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NEEDING RECONCILIATION: “I NEED TO MAKE PEACE WITH. . .”
All the passages below are taken from the book “Final Gifts,” by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. It was published in 1992.
One of the most important aspects of Nearing Death Awareness is the need for reconciliation. Dying people develop an awareness that they need to be at peace. As death nears, people often realize some things feel unfinished or incomplete--perhaps issues that once seemed insignificant or that happened long ago. Now the dying person realizes their importance and wants to settle them. If this awareness comes late--when death seems imminent--the person may delay or prolong dying in an attempt to effect a reconciliatory meeting, as in the previous story when Andrea waited for her father-in-law.
If a request for reconciliation is made coherently, most people try to help. For example, if a dying man says: “I need to speak to my sister. We haven’t spoken since we had a horrible argument fifteen years ago,” most people do what they can to try to find his sister.
But sometimes the request is less clear. It may be missed, seen as unimportant, or labeled as confusion. If dying people know what needs to be reconciled, but their attempts to communicate their needs are ignored, they may become agitated. This often happens if they are close to death and realize death won’t be peaceful without this reconciliation. This may be what occurs when someone seems to die in pain; rather than physical, the pain may be emotional or spiritual. These types of pain can be harder to relieve, and far too often go unidentified or ignored.
The underlying issues tend to revolve around relationships--hence the strong drive in many dying people to search for healing and reconciliation, whether with other people, with a supreme being, or with themselves.
Theresa, twenty-two, was dying of bone cancer. She was the younger of two children, abandoned by their father when she was five. Though he lived nearby, the father had had little contact with his son and daughter over the years, and had contributed nothing toward their upbringing. Theresa lived with her mother, who took care of her; her brother, who lived nearby, visited frequently and did what he could to help.
During my first visit, Theresa and her mother described the father as “that man,” not “my father,” or “my ex-husband.” I asked if Theresa wanted to see him. She said that since they had no relationship she didn’t feel any need to do so.
Theresa’s biggest problems were pain and weight loss. As often happens with young people, whose metabolisms run faster than those of older people, Theresa’s pain required fairly large doses of pain medicine. We tried other pain-relieving techniques also: Theresa found meditation and music particularly helpful, and we instituted a regular schedule for those.
The weight loss was difficult for her mother to see. Theresa was five feet seven, and had always been slim. But now she ate very little and refused all dietary supplements. As she became weaker and spent more time in bed, her mother had to turn her from side to side every few hours to prevent bedsores.
Four months after admission into our program Theresa was dying. Her pain became increasingly severe; the dosage of her pain medicines had risen accordingly. We thought her physical pain was controlled, but still she moaned. We asked what the matter was, but couldn’t get an answer; her speech was difficult to understand. Several times her mother asked me how Theresa could still be alive.
But one day, mixed in among a jumble of words, she said, “Dad.”
We wondered if she wanted to see her father. We asked her, but her response was unintelligible, a few words lost in another moan. Her mother felt it was worth a try. She telephoned the father and explained what was happening.
That afternoon Theresa’s brother picked up the father and brought him to the apartment.
He went into the bedroom, sat beside Theresa, held her hand, and told her he was there. He said no more. He looked shaken and upset, but also stiff and uncomfortable. After a few minutes he stood.
“I can’t take this,” he said, leaving the room and saying an awkward farewell.
But Theresa’s moaning stopped, her agitation eased, and she died quietly a few hours later. No one can say that her estranged father’s visit was what Theresa needed for a peaceful death. But the only circumstance making that day different from those preceding it was his presence. Her mother and brother feel that in some way Theresa needed something from her father, and that after his visit she was able to let go and die.
Theresa realized very late that she needed to see her father; her weakened condition kept her from being able to communicate intelligibly. Any delay in getting her father to come arose from our difficulty in understanding her; finding and bringing her father to see her was easy. Sometimes it can be hard to find the important person, which can lead to much frustration.
In a thick brogue Sheila’s nephew described her background during my first visit.
“She had great promise,” he said. “But with so little in the way of opportunity for such a girl in the old country, her family pooled their meager resources and sent her to America. The poor little thing was an innocent wisp of a girl. Traveling alone at eighteen, she sailed to this country in steerage: they were packed in like animals. It’s a wonder she survived the trip.”
Like so many Irish girls of her generation, Sheila immigrated to America, worked as a maid, sent money home, and lived a lonely life--until she met a boy and fell in love. The love didn’t last, but the daughter born of it did, and Sheila found herself out on the street, struggling to keep herself and her infant daughter, Maureen, alive.
“Those were hard days,” the nephew said. “Until Sheila met Mr. O’Malley, a farmer. He’s years older, but a hard-working man, and has provided well for her all these years. He’s never had any use for Maureen, though, because she’s illegitimate. He sent her to boarding school when she was seven, and allowed her home to visit only twice a year.”
“Where is Maureen now?” I asked.
“Maureen turned out to be a good-for-nothing, and no one knows her whereabouts,” he said. “It’s like a knife in poor Sheila’s heart, but she never mentions her name. It’s like she’s dead!”
Despite their fifty-five-year marriage, Sheila always referred to her husband as “Mr. O’Malley” or “himself.” He was a man of few words and gruff by nature, but surprisingly active and strong for a man in his eighties, doing the daily chores around their farm. Their relationship did not seem to be a warm and affectionate one, but rather one of quiet dependency, or perhaps comfortable tolerance. What care Mr. O’Malley was unable to give Sheila was provided by the live-in help he’d hired.
Sheila was dying at home of uterine cancer. As her condition deteriorated, she became more and more depressed and quiet often refusing to eat, instead just staring off into space sadly.
“I want this to be done,” she’d say, but lingered on as if waiting for something.
“Sheila, it seems like you’re waiting for something,” I said. “Is it Maureen?”
Sheila’s eyes filled with tears. She waved her hand as though pushing the conversation away, rolled onto her side, and closed her eyes.
She battled one complication after another: in her weakened condition, she seemed likely to die with each problem. But she hung on, and the hospice team members discussed their sense that Sheila was waiting to see someone before she died--probably Maureen.
The chaplain, the social worker, and I visited one day, hoping that together we could discuss our concern with Mr. O’Malley. Was there some way to determine Maureen’s whereabouts and notify her that her mother was dying and needed to see her?
“There’ll be no such talk in this house!” Mr. O’Malley shouted, becoming irate. “That girl’s been nothing but heartache and trouble since the day she was born. I won’t hear of it!” he roared, waving his cane around as he stormed out the back door.
But within the week Sheila’s cousin Eileen timidly called the chaplain to report that some months before Maureen had sent her a letter postmarked in Florida with her return address. In the letter Maureen asked how her mother was, explaining that she had written many times and never received an answer. She went on to say that she knew she had caused her mother great sorrow, but was now in an alcoholic-treatment program and was trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She wanted her mother to be given the message that she loved her and was sorry for having caused so much trouble.
Eileen knew Sheila relied on Mr. O’Malley to read the mail to her and suspected he had hidden Maureen’s letters. She felt guilty for not giving Maureen’s message to Sheila, but was afraid to deal with Mr. O’Malley’s wrath. “He’s a fierce man, that one!” she said.
Eileen told the chaplain about Maureen’s harsh upbringing and of Sheila’s timidity in the face of her husband’s domineering personality. The last thread between Sheila and her daughter was broken when, after running away from school, Maureen became a hippie, and came home to ask for money. Her stepfather threw her out, threatening to call the police if she ever returned.
“Sheila’s heart was broken,” Eileen said, sadly. “She never saw Maureen again, nor did she mention her name. That was almost twenty years ago. We heard she’d married and had two children, but divorced and lost custody of them because of her drinking.”
The next day, I went with the chaplain as he confronted Mr. O’Malley with this information. He became angry and defensive.
“It’s a husband’s job to protect his wife!” he stormed. In a gentle, kind way, the chaplain then explained to Sheila what had happened. She defiantly looked her husband straight in the eye.
“O’Malley, you’re the devil himself!” she said. With that he threw a handful of letters on her bed and stormed out. They were all from Maureen. The chaplain read them as tears rolled down Sheila’s thin cheeks.
“Bring her to me!” she pleaded.
Needing to maintain his lifetime pattern of control over others, Mr. O’Malley refused to pay for Maureen’s airplane ticket, or allow her to sleep in his home, but other relatives chipped in for the ticket and provided her with a place to stay.
Sheila was too weak to get out of bed, sleeping most of the time, but on the day her daughter arrived, she was alert and bright with anticipation. Maureen indeed showed the signs of many years of self-abuse, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the room when Maureen rushed into her mother’s arms. They wept silently, holding each other for what seemed like hours. Mr. O’Malley spent the day in the barn with his animals.
Maureen spent as much time with her mother as Mr. O’Malley would permit; each day he seemed to allow a little more. She bathed her mother, massaged her feet with lotion, and gently brushed her long white hair. She sat for hours, patiently spoon-feeding the dying woman puddings and applesauce. It was a close and tender time for both of them.
Finally one day Mr. O’Malley announced, “You can stay here tonight if you wish.” Maureen sat by her mother’s bed all that night, humming the songs she remembered Sheila’s singing to her when she was a small child. Sheila peacefully drifted off to sleep, quietly slipped into a coma, and died at dawn with Maureen holding her hand.
The hospice chaplain took up a collection so Maureen could buy a nice dress for her mother’s funeral. Despite her sorrow, Maureen looked younger and healthier than she had when she arrived only three weeks before.
Another theme that recurs is reconciliation with a supreme being. Those who belong to a religious congregation often want the support, prayers, and blessings of that community as they prepare for death. But the same need may occur in people not committed to an organized religion, in those who disavow the spiritual, and in those who have lost whatever faith they once might have had.
Arthur had had cancer for years, but had responded well to treatment. Now the cancer was active again and he was dying slowly in his small, neat apartment. He lived alone and had no relatives; his wife had died five years before. He had married her soon after his first wife left him--an event that began his drift away from the Episcopal faith in which he’d been raised. It had been decades since he’d set foot in a church.
“God and I have a good relationship,” he’d say. “We don’t need any go-between.”
Arthur kept his condition to himself; he didn’t want to burden his friends by asking for help, and resisted offers of assistance, from friends or professionals. He contacted the hospice because his doctor had suggested a nursing home, and the manager of his apartment building had explained how hospice helps to keep people at home. He was wary that we too would push him toward an institution, but once he knew us better, he was pleased to see any of the hospice staff.
“I like you people,” he’d say. “You come and check on me, show me how to feel better, and then you go away and leave me alone!”
As he got sicker, we urged him to let us arrange for someone to be with him, especially at night. He refused until he became so weak that we thought it was no longer safe for him to be alone, and persuaded him to have a nurse stay at night.
By now Arthur had a partial bowel obstruction that caused pain, which we relieved with injections every few hours. He could tolerate little more than sips of water or dietary supplements, and often vomited. Even so, he insisted that he wanted to be at home, with as little attention as possible.
One afternoon the hospice doctor visited to check Arthur’s condition. As she was getting ready to leave, he said, “Would you pray with me, please?”
The doctor held Arthur’s hand and said a prayer, then asked if he needed anything else.
“Would it be too much trouble to have a priest come to see me?” Arthur asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “Do you want to see one tonight?” “No, not tonight,” Arthur said. “Tomorrow would be fine.”
The next morning I brought an Episcopal priest with me. A friendly man in his early thirties, he greeted Arthur warmly. I checked Arthur’s vital signs, then left, telling him I’d complete my nursing visit later that day. When I returned he thanked me for bringing the clergyman by.
“He stayed for an hour or so, and I really enjoyed it,” Arthur said. “I can’t believe how much better I feel. We talked, he said the prayers of absolution, and he anointed me with oil. It’s strange; nothing has really changed, but I feel much easier.”
That evening the priest returned, bringing Arthur communion. Afterward they prayed together, then talked for a while, sipping whiskeys. Arthur died quietly in his sleep early the next morning.
His condition had led us to expect Arthur to die for more than two weeks. The day before he died, there were no significant physical changes; the only difference was his interaction with the clergyman. We think Arthur died that night because the priest had helped him become reconciled to a church with which he had once had strong ties.
Arthur’s request was straightforward--he simply asked to see a priest. When the request is not as clear it may take onlookers longer to understand, and this can lead to great frustration or anguish for the one dying.
As strange as it may seem to others, those of us who work with dying people become accustomed to the physical changes that are so often distressing to see. The profound weight loss experienced by many dying people can be a very upsetting symptom for family and friends. But as we get to know these patients they become beautiful in our eyes, despite their frail and chiseled appearance.
My immediate reaction when Gus answered the door for my first visit was that I had the wrong apartment. Here was a tall, handsome, well-nourished man in his early fifties, certainly not thin or frail-looking. Except for the molded neck brace that held his head rigid, he looked healthy.
“How about a beer?” he said. “It’s almost noon! I never drink before noon! But, damn, I don’t get up until eleven-thirty!” He laughed heartily.
I was beginning to realize that Gus had a strong will and enjoyed being a tease. He especially delighted in using rough language.
Gus’s cancer was dangerously near the spinal cord in his neck. Considering his medical report, I was amazed to see that he was so functional.
“I’m on sick leave from the precinct,” Gus said. “The captain is pushing me to go on disability leave, but no way! I can still work. By the way, my ex-wife wants you to call her. She just lives two blocks away.”
His ex-wife, Kim, asked to meet me at the local fast-food restaurant.
“I divorced Gus six years ago,” she said. “I love the man, but I couldn’t take it. He was crazy about being a Marine and just couldn’t get enough combat. He requested assignment to Vietnam THREE times! Can you believe that? And I was left alone with the kids. While he was there, he was exposed to Agent Orange, and we suspect that’s how he got the cancers.
“After his last tour, I had my little boy,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “He died from birth defects when he was only three months old. Gus dealt with that by partying and drinking more. He quit the Marines and joined the police, asking to work in the worst precinct in the city as an undercover cop. That was the last straw. I was just plain worn out--always living on the edge of danger and crisis. I had my kids to think about. But we live real close and the kids see him regularly.
“Then he got the cancer,” she said. “The treatments were hard on him, but he’s a tough guy and insisted on as much as he could possibly have done. The doctor says he’s terminal now, but he won’t believe it! I go over every day to check on him; I need to help him through this for the kids--they’re too young to be losing their Dad. I guess I’m doing it a little bit for me, too. I do love him, I just can’t live with him. I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. But however we do, it will be his way, I can tell you that!”
Gus continued to be his strong, independent, and colorful self for a few weeks, enjoying his beer and playing cards with his buddies. Then the cancer grew into his spinal cord and he quickly became paralyzed, bedridden, and confused. Private-duty nurses were put in to help Kim and his family take care of him. He was comfortable, but it was clear that he was dying quickly.
I received an urgent call from the nurse on duty.
“Please get out here fast,” she said. “Everything seemed to be going okay but now he’s very confused and anxious, and we’re losing it.”
“No, I bet we’re finally getting it,” I thought to myself. I had wondered how long Gus would be able to keep up the tough-guy façade. I felt there must be times he felt frightened even if he wouldn’t talk about it, or allow his fear to show.
The scene was chaotic. Gus was crying out in anguish; his speech was so disjointed it was hard to make any sense of it. But in his confused language were the words “villages,” “babies,” “napalm,” “burning”--and the tragic words “I did it, I did it!” In the middle of this swirling jumble was the sentence “I need religious integrity!”
Gus had been clear on my first visit that he was raised in a churchgoing family, but religion had not been important to him in his adult life. However, he did enjoy a few visits from the hospice chaplain, so I called him.
“Can you come quickly?” I asked. “I think you are the one who can fix this.”
Kim, the children, and Gus’s parents and brothers were all there when the chaplain arrived. We sat together in the kitchen so the chaplain could talk with Gus privately. Minutes passed; and slowly the cries stopped. The house became peaceful. The chaplain called the family into the bedroom.
For a few moments, Gus became very clear. He looked around at each of us, then at the chaplain, seemingly surprised at this gathering.
“Am I dying?” he asked the chaplain, who was holding his hand.
“Yes, Gus, barring a miracle, we think you are,” he answered gently.
Gus looked the clergyman straight in the eye and thought for a long moment.
“Aw, shit!” he said.
The family spent the next few hours with Gus, caressing him and reminiscing about happier times together, as he quietly slipped into a coma and died.
Perhaps this story doesn’t sound like a triumph, but for Gus to have died experiencing the anguish of the unspeakable things he had done in Vietnam would have been a tragedy. His only request for help easily could have been missed, buried as it was in a jumble of confused cries. It would have been easier to sedate him until the cries stopped. But whose needs would have been met those of the observers, who were having to deal with the discomfort of watching Gus’s anguish, or Gus, who needed to be forgiven so he could die peacefully?
We have described reconciliations sought
with others. Theresa and Sheila needed healing of relationships with other
people. Arthur and Gus needed reconciliation with God. But there’s another kind
of reconciliation. People may feel that some aspect of their behavior is
ethically or morally inconsistent with their values or standards. This affects
their relationship with themselves. If they feel sad, troubled, or guilty about
some behavior, incident, or circumstance, they cannot feel at peace.
An Englishwoman living alone in America, Anne had a hospice nurse with a similar background. They often reminisced about growing up in England and shared stories of adjusting to life in the United States.
Anne was in her late forties but looked much younger, and seemed naïve. She often expressed surprise at how her life had turned out--that she was “in such a state,” as she said, referring both to her illness and to her personal life.
She had worked for years in a small bakery, and had become romantically involved with the owner. Mr. Brown was married, but Anne had believed him when he talked of getting a divorce and marrying her. However, nothing came of it, and she slipped into the pattern of secrecy he demanded. He paid her rent, she continued to work at the bakery, and their affair went on for more than ten years.
Then Anne became ill with cervical cancer. She often needed time off from work; she was grateful that her boss told her to take all the time she needed. But as she became more ill, she needed more help, and he became less willing. When she asked him to take her to the doctor’s office because she was too weak to drive, or to pick up a few things from the store, he refused.
Anne’s feelings about him alternated between affection and loathing. Most of all she felt embarrassed and humiliated. She was ashamed to be involved with a married man, and mortified by the way he treated her. He had insisted that she tell no one of their liaison; and combined with Anne’s natural shyness this command had left her friendless. She had no one to turn to except him, and he’d become distant, willing to extend himself only as far as might seem appropriate for an employer concerned about a valued employee’s health.
Anne tried to maintain the secret. We helped her plan for the time when she no longer would be able to care for herself. She wanted to go into a nursing home, so Mr. Brown wouldn’t have to help with her care, or feel responsible for her. And no one need know of their relationship.
A nursing-home placement was being planned when Anne suddenly became worse. She was much weaker, having increased pain and bleeding, and her speech was disjointed and difficult to follow. While rambling about pain, bandages, and cranberry juice, she became upset and tearful.
“Do you remember how they used to dig the bodies out of the rubble after the air raids?” Anne asked. “Do you remember all the red double-decker buses? Do you think there will be a bus for me soon?”
Thinking Anne might be trying to say she was dying, the nurse asked if that was what she meant.
“Yes, but I have to get to the other bus stop!” Anne said, getting more upset.
“Would you like to move to the nursing home soon?” the nurse asked.
“Yes,” Anne sighed. “The bus can stop there.”
Arrangements for the nursing home were speeded up, and by that evening Anne had been moved. She was calm and relaxed during the ambulance ride. At the home, she seemed a little flustered by the attention she received, but soon settled into her new bed, took her usual pain medicine, and went to sleep. The next morning her hospice volunteer visited and found Anne lying quietly, at peace, and taking her last few breaths.
Anne had wanted the bus to stop for her--to die--at the nursing home so no one would know of her clandestine relationship. If her message had gone unheard, would she have died that night? Could she have died peacefully in the apartment, or would she have become more agitated, worrying about being exposed? Those who knew her in her last days have no doubt that she died more easily knowing she had avoided being a source of embarrassment to anyone.
At forty-two, Janine was a talented painter, prolific and successful. She and Jeff were unmarried--her ex-husband refused to divorce her--but lived together in a beautiful twenty-second-floor apartment. They delighted in the panoramic views. Janine was best known for her cityscapes and often painted from her balcony.
Unconventional and strong-willed, she wasn’t willing to consider defeat, though she knew her pancreatic cancer was too advanced for a cure. She went through every possible traditional treatment, then opted to try some nonapproved treatments in Mexico.
By the time she contacted hospice she was in the hospital, in an advanced stage of her illness, and extremely fragile. Realizing she would die soon, she dreamed of returning to her apartment to live out her last weeks with Jeff as she looked out over her beloved city.
Jeff was very eager to take her home but the task seemed impossible, as her care was too complex for him to manage. Many of her symptoms were out of control. She had open wounds that needed frequent dressing changes, she was being sustained on intravenous fluids, she was unable to get out of bed, and too weak to manage any of her personal needs.
It was decided that she would benefit by being admitted to the hospice inpatient unit in the hopes of simplifying her care and teaching Jeff how to manage it. With much to do and time running out, the staff was concerned that Janine might die before they could achieve these goals. Happily, they did achieve them.
The night before the ambulance was to take Janine on her last trip home, another nurse and I were visiting her to check that all was in order. Jeff was about to leave for home with the flowers and other belongings that had accumulated. We were giving Janine a pep talk, reassuring her that everything was ready and that she would soon be enjoying the city lights. We were scooting her up in the bed and smoothing her pillows when we noticed the glassy, faraway look in her eyes.
“I can see through the window to the city of lights across the river!” she whispered with a radiant smile. We looked at each other with concern. Catching up with Jeff, we explained that such visions of a beautiful place beyond our awareness sometimes mean death is imminent.
“Don’t go, Jeff,” we said. “She may be dying tonight. Stay here with her.”
But Janine didn’t die that night. She lived another three weeks. During that time she gave us more messages of things that she needed for her death to be peaceful.
In Janine’s fragile condition, transferring her home from the hospice inpatient unit was an enormous undertaking. Having met this request, we felt certain she would die peacefully and very soon. Everyone involved in her care became concerned when she was not peaceful, but instead restless and seemingly confused.
Her dying dragged on. We frequently asked ourselves what was missing--what she needed to die peacefully.
It was difficult to find any clear message in her disjointed mutterings. Looking for phrases or words that seemed significant, we realized that Janine was often saying “rings.”
Could that be the key? If so, what did it mean?
“I suspect she means wedding rings,” Jeff said sadly. “Janine has never felt comfortable with us living together without being married. We both desperately wanted to marry, but when Janine left her husband, he was in such a rage, he refused to agree to a divorce. When enough time had gone by legally for Janine to divorce him she’d already been diagnosed with her cancer and he threatened to declare her mentally incompetent due to the extent of her illness. And, you know, he’s a lawyer, so he could probably get away with it!
“You can imagine the sorrow this mess has caused Janine.” Considering this information, we decided to call the chaplain to request a visit.
“Sweetheart, the chaplain’s coming by this evening,” Jeff told Janine. “Remember how much you’ve enjoyed his visits? Maybe he can help us all find some peace and comfort.”
Janine didn’t respond.
The chaplain was familiar with Janine and Jeff’s situation.
“Jeff, Janine may need some special recognition of the commitment you and she have made to each other as a couple,” the chaplain said. Jeff agreed. He and the chaplain explained to Janine that they were planning a special ceremony for the two of them. Friends would be coming to add to the celebration.
We weren’t sure that Janine understood, but Jeff helped me dress her in her favorite nightgown, put flowers in her hair, and fix up her room. Friends were called. Jeff rushed out and bought wine and cheese.
Twilight was fading; the city lights were twinkling when the chaplain announced to those gathered that he would perform a ceremony to “bless this loving commitment.” Obviously, he couldn’t marry them--Janine was still legally married--but as he led the group in joyful hymns, Jeff tearfully slipped a ring on Janine’s thin finger. Her restlessness ceased, and although she didn’t speak, a tear slipped down her cheek.
When the celebration was over, the guests kissed and congratulated Janine and Jeff and said their good-byes. We padded the bedrails with pillows and made room for Jeff to lie in bed with Janine and cuddle her. It was their first peaceful night in three weeks. Early the next morning as the new light of dawn cast a gentle glow over the city, Janine died quietly in Jeff’s arms.
When I saw Jeff at Janine’s funeral, I gave him a big hug.
“I hope you know what a wonderful job you did, Jeff,” I said. “No other hands could have cared for her as lovingly as yours did.”
“Caring for her wasn’t hard,” he said. “Watching her suffer inside was. She was holding on for our wedding. I know that in the eyes of the church and the law we never married, but in our hearts we did. As much as I hated to let her go, I’m so glad we figured out how to give her the peace she needed.”
The realization of the need for reconciliation that is part of Nearing Death Awareness seems to be similar to the effect of “seeing one’s whole life pass before one’s eyes” encountered in some near-death experiences. In both circumstances, people focus on relationships; Nearing Death Awareness seems to enable people to identify those aspects of relationships that make them feel sad, guilty, or troubled. To die peacefully, they need to effect some reconciliation or healing, whether by offering an apology or expressing gratitude. Sometimes the issue is mending ties to someone who has become estranged; sometimes reconciliation hinges on repairing something supposedly settled long ago, or which might appear insignificant to others.
One way to discover needs for reconciliation is to encourage a mental inventory of accomplishments and disappointments. This can be done orally, in the company of family and friends; or in writing, as a life history to be passed on to the next generation; or as letters to young children to be read when they’re older.
Most dying people begin by listing their accomplishments, but they also will consider disappointments--tasks not completed, opportunities missed, relationships broken or left to wither. As caregivers or friends, if we can help dying people conduct such reviews and heal damaged relationships, we can help them find peace.
Most people, as they’re dying, want to feel that their having been alive has been significant, that they made some difference in this world and in the lives of those around them. For all of us, some periodic review of how our lives are going, and recognition of our achievements, may help us find more enjoyment and purpose in our lives. At the same time some recognition of our “unfinished business” or troubled relationships may lead us to try to heal some problem areas now, rather than waiting until we are dying. This could enrich our lives and prevent frantic attempts at reconciliation when it is almost too late.
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