Initiation of a Death Doula by Kristie Zahn

Photo by  Ruthie Martin  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ruthie Martin on Unsplash

Often while we are living the illusion that we have “everything under control” and have a game plan for keeping it all together, Life Itself Happens, and the unexpected takes you on a “Hero’s Journey” into the deep caverns of your mind, body and spirit.

And thus my journey began:  I was a successful HR business executive in a fifteen billion dollar global corporation--one of the few women in Sr. Leadership. With an executive MBA from a prestigious university, being a new mom with two daughters ages five and seven years, I was driven to demonstrate to the conservative old guard in the corporation that women could “be all and do all”.  It was June 3rd, 1998. I was at work in the Boardroom for an early morning meeting, drove to see my older daughter in a play, and while driving back to work on a country road, a coyote ran in front of my SUV. On impulse, I swerved to avoid hitting it and rolled my SUV…eight times over, my husband was later told.  I was thrown from the vehicle, later found in a grassy meadow, and taken to the nearest ER/Hospital where I “coded” twice.  I experienced my death, before I was stabilized and transferred via helicopter to the closest city’s Trauma 1 hospital. I was in a coma for a week.  My family was told I would not survive- and if I did “pull through” that I’d most likely not resume a normal life due to extensive brain damage on my left side. “Perhaps it would be a blessing if I died” commented a doctor to my husband and mother. I heard the doctor make this comment as I “watched” from the “other side”.


Though my body lay in ICU, unresponsive, I was aware of what was happening, watching from many different perspectives like a movie that was in black and white. Everything was foggy with a dense vibrational feel to it, neither “good” nor “bad” just dense, heavy.  Time was not linear, as I watched moments that appeared to be happening “now” mixed with watching events from my childhood- a form of life review.  People now ask me “did you see a tunnel?” For me, there was no tunnel, perhaps I was in it? It was as if I was witness to a black & white movie, watching myself here & now, and in my past.  I was aware of other Beings of Light--loving, compassionate Beings, at my side, watching the changing scenes with me, so I never felt “alone”.  Back and forth, I viewed the present with my family, simultaneously switching to a life review. As I watched scenes from my past, the lens on what I was watching seemed limited, as if a “curtain was not quite open”-- I was limited in what I was seeing.  I saw times of wounding in my past life and I “re-lived” the heartfelt pain and shame of those moments, though now I was able to observe what I was feeling from a distance as an observer, not a participant.

I was present, without judgment, to the feelings of shame and hurt, as the curtain opened gradually. My feelings of shame and unworthiness were held in a place of grace and space; a place of compassion and love for myself as the curtain continued to open. I saw that everything I had experienced had purpose, and was informing my life throughout my adulthood.  My feelings were transformed from shame to compassion and I started to hear and receive the prayers and loving intentions that were being said for me from the other side.  As my compassion for myself deepened, my heart was broken open and I was able to receive the most unconditional love, coming to me, vibrating in me and around me, from where I was, and from others in ordinary everyday life. I recognized that I had been living most of my past life “giving” love to so many, and thinking that made me a “loving person”. And yes, I was loving to others, but did not love myself.  I was blind and resistant to receiving love that was all around me.  Often I am asked: “Did you see a light?” Were you encouraged by the Beings to go to the light? Was there a priest or someone telling you from the other side to go to the light?”

As my perception of my life “wounding” shifted from shame to compassion, as I received love with a truly open heart from a place of self love, as I felt like I was vibrating and hearing such love being held for me through prayers and intentions, I didn’t “Go to the Light”, I BECAME THE LIGHT, and everything around me and within me became one.  It was as if I was “skinny dipping” into this sense of oneness the more I disrobed from the heavy garments of this lifetime. I became immersed in a state of no shame, like being naked in the Garden of Eden. It was a luscious state of rich, juicy deliciousness, exciting but other-worldly. The closest images that come to mind are scenes from the movies Avatar or What Dreams May Come.  The world I was in felt Alive, Divine and Interconnected.  Though I was one with all, I was still my unique self. As I walked, flew and rested in this lush paradise, I was able to converse with the animals and plants effortlessly. I was one with all that was and I was still me. Words fall short to explain.

Experiencing an incredible naturalness and intimacy in this divine, sacred space, I had conversations telepathically with my father, my sisters, with ancestors who knew me, both the living and the deceased. Taking on more and more light as the path deepened, I began to experience myself in God/Source and with God/Holy Sacred One. I was told I could pass, that my sacred contract on this earth had been honored in this lifetime, but I was being given a choice: I could pass, or I could return into my previous life. Reflecting tenderly on my family and my children, I knew they would be lovingly supported to go on in their lives with or without me; that I would remain close to them, closer than I had ever been before, regardless of my decision! Yes, I had longing to be with them physically, however, I knew they would be OK.  There was something else calling me back. A feeling I had something more to give. I remember saying, “I want to go back.”  There was a Divine Pause, as if my decision was being “imprinted” in a cosmic record.  As I was held in this sacred space of Love and Grace, I heard these words that I will never forget:  “It won’t be easy, you will be of service.”  That was my last memory of the blissful place of love that I was resting in.

With a cranial fusion, tracheal ventilation, broken ribs, collapsed lungs and paralysis on my right side I awoke, fully embodied in the pain and the awareness of my human presence, and the resulting restrictions of my body.  The distinct paradox of my current physical condition juxtaposed with the incomprehensible divine revelations that still vibrated somehow in my knowingness rendered me incapable of processing the current reality. I found myself engulfed in a sea of anger, as I tried desperately to process how my humanity had pulled me back into this world of pain. As my healing journey unfolded and I did my inner work along with months and years of physical therapies and surgeries, along with the wisdom of  healers and elders, I came to know a powerful Truth:  that this unforeseen car accident was no accident. Rather, I was invited by Spirit to recapitulate my story, to embrace the understanding that my passage through life, death, and back to life was a sacred initiation, a baptism through the most excruciating pain, and the most sacred of Divine experiences:  a death and a resurrection.  The day of my “death” was June 3rd 1998.  The day that I awoke from my coma was June 11th 1998.  Interesting synchronicity, my “real” birthday in my previous life was June 11th.

After four months of in patient western medical intervention, I left the hospital in a wheel char to a life of outpatient rehab. I tried to resume the life I once had without a second thought to the life of service I had committed to.  With months of therapies, surgeries and courageous perseverance, I systematically defied the odds. As fate would have it post all that conventional medicine at the time could offer me, I “found” a clinic five minutes from my brothers home in Mission Viejo, California offering cutting edge therapy in hyperbaric oxygen and brain injury rehabilitation. Six weeks at this clinic, I went from a walker to walking on my own and later was able to return to work.  In the ensuing years I resumed my previous life, while trying to unpack and make sense of the revelations experienced in my death, coma and rebirth. 

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I found a shamanic healer and spent eight years in my own healing journey, and evolving to studying shamanic/Native American spirituality and healing, when my life journey took another sharp turn. As the VP/Officer of HR in a mid sized corporation, I was tasked with a disturbing sexual harassment investigation of the nephew of the CEO. The results of my findings were received unfavorably and I found myself escorted unceremoniously out of the building.  It could have been financially devastating had I not backed up my findings with a jump drive of evidence. It “wasn’t easy” but I took legal action against the company, and I won my lawsuit, along with nine months severance.  That said, I was still not sure what I would do in my career.  In this “womb” of ambiguity, I decided to dig deep into the stirring of my heart still vibrating with love from my NDE, but without a roadmap or clear calling/career.  I entered graduate school, majoring in Religious Studies. Upon graduation, through a series of interesting “chance” meetings, I was encouraged to pursue CPE studies in preparation to be a chaplain.  After years following my “sacred initiation” I am now a chaplain in the hospital I was taken to years prior in my NDE; talk about a “full circle” experience. I now understand the reference to “service”. But I want to be gentle with this reference. We are all called to “service” in our lives to use the gifts of our life (and death) experiences for higher good. And for the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of human life in the present moment…..all of human life……even the dark, raggedy bits.

In my work now as a chaplain, I witness people who die in what is perceived as, “alone” or surrounded by medical personnel or family. In many hospitals they call the chaplain when there is “complicated grief”, like a sudden death due to an accident.  I can offer rite, ritual prayer or grief management in ordinary reality. Because of the “thinning of my veils” that I believe occurred in my NDE and the path of suffering I walked through as I merged into my pain with compassion and forgiveness, I am now a gentle vessel for the Divine to use me to help those who are passing.  I believe that there can be work done with the soul, the essence of a person who has died, that may be caught or confused. I invoke Spirit to use me as an instrument of Peace; and I am humbled and grateful TO BE OF SERVICE. 

My healing journey has taken me through traditional chaplaincy training & Board certification, retreats to the Rainforest of Peru and ceremony involving sacred plant medicine, shamanic studies and ongoing growth and transformation.  Work with the dying, to me, is as much about living as it is dying. It’s sacred work, and those called to this type of work enjoy a “front row seat” on the Divine Mystery.  

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My life has been a series of “deaths and rebirths.” With each unfolding, I am awake, aware and ever grateful for this incredible journey of life, knowing that we are never alone, that we are one with each other and one with the Divine. We are all connected to a collective oneness that is bigger than ourselves.  And because of the “woundings” of my life and my “sacred initiations”, my heart is well able to hold a presence of compassion, courage, and childlike curiosity. In fact, I begin each day from a place of gratitude. I invoke the Sacred Holy One to use me as an instrument of peace. And I claim for my “medicine” --I AM COURAGEOUS, COMPASSIONATE, WISE, and KIND.  I am present to what is as I walk in the wilderness that is the human journey, open and present to what I find on the journey, with an open heart, childlike curiosity, and gratitude.


Kristie Zahn spent 20+ years of her career as an HR Executive in non-profit, academic, and profit-based companies.  Twenty years ago, Kristie was in a car accident that had her in the hospital for 4 months, a 7 day coma, and a long road to recovery. Her healing journey has given her insight, wisdom, and compassion with regards to many traditional and integrative paths to recovery. She left her corporate career to pursue service in Spiritual Care as a Board Certified Chaplain, and offers Mindfulness classes throughout SE Wisconsin. Kristie holds Master's degrees in Management and Religious Studies, and is also a certified Life Coach. Kristie is currently a staff chaplain at All Saints and Franklin Hospitals. She has begun her journey to become a Sacred Passage Doula at the Conscious Dying Institute. Won't you join her?