When the Dying See and Talk to the Dead Nov 24, 2017 11:12:45 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Nov 24, 2017 11:12:45 GMT -5
When the Dying See and Talk to the Dead
Maggie Callanan has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths. In 27 years as a hospice nurse, the Massachusetts-based author and speaker cared for people of all ages and widely divergent backgrounds as they reached the end of their lives. But if they spoke as they neared death, it was often in almost identical terms. They said they could see family members who had died. They said their loved ones were waiting for them, or telling them it wasn’t time yet. They had to get their bags together for a trip. They had someplace important to go. They had to go home.
In Callanan’s audience at a recent speech to local hospice staffers, heads nodded. They had heard the same things. “Every day,” Mary Spiller, an advanced practice nurse in palliative care at Presence Hospice, said after Callanan’s talk, which was at The Moorings of Arlington Heights.
Not everyone is communicative before they die; many people are too ill or unconscious. And families shouldn’t put too much emphasis on a dying person’s last words or put pressure on themselves to be present to hear them, said Dr. Martha Twaddle, chief medical officer of the Midwest Palliative & Hospice Care Center. “Those words and those moments do not define the entirety of your relationship any more than being at the bedside when they die,” she explained. “The person might just be sleeping and you might be holding their hands.”
When dying people do make such comments, some experts on the end of life attribute them to confusion caused by the changes in brain chemistry that accompany death. Callanan thinks otherwise. “People think it’s just confusion or the drugs,” said Callanan, co-author of the book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying. “But frankly, the confusion is ours,” she adds. “The patient knows what’s going on.”
Callanan believes such patients are getting a glimpse of life after death, which she believes exists. But regardless of the explanation, she told her audience, she and co-author Patricia Kelley wanted people to know how common these remarks were and to see them as offering important insights into patients’ spiritual and emotional needs and their experience of death. And though her recent talks in the Chicago area, sponsored by JourneyCare, were for health care professionals, she thinks families should be prepared to hear such comments and see them as openings for meaningful, albeit symbolic and metaphoric, communication. Moreover, she said, these reports are intriguing and even comforting. “Wouldn’t you like to learn what dying is like, since you’re going to do it?” she asked. “Our patients are talking while it’s happening. It’s like you’re standing there watching a preview of coming attractions.”
The state she calls “nearing death awareness” is different, she told her audience, from near-death experiences, the subject of perennial interest and currently of the best-selling book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander. Unlike people who are resuscitated and return to health, she explained, those who experience nearing death awareness do indeed die. But before they do, they enter a state of expanded awareness in which they appear to exist in two states of reality.
This can be confusing to caregivers, she admitted. She recalled getting a frantic phone call from the mother of a patient in his 20s. In the background, she could hear the young man wailing, “Where is the map? I’m lost. I want to go home!” His parents thought he was confused because they had moved him from his bedroom to the first floor. They were hauling furniture down from his bedroom to reassure him that he was still home. Callanan, at the time new to hospice, also took his words literally. But his parents, on reflection, recalled they spoke of heaven as an ultimate home. His parents went in and said, ‘You will find the map. You will get home,’” Callanan related. The young man became calm and died within days.
Talking about having to get ready for a trip is common; people often use travel metaphors for death, she continued. But when it comes to destinations, “everyone is seeing a different place.” One man, for instance, was an avid golfer who told her he had just gotten an invitation to play a tournament in a foursome with his father and two brothers, all of whom were dead.
People shouldn't dismiss such remarks, Callanan told her audience, but use them to start conversations. “I said, ‘Tell me, do you know where you’re teeing off?’ He said, ‘No, because I don’t have my things together.’” She interpreted this to mean he wasn’t going to die immediately, which turned out be true.
And people shouldn’t contradict dying people who claim to have seen dead family members, Callanan continued. Instead, they should ask to know more.
Callanan’s audience of hospice professionals needed no convincing. But family members can follow the same practices, Spiller interjected. “Don't say, ‘They're not here.’ Ask, ‘What are they wearing? What do you see? Where are they?’” she suggested. “It really helps families … when they get a chance to participate with this. It may be one of the last conversations they have.”
As for explanations for seeing the dead, they differ according to those offering them. “It is so common, it happens with such consistency, that I have to believe there is a mystery that we just don’t understand,” explained Twaddle, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Rush Medical College. “You can write it off and say it’s a hallucination, they’re not getting enough oxygen in their brain, but no, it doesn’t apply to many people in these situations. I have to believe they are transitioning; they are in a phase we don’t understand physically or metaphysically. And it is profoundly reassuring to see it happen.”
Dr. Joel Frader, director of the pediatric palliative care team at Lurie Children’s Hospital and former president of the Chicago End-of-Life Care Coalition, considers it a matter of science. “There are some fairly characteristic changes in brain chemistry that people have documented as death occurs, whether it’s lack of oxygen or high levels of carbon dioxide or changes in nutrition getting to the brain,” he insisted. “There is some reason to believe, as the brain shuts down … that the biochemical changes in the brain might very well predispose people to have visions. I think people who are looking for a way to prove the existence of God – I personally think they are barking up the wrong tree,” he concluded. “Those are matters of faith rather than empirical fact. I don’t believe we are ever going to be able to establish in a definitive way anything of the sort.”
Callanan, however, sees these statements by people nearing death as spiritual moments that have powerfully influenced her. “For the vast majority of people who work in hospice, it’s a life-changing profession,” she asserted. “It’s hard really to put your finger on what it is, except I’m not afraid. I have no fear of dying.”
Source: Barbara Brotman, The Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2013.