Cheryl Dile was driving her five-year-old daughter Ashley and Ashley's baby brother Daniel to see the Easter Bunny in the spring of 1992, when their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Ashley survived the tragic accident, but her mother and brother did not. When Ashley awoke from her coma two weeks after the accident, she told startled relatives that she'd met a bearded man after the wreck.
"Mom and Daniel both walked to heaven," she said. "Mom was happy. I wanted to stay but the man said I had to come back. He said it wasn't my time to die."
Karen Moore, a child therapist who treated Ashley at the University of Missouri-Columbia Hospital, said, "I'm convinced she's telling the truth. She's only a five-year-old child. There's no way she could make up a story like that."
Stories of near-death experiences (NDEs) are becoming commonplace, but they are especially noteworthy when they come from children. Kids often see Jesus or ethereal beings robed in purple. More than 70 percent see angels with wings.
Brad and Sherry Steiger, authors of Children of the Light, both had NDEs as youngsters. They are keenly aware of the visions reported by those returning from death. "Most children describe angels, light beings, and voices which guide them," they say.
Bonnie, who is now a high school counselor, was 11 when she experienced a four-week coma following a reaction to an antibiotic.
"The angels helped me through that ordeal," she said. "Later, when I was 17, I reconnected with one of them. To this day we communicate."
Although many adults agree that unusual experiences are happening to children who have died, others have maintained their distance, wanting more proof. Doctors are notoriously reserved in affairs of the heart and spirit.
Dr. Diane M. Komp, a pediatric oncologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, was one of them. She admits she was an atheist who didn't believe in anything relating to heaven or spiritual matters -- even when her young wards lay near death.
"I was AWOL, absent without the Lord," she said. "I did not pretend to have any handy theological solutions to people's existential dilemmas. Many times I listened politely to parents who groped for God in their most painful hour. I respected them all for their journeys, but I heard no convincing evidence in their revelations to challenge my way of thinking."
Komp's religious conversion began with Mary Beth, a six-year-old cancer victim. Mary Beth's prognosis was poor and it was decided that it would be best for her to be at home.
During a routine hospital visit, Mary Beth's mother said she was bothered by a dream her daughter had shared with her.
"She said Jesus had come to her with one of her grandfathers, who had died before she was born," Komp said. "Together, Jesus and her grandfather told her of her impending death and encouraged her not to be afraid. Mary Beth awoke with peace and reassurance."
What perplexed Mary Beth's mother was that her daughter had never met that grandfather. And the child's serenity astounded everyone.