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February 12, 2013  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Rabbinically Speaking

What the dying can teach us about living
Rabbi Aaron M. Lever, BCC
Rabbi Aaron M. Lever, BCC

When someone we love is dying, it can be hard to know what to say or do. I want to recommend the book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying written by hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley for some answers based on their years of clinical experience caring for patients at the end of life. According to Callanan and Kelley, “when someone you love is dying you may not see gifts, but only grief, pain, and loss. However, a dying person offers enlightening information and comfort, and in return those close at hand can help bring that person peace and recognition of life’s meaning.”

Callanan and Kelley coined the term “Nearing Death Awareness” which they define as “a special knowledge about — and sometimes a control over — the process of dying. Nearing Death Awareness reveals what dying is like, and what is needed in order to die peacefully; it develops in those who are dying slowly.” Callanan and Kelley explain that “the attempts of dying people to describe what they are experiencing may be missed, misunderstood, or ignored because the communication is obscure, unexpected, or expressed in symbolic language.”

According to Callanan and Kelley, dying people often say or do things, which seem to make no sense. We might assume that the person is confused, so we stop really listening to what the dying person is trying to tell us. This response unintentionally distances us from our loved one and can cause the dying person to feel more isolated and bewildered.

Callanan and Kelley offer an alternative approach to interacting with the dying person: “By keeping open minds and by listening carefully to dying people, we can begin to understand messages they convey through symbol or suggestion. Often, we can decipher essential information and in the deciphering relieve a dying person’s anxiety and distress. By trying to understand, and therefore participate more fully in the events of dying, families and friends can gain comfort, as well as important knowledge about what the experience of dying is like and what is needed to achieve a peaceful death. They can carry that new knowledge forward, finding continuing solace in it after the death of the person they loved, and as they face future deaths, including their own.”

Callanan and Kelley identify several themes that are expressed in the special communication of the dying which they divide into two broad categories: “attempts to describe what someone is experiencing while dying, and requests for something that a person needs for a peaceful death.” According to Callanan and Kelley, the most common theme in Nearing Death Awareness is “the presence of someone not alive.” Callanan and Kelley explain that in the final hours, days, or weeks of life, “dying people often interact with someone invisible to others — talking to them, smiling, or nodding at them. … The unseen person’s identity often is clear to the dying. Generally they recognize someone significant from their lives — parent, spouse, sibling, friend — who is already dead. There is often a sense of pleasure, even of joyful reunion, in seeing the person again.”

I have heard reports of this phenomenon from both patients and family members in my own work with hospice. The experience of dying is a mysterious process, and I have come to accept these reports as true without question. While dying people may not be upset by these visitations, family and friends may find the reports of these encounters to be disturbing.

Callanan and Kelley recommend that “we can best respond to people who experience the presence of someone not alive by expecting it to happen” and by not arguing about what is real. Callanan and Kelley offer a comforting perspective on these unseen presences: “The most important thing to remember when a dying person sees someone invisible to you is that death is not lonely. Many people fear that they, or someone they love, will die alone. In fact, what the stories of these people tell us is that they didn’t die alone, and neither will we. Those who have died before us, or some spiritual beings, will be companions on our journey.”

As Jews, we have many questions about the afterlife, in contrast to many of our Christian brethren who speak about it with such certainty. The stories told by Callanan and Kelley offer comfort and hope about the experience of dying. I recommend the book Final Gifts to anyone wanting to learn more about life’s greatest and most feared mystery.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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