Eighteen years ago, a car accident killed half of Jeff Olsen's family and changed his life forever.
It was Easter weekend in 1997 and Olsen and his wife and two sons were traveling home to Bountiful, Utah. Olsen believes he briefly fell asleep at the wheel, then overcorrected when his eyes blinked open. The ensuing rollover instantly killed his 31-year-old wife and 14-month-old son. Olsen was badly maimed, but his 7-year-old son survived.
That accident and what happened next is the basis of Olsen's 2012 memoir, "I Knew Their Hearts," and the topic of his free lecture Saturday at Pikes Peak Community College Centennial Campus Theater. He'll also hold a Q&A and book signing.
After the accident, Olsen had his first near death experience.
"I had a little peek into the other side," he said. "My wife, who I knew was deceased, was there with me and we had a conversation with her saying, 'You have to go back. You can't be here. You have a little son in the back seat crying.'"
It helped Olsen survive the painful return to reality and recovery.
"I had no sense of time," he said. "It could have been two hours or two minutes. It was like a download of information that was personal to me. It was like here's some insights to your life, to your being."
His back was broken, his rib cage crushed and the seat belt had cut through his abdomen and ruptured his insides. Both his legs were crushed and eventually his left leg was amputated above the knee. He spent six months in the hospital fighting for his life and enduring 18 surgeries to put him back together.
"I had one foot in this world and one in the next," he said.
The most profound experience, though, came toward the end of Olsen's hospital stay when he was off morphine and in the rehabilitation center.
"I went back to the place I had been - where I said goodbye to my wife - and got to say goodbye to my little boy," he said. "As I held my little boy I knew I was in the presence of God, and God held me and let me see the vision of my life and what it all meant."
Before the accident, Olsen considered himself a religious man and identified as a Mormon. He believed in a judgmental God and an afterlife in hell if he didn't make the right choices. His beliefs were turned upside down.
"My experience of being in that place and in the presence of God, if you will, the unconditional love I felt was overwhelming," he said. "That everything was in perfect order and everything in my life was exactly what was meant to be. Even things I judged as mistakes, I felt nothing but love, like look how we supported your choices, look how you're here to learn."
Post-accident he still calls himself a Mormon, though is quick to say he isn't interested in religion. "In general, it's segregating," he said. "It doesn't unify us. It pulls us apart."
He is, instead, deeply interested in spirituality and enjoys teaching 17- to 18-year olds at Sunday school.
"I teach them love," Olsen said. "I avoid the dogma and the judgment and comparison and who's right and who's wrong."
Part of the before-and-after picture of his life revolves around an admitted habit of judging other people's lives, including that of his now 25-year-old son who, at one point, was on a path that made his father wary.
"I walked through the hospital during a near death experience at the time of the accident and had powerful glimpses of that," he said. "I saw everybody in absolute perfection - the heroin addict, the grandmother - I saw them as absolute divine human beings. I knew I was seeing them as God saw them. When I was judging my own son's path, it was almost like God was laughing at me and saying when are you going to finally get this? You just get to love people and stop judging people and even love yourself and know it's all in perfect order."
Olsen knows the skeptics are out there, ready to deflate his experiences in a heartbeat, but he doesn't care. It wasn't until about a dozen years after the accident that he was willing to even discuss his near death experiences in public. He believes he was guided to write the book as a way to help other people release their own pain and tragedies.
Indeed, he doesn't make a living off his books or lectures. After the accident, he eventually returned to his job at an advertising agency, remarried and adopted two more sons. He is a reiki master, practicing shaman and cranial sacral therapist and has trained in Matrix Energetics and Reconnective Healing.
"I have no agenda with any of this. I'm not setting out to prove an afterlife," he said. "I was told to simply share my experience. I leave it at that."