The Near-Death of a Child
By Helena Rocca
Tuesday, May 15, 2001
In March of 1990, while vacationing in Florida, our family was involved in a serious car accident: a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Rose Marie, our five year old daughter, and I only sustained minor injuries, but my husband and our two and a half year old daughter Kayla were gravely hurt. Along with fractures to her right leg and collar bone, as well as other injuries, Kayla’s left hip was smashed, requiring several weeks in traction and more weeks in a bodycast.
The earliest prognosis was that Kayla’s left leg would likely not heal properly since the fracture occurred across the growth plate. The fractures did heal, but one leg was markedly shorter than the other. We were then told she would likely have a permanent limp. But six months after the accident, the limp was no longer apparent. And a little less than a year later both legs had grown to be the same length. One is slightly longer from hip to knee and the other is longer from knee to ankle, but she has no physical disabilities whatsoever. In fact, she is an excellent dancer, gymnast, and sprint and relay runner for her School’s track and field team.
Aside from my daughter’s remarkable recovery, there is another aspect of the accident I would like to share — Kayla’s near-death experience.
After the impact, my husband was pinned inside the wreckage and writhing in pain beside me. As I turned and looked into the back of the car, I could see Rose Marie was not seriously hurt. But, to my horror, Kayla was no where to be seen. Her side of the car had been obliterated by the crash. I thought at first that she might be tangled within the wreckage, but seconds later discovered she had been thrown out of the seat and into the hatchback of the car.
A bystander hurried to our aid, wrapped Rose Marie in a jacket, and carried her to a bench some yards from the car so that I could attend to Kayla. Kayla’s eyes were closed, her face was an ashen white, and her body was still and motionless. I was sure she had died. To spare my husband from this knowledge, I gathered Kayla’s limp body in my arms, lifted her out of the car, and stepped a short distance away. The moments that followed are forever imprinted on my memory.
As I stood holding Kayla, all the sights, sounds and commotion around me seemed to fade away. I was only aware of my child and a bright, white light that emanated from her body, surrounding us both. Then Kayla’s eyelids began to flutter and she opened her eyes and looked into mine. Her gaze was intent and fixed. I felt she was looking at me and also through me. And there occurred between us what I can only describe as an outpouring of love. Within this love, I felt perfectly at peace. I knew Kayla was about to die, but I was not afraid to let her go. A second or two later, she closed her eyes and was gone.
When Kayla “died,” my peace was instantly and violently shattered. The reality of living without her seemed unbearable. And it felt as though my soul had torn from my body and entered into some other dimension, a dark and empty void, in search of my child. But Kayla was not there. And the grief I felt was so agonizing, all I could do was scream.
It was a silent scream, one that could only be heard inside my mind, but out of this pain came a thought, a solution: I began calling out to God from within the void, asking God to bring Kayla back, and to bring her back whole. Suddenly, the sounds — my husband’s moans, the running and shouting of the people — were part of my awareness again. And I began calling out my daughter’s name, hoping it would somehow help to revive her. “Kayla! Kayla!” I shouted loudly and firmly, over and over again. A woman came and put her hand on my shoulder, as if to tell me to stop, that my daughter was dead. I noticed then that there were many people around us. Some were crying. But I could not stop, and continued calling Kayla’s name.
Although it seemed like an eternity, likely only a minute or two passed before Kayla’s body suddenly jolted. It was as though she had been shocked by electricity or dropped from a great height, and all her limbs jerked. The force was so strong, I almost dropped her. And then, in an instant, all the color rushed back into her face, her eyes popped open, and she screamed, “I NEED A BAND-AID!” Overwhelmed with relief and with tears still streaming down my face, I began to laugh, as did the other people who were there.
The first few months after the accident were tremendously stressful. The reality of death seemed a constant presence. I felt traumatized. Why did God put my family through this? Had we not suffered enough? I felt guilty. Why was my child spared while others die in their mothers’ arms? I felt angry — very angry with God. But during the month before my husband and Kayla were well enough to be transported home by air ambulance, and during the year of recovery that followed, this rage seemed to give me the strength and energy I needed to get myself and my family through.
I was also plagued by nightmares in which my children were dying, slipping out of my grasp and falling into some bottomless abyss. I would awaken from these dreams in a cold sweat, shaken and in tears. The events surrounding the accident would replay themselves in my waking hours as well, often while driving. It was horrible and confusing. All I knew was that the world was not a safe place. At any given moment, God might come and try to snatch my loved ones from me. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
At first, I didn’t tell anyone, except my husband and my parents, that Kayla had come so close to dying. The experience and the feelings it aroused were just too painful for me to talk about with anyone else. But eventually I did share the experience with a few close friends, hoping they might be able to help me work through my anger and confusion. I needed some sort of validation that what happened to me was real, that I had not imagined the light and void, and that my daughter had survived an encounter with death. But as supportive as my friends had been throughout this time, this validation was not something they could give me.
The alienation I felt from not being able to find the kind of understanding I needed just compounded my confusion. I began to wonder if maybe my friends were right. Perhaps what I experienced was the result of shock. Perhaps Kayla’s condition was also shock and not a near-death experience as I had thought. Soon, I began to think that maybe God and all the mysterious experiences that had hinted at God’s existence over the course of my life might also be illusions, delusions really, the result of wishful thinking and an overdeveloped imagination.
By mid-May, just over three months after the accident, my husband was able to walk short distances with the aid of a walker. Kayla’s bodycast had recently been removed and she needed to be in a stroller since walking was still quite difficult for her. But they were both well enough for us to pay a visit to my father who was in hospital at the time, recovering from surgery for bladder and prostate cancer. During this visit, Kayla spied a get-well card on my father’s bedside table. On the front was a picture of Jesus sitting on a rock in a garden, holding a small child on his lap. She became very excited about it, tugging at my clothes and then at my mother’s, trying to get our attention.
“Who’s that?” Kayla asked, pointing to the picture.
“It’s Jesus,” I answered.
“Well, Jesus picked me up,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Where did he pick you up?” I asked.
“In Florida,” she said.
“Where in Florida, at Disneyland?” I asked, thinking she might have been referring to some flesh-and-blood person.
“No, silly mommy! At the car accident!” she laughed.
My family members and I just looked at one another in amazement, and for a moment we were speechless.
“So Jesus picked you up? Where did he take you?” I continued.
“He was taking me to heaven.”
“Did you go to heaven?”
“No,” Kayla said. “You were crying so much that Jesus gave me back to you.”
As I listened, chills ran up and down my spine, and tears filled my eyes. Kayla went on to tell us that Jesus had taken her by the hand and lifted her out of the car. As he carried her away, she could see the car wreck below. She wanted to go to heaven with him, she said.
When I asked what Jesus looked like, she said something even more astonishing. The Jesus who picked her up was a being of “blue light.” As she recounted this memory, the expression on her face became blissful. “He was beautiful!” she said.
Seeing the peace and joy on Kayla’s face as she shared her NDE with us, I was immediately released from many of the difficult feelings that had been tormenting me over those months. But it would be several more years before I could even begin to think about the many questions the experience inspired. These questions, although still unanswered, continue to hold my attention to this day.
Kayla sometimes liked to talk about the NDE during that first year, but stopped when she became embarrassed by the curiosity it aroused. These days, she doesn’t mention it very often, but she has agreed to let me share her story.