Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Back when I was a doula, I had this thought that working with women through the birthing process must be similar to working in hospice with people who were dying. I didn’t share this thought with many people. In general, I would try not to mention death to pregnant women, and I worried that anyone not involved in doula work might think I was just weird. But to me—next to being born, which for most of us is stored only in our implicit memory and therefore inaccessible with our conscious methods of “remembering”—giving birth was the closest one could get to the process of dying without actually dying. I kept this notion largely to myself and quietly kept my eyes out for people who’d worked with both laboring women and dying people to either confirm or disprove this idea, all the while wondering if I dared try doula-ing to the dying and finding out for myself.
And then I started this book and read in the third chapter:
“As nurses who care for the dying, we see ourselves as the counterparts of birthing coaches or midwives, who assist in bringing life from the womb into the world. At the other end of life, we help to ease the transition from life through death to whatever exists beyond.”
The authors go on to draw parallels between the medicalization of birth and the medicalization of death, in which both natural processes were moved out of the sphere of home and family and into the closed-off corridors of medical facilities. Birth and death became events cloaked in secrecy and silence rather than transitions to be experienced surrounded by those who love us. Thankfully, this trend seems to be shifting.
Mostly the book is made up of brief accounts of the last moments of dozens of individuals. I read these with the emotion and enthusiasm with which I used to read birth stories in the days before I’d ever attended a birth or given birth myself. I read them hungrily, with the sense that there is a hidden truth in them and that I need only see these stories from the proper angle for this truth to be revealed.
The authors point out the similarities between different stories, and encourage the reader to find significance in these similarities. They give suggestions for maintaining the awareness and open-mindedness necessary to receive the often cryptic or confusing messages that dying people sometimes try to convey. They encourage the reader to remember that the dying person is still a person—an individual going through a momentous transition and experiencing a wide range of emotions and sensations that we can only guess at. The authors encourage compassion and connection, and they talk with reverence about the honor of being a part of these families’ lives, if only for a short time.
This is all so very similar to how I feel about being with a woman in labor. Probably in part because it was so familiar, the insights from these stories helped ease some of my fears about my own inevitable death. They helped me to see the beauty in the transition and the many gifts that the dying have to offer us, and it reminded me that emotional pain isn’t always bad, isn’t always something to avoid. The message I got from this book is that there is tremendous power and grace in opening ourselves to the emotional pain that accompanies death. It is a beautiful, powerful book, and I would recommend it to everyone. (My only caveat: I would caution against reading it sitting in the back of the library story room while your children are in Story Time. People seem to feel a little uncomfortable when a woman is choking back sobs while children sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”.)
One Reply to “Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying”
The book is amazing, uplifting, a beautiful overview of caregiving at end of life. Thanks for highlighting for us.