Simon & Schuster, $17.00, ISBN 978-1-4516-6725-7
Spirituality, 2012 (Reissue)
Final Gifts, with its rather verbose subtitle Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, is a book that is rather hard to be pigeon-holed into any specific genre. The authors are hospice nurses who propose the concept of Nearing Death Awareness, a concept in which the dying instinctively know that her time is coming and would try to reach for some kind of closure before she goes. However, we, often lost in our own feelings with regards to the dying, may miss the cues she is trying to tell us. So, the dying kicks the bucket unhappy, and we spend the rest of our lives unhappy as well. But if we know what we are looking for, we can help the dying to achieve a peaceful end, and along the way, we find our own closure and inner peace.
This one starts out a comfortable mix of palliative care advice and some elements of spiritualism. That’s to be expected – it can be difficult to separate the concept of death from one’s spirituality, whether it is religion or something else, unless one is a determined atheist. I’m not. I’d like to think of myself as a scientific person, but having lost enough people, I do wonder.
My mother spent days sharing with me her conversations with her husbands (she married twice in her life) and her eldest son – all of whom had died long before she passed on. After a difficult night when everyone thought she would pass on, she came to and shared with me a dream in which she was a young girl again, cycling back to her childhood home, and her father came out of the house to ask her to come in. Her mother, however, shooed her away, telling her that she should only come home when it was time. And during the days before my brother died of leukemia, he shared with me the things he learned from conversations with his older brother, who died a long time ago, even before he was born. On the night when he eventually died in his sleep, he told me and his wife that he and his brother were planning a trip together.
Like the authors would mention, such… well, call it visions, dreams, actual visits from the dead or beings from afterlife or heaven (some people see angels instead of the departed), or even hallucinations caused by medications or one’s own feelings about dying, but such talks are very common. Also common are cryptic statements or apparently irrational desires that could be an expression of the dying’s final wishes. How do you react when the dying starts doing these things? Act afraid? Lash out from confusion? Insist that the dying is confused? The authors advise on being neutral, even if you do not believe that the person is seeing the dead or angels from beyond. This is because dying is a lonely process for most people. Sometimes, one has accepted one’s imminent death, and wishes to talk about those lovely dreams of what seems to be heaven or its angels. Having the people around her fiercely insist that she is being delusional would only cause her to clam up and keep everything within.
This and many other very sensible advice is present here, making Final Gifts both a comforting and illuminating read. The author addresses the needs of the dying, which may not always seem sensible or rational, and how, sometimes, these needs may make perfect sense and fulfilling them may bring peace to both the dying and the people she will be leaving behind. There are stories – with names changed to protect the innocent, of course – from the authors’ own experiences to illustrate their points, and I have to warn you people: these stories can really cause the heart to bleed. There are tales of both the old and the very young facing death, and while nearly all of these stories have a bittersweet kind of ending, some can be depressing, especially the one of a dying young man whose wish to make peace with his father never came to be because the father refused to see or acknowledge his gay son to the bitter end. Take it from me – don’t read this book in a public place unless you are confident that your heart is tough enough to withstand these stories.
The best thing about this book is how the authors understand and can relate to the feelings experienced by both the dying and her loved ones. The tone of the book is non-judgmental, with the authors letting readers know that sometimes people lash out and say hateful things, or feel helpless and inadequate. They may even feel angry at the dying for become such a burden, and following the anger, guilt and self-loathing. Yet, by helping the dying depart the world peacefully after all loose ends are closed, those left behind can also heal. And this book is all about how one can understand the needs of the dying and put this understanding into action.
However, as I turn the pages, I find Final Gifts slipping more and more into the realm of… well, I hesitate to use the phrase “spiritual mumbo-jumbo”, but that’s what I feel when I read the second half or so of the book. By that point, a part of me is becoming slightly annoyed by how the dying always seems to be awesome, talented, and beautiful people – the authors’ hospice must be very selective in the kind of dying people it takes in, or this is just sloppy sentimental writing in action. But more importantly, these chapters start discussing how the dying can determine their time of death – often waiting after important dates and such – or how one’s dying somehow coincides with another dying person far, far away getting vision of the first dying sod coming up to the second dying son for a happy trip to the afterlife. That is when this book shifts gears from a self-help book with one foot still grounded to one with both feet off the ground and with angel wings sprouting from the back to carry everyone to a heaven where the light is always bright. My skepticism becomes too big to ignore by those pages; the authors lose me completely there and then.
Still, for a long time, this book is a comforting companion when one either knows that she is dying or when one is caring for someone who is dying. There are advice that makes perfect sense for situations that are often painfully real, and I feel that just reading these parts of the book can help one feel more in control over one’s emotions and the whole dying situation, and feel much better and in peace as a result. The authors are also very honest about the physiological changes one would expect to happen in the final moments before that last breath – yes, there may be pain, but doctors and nurses will work to ease the pain and make the passing as comfortable as possible… but if you are too poor and you live in a place where the costs of entering a hospice are jaw-dropping, you’re so out of luck. Okay, the authors never say that last part, it’s all me, but it’s also all true. Anyway, all this knowledge is, I feel, very useful.
Therefore, in many ways, this is a pretty important book. The later half can be a challenging read for skeptics, but there is enough good sense, rational advice, and more to make it worth one’s while. More importantly, the authors understand what it feels like to be either dying or having to care for a dying person, and sometimes, just having someone who understands is enough. Final Gifts offers good advice as well as a chance at finding inner peace. It demystifies death, making the end of one’s life less frightening, although one can argue that it also adds considerable spiritual elements to death that seem more like fanciful notions than hard science. Still, I do wonder: does it really matter what really happens to one during the final hours of death as well as in the afterlife? We will all find out for ourselves soon enough. Perhaps it is enough that one is at peace at the moment when death occurs, and there is no lingering ill-will, doubts, and guilt to plague the ones left behind for a long time to come. If that is what you believe too, then maybe you should read this book too.