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A friend deliberated whether she should visit her father for his 95th birthday. She was swamped with commitments. Since he was unaware of his birthday as well of his surroundings and didn’t even recognize his three daughters, there was no urgency to travel to another state.

However, she cleared her schedule and made the trip, as did another sister and a niece. Both lived out-of-state also.

As it turned out, on his birthday, he had a choking episode with difficulty breathing. He stopped eating and died three days later, surrounded by those he loved who otherwise would not have been there had they not come to commemorate the day he was born.

This story reminded me of a patient I cared for back in the early ‘90’s when I worked as a nurse practitioner in a home care program. I had made a first visit to an elderly man in the western suburbs of Chicago who was referred by his doctor because he had terminal cancer (I don’t remember his diagnosis). But I do remember his sunny apartment. He and his wife sat on the sofa, holding hands, his wife’s face streaked with tears. She had just been informed she had breast cancer. The patient calmly told me he wanted to help his wife through her ordeal. He would call me when he was ready to be admitted.

Sure enough, a couple of months later, he called telling me he was “ready to die.”  In another sunny living room, the patient and his wife held hands as they sat side-by-side on a floral sofa in his daughter’s home where they had relocated. His appearance had changed little since I last saw him. His wife had had successful treatment of her cancer and now his responsibility ended. The serenity of that visit remains vivid in my mind as he, his wife and daughter discussed his impending death.

After he disclosed he was having pain, we agreed I would return the next day bringing morphine with me. When I arrived the following afternoon, he was comatose. His daughter called later that evening to say her father had died.

Was it a coincidence my friend’s father died during the time his family gathered around him? Did my patient let go when he knew his wife no longer needed his support?

Calla lilyMaggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, both nurses, co-authored Final Gifts, a book that speaks to the dying experience. They use the term “nearing death awareness” which “is a special knowledge about—and sometimes a control over—the process of dying.” In a chapter called “Choosing a time: the time is right, they describe how some dying people “choose the moment of death.”

Vignettes of both sudden and lingering death portrayed in Final Gifts show us “what is needed in order to die peacefully” and how “those close at hand can help bring that person peace and recognition of life’s meaning.”

I read this book years ago. Having read it again, I only appreciate all the more how much of a contribution Callanan and Kelley make toward our knowledge and understanding of the dying process. They do this by telling their nursing stories.

I encourage you to read this book.

What stories can you share about your experience with “nearing death awareness?”

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