davos gives a life lesson, to which we should all follow. “Yes. You failed. Go out and fail again.”
I also felt as though my life had become an utter failure, due to such severe chronic illness. The idea of continuing to fight for a life, that, by any measure, didn’t seem worth living. I felt as though if my body could fail and betray me so awfully, what was the point of fighting to survive and keep going? I wrestled with the idea of requesting a DNR and taking me off the ventilator. But ultimately the human spirit wishes to survive and stay alive, potentially because our subconscious knows that this life is all we have. It is only when we realize that life is one tragedy after the next that we can truly live.
Snow, like me, decided to move forward, and went out to see his loyal men, many of whom had been refugees, who owed him their lives. They stared at him in shock and disbelief, believing that, maybe, he was a god if he could come back from the dead. His closest friend in the Night’s Watch, Dolorous Ed, instinctively embraced Snow in perfect gratitude. He asked, “Is that really you?” And Snow assured him it was, paused and then said, “At least I think so.”
His inability to confirm that his present self was the same as that of the past is an integral and painful emotional aspect of coming back from seeing nothing after death. It changes you. You will never be the same person again. My death or near-death experience caused the greatest religious crisis and doubt I’d ever known. Having gone through so much suffering in the past, I questioned how God could allow this to happen to someone, who dedicated her life to God’s commandments or, worse, permit travesties like the Holocaust to occur. But this experience shook me to my core and forever changed me.
I began to embrace what my rational mind had been telling me for years: there is no god. There, likely, was no thunder-like sounding burning bush, which legislated commandments, by which the Jews should live. In a way, the idea that God did not exist gave me some spiritual relief, because I released the anger and resentment I had for God for allowing my suffering to persist. If He didn’t exist, it meant that He didn’t hate me or was apathetic to my plight. But my soul continued to pull me to the belief in a higher power and an after life. I kept telling myself that maybe I hadn’t been dead for long enough to cross over – that maybe I was still alive, but undetectably so.
I ultimately decided that God’s existence was irrelevant to me holding tightly to my faith. For me, Judaism is about keeping traditions, connecting to our ancestors from 5,000 years ago, surviving in the face of tremendous persecution and following a strict moral code. It is about being an example and a light unto the world. It is about doing good deeds, in hopes, but without the expectation, of positive energy returning.
All religions were created for this purpose. We are human, and, thus, we fail ourselves and others through our own flaws, just as Jon Snow did. Our religions simply give us a moral code, by which to live and to treat others. Otherwise, we would be no better, if not worse, than animals. And they give us great purpose in life, when, in times of darkness, we are unable to find it. That purpose, of course, is to treat others the way we would hope to be treated. It is a simple concept but a difficult one in practice. That purpose is fulfilled, regardless of whether a supernatural being exists to realize it or not. It is for us to realize and pursue, whether we call God “Jesus” “HaShem” or “Allah.” And when we do realize this purpose, we can rest assured that when it is time to leave this world, death will be a peaceful release of our soul. And our memory and traditions will live on with those we leave behind.