What I Learned from my Own Near-Death Experience

I should’ve died at 2AM on the 30th of  August 2011.

It was in Kenya on the day after an AIESEC international youth congress. Out of the total 400 attendants of the event, 65 of us were on our way to Mombasa for post conference holidays. Having spent together 10 intensive days of learning, exploration, work, and friendship, we were a happy tribe. We got on the bus the same way we’d gotten on hundreds of other buses before, unknowing what was waiting ahead. We put together some money to buy and share pizzas. Some of us were singing. Some of us were having heart-to-heart conversations with each other. At some point, we all fell asleep. I did too.

I was flying and falling. It was a brief moment without gravity. It must have been a dream. Only that it wasn’t. The strong bump shook me off from my sleep. I was confused. “GET OUT OF THE BUS!” someone shouted at the back. I opened my eyes. There were smoke and screams. What happened? The only thing I knew was the I needed to get out of the bus. I rushed out with other people.

It was still so dark we couldn’t see each others’ faces. The only light there was the bus light. I lost my orientation. I was still half dreaming half awake. In the twirling twilight of the night, I stood there unmovable. Here is what I saw:

  • People rushed out of the bus.
  • Some girls were crying in despair. Some guys were very angry.
  • Some were running around with plastic bag to find something - the arm of someone who had just been severely damaged.
  • Some stood around like me. In shock Face expressionless.
  • Some sat down on the dirt road, covering their injured arms or faces or legs.
  • Some quivered on the ground, arms wrapped around their bodies. Trembling. A panic attack.
  • And some whose sanity was still enact, was walking around looking after others. Helping. Consoling. Hugging.  

Not all of us was outside. At the back of the bus, there were 2 who couldn’t move. Their wounds were too severe. A car drove through the highway and a girl cried out in tears: “This is not an ambulance!” But this car was our only choice for Irma. The brave, beautiful friend of us was now convulsing in pain. In the cold white bus light, I heard her weak screams, I watched her trembling silhouette being carried out and placed in the car.

There was one more person inside the bus. Elmer was so broken no one dared to move him. Calls had been made to the organizers. There was nothing we could do but wait. Under the starry Kenyan sky, in the middle of a desert, thousands of miles away from home, his pulse must be still throbbing...

From that moment on, I checked out from the situation. “How are you?” - “I’m okay” . “Do you feel pain any where?” - “No I don’t”. I didn’t cry for once. My body didn’t quiver. I didn’t even feel like I needed hugs. There was just an immense hollow within, like an owl’s sound carried across the night air. I went numb without even knowing it.

I stayed with the group and waited. Of course I did. Where else to go?  What else to do? I was in the middle of absolutely no where. Even if I stretched my eyes to the horizons in four directions, there was nothing but sand. The only highway cutting through the desert was the one brought us this nightmare. 63 of us sat down on the dirt ground besides the high way, next to the damaged bus which still carried our damaged Elmer. 

Hours and hours passed. It seemed like a lifetime. Dusk was slowly replaced by dawn. The sun came up and sent light to us as how it did yesterday, and as how it had done for billions of years. The desert, stretching in front of us and behind us, began another day. As if nothing had happened.

The passing hours made me see the situation more clearly. Suddenly I remembered something. My stomach churned. I looked around and saw Gaurav -the Indian friend who was next to me on the bus. He sat on a big rock looking at the distance. I stood up, walked toward him. I needed someone. And Gaurav he was closest to me when the accident occurred.

I sat next to him in silence. And at some point, I blurted out the thing that was churning inside me. My voice didn’t sound like my voice: “When I entered the bus, I wanted to the right end seats… But you invited me to sit with you when I was making my way there. I would’ve sat where Irma or Elmer sat…” It would have been me. I should’ve died.

I don’t remember what he said to me after that. Maybe it was “Don’t do this to yourself, Milena… It could’ve been anyone of us.” But I never forget the tenderness in his eyes.

The wind blew sand in our hair and our dry mouths. My chest was sore. Perhaps the wind also put a grain of sand in my heart…

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Almost 4 years have passed since that day. Our friend Irma was treated, and has been recovering with unbelievable courage. We lost Elmer.

For me, the grain of sand is still in there. I ran away from it in the first year. I refused the therapy offered during my recovery in Kenya. I came back to Vietnam and didn’t talk to anyone about it. I did my best to burry it under an unknown terrain in my psyche. But it always found its way back to haunt me.

I developed a phobia with any means of public transport. I had the first panic attack. And then the second. Fear was consuming me, and I knew I couldn’t go on living that way. So I began to confront this story. It has not been easy. But it works. I am now 1 year away from my last panic attack.

I’ve learned to relax whenever my chest begins to tighten, my heartbeats quicken, and the air thickens – I’m doing it right now as I’m writing these words. This is the only way for me to tell this story without trembling to the floor. Breathe. Like when I’m lost in a strange land and afraid, I ask a kind-looking stranger and that person whispers: “Follow me…” And I follow. And I know my breath will lead me out to the light where air smells the scent of lemongrass, and bring me home.

“We don’t choose our stories. Our stories choose us. And if we don’t tell them, we are somehow diminished.” What Honor Moore said is nothing but truth. Owning our most haunting stories, we let them rush through us. We let them burn. We let them be felt. All pains are meant to be felt. That’s the only way we can let them go, and stand up to be human again.

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Later a Kenyan friend told me that the accident was announced on the media in all of Nairobi. “A bus accident… 65 passengers…  from Nairobi to Mombasa… 1 death… 1 severely injured… several minor injuries… they are being treated…” It sounded so surreal, so distant. It sounds like any other traffic accident reports we hear almost everyday while saying to ourselves: “This won’t happen to me.”

But it happened. I wasinthat bus accident. I was one of those 65passengers. I saw the blood. I heard the scream. I smelled the night air. I tasted the dry wind. I felt the cold dew and the warm sunlight on my skin.

Sometimes death encounters us in our path, but because our time hasn’t come, it brushes our skin and passes us, without breaking us. Yet, we are close enough to witness what death means. This encounter, if buried, will take us with it in the coffin of fear. But if embraced, will be the biggest gift falling upon us. Near-death experiences teach us that every breath we take, every meal we eat, every person we smile with, can be our last.

I used to think death would take away everything. Now I understand that death is constantly giving me something: it is making me come alive. The rain this afternoon may bring the last raindrop I will ever get to see. So let’s go out. Soak it all in.

Oh! This one short, precious life…