Book Review

Nearing Death Awareness

by Alan E. Donant

Why has death, so natural and commonplace, become for many a source of fear and bewilderment? Older cultures perceiving a relationship between death and life admitted it into the events of daily living. Their philosophies, myths, and religions spoke, in some detail, of the separation of the higher self from the lower physical being and the journey through afterdeath states. Modern humanity, by contrast, has been living in semi-technological isolation from nature and her processes. Having lost touch with what is real, we nonetheless are slowly regaining our rightful heritage. Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley is a significant step toward modern awareness of the processes leading to death. From over twenty years of nursing and hospice experience these two authors have garnered a wisdom and sensitivity, and cultivated a keen observation, that only the dying could teach. Truthfully, those who have spent time with a friend or relative passing through a life-threatening illness realize they have gained something invaluable inwardly. Our ignorance of death is diminishing. As it does, we all win, for the liberation of death from the dark corners of perturbation and suffering may be the greatest liberation for all humanity.

The special gifts given by the dying and the change of their consciousness to a "nearing death awareness" are the subject of this book. More than coining a new term, the authors have identified a shift of consciousness occurring a day, week, month, or even a year before death. Not to be confused with near-death experiences, this change of awareness is part of the dying process. If we are ready to listen we may take part in this special communication. What the dying see and experience is expressed by what at first may appear to be confused ramblings, incoherent statements, unusual behavior, or references with no personal context. Symbolic language is often used to describe an inner experience or event. The dying may communicate their needs, or new understanding of life itself, in order to die peacefully. It is not uncommon for them to tell of the time of their death or to let go only after a certain event or condition takes place. What is so apparent in this book is that it takes no special training to participate in these experiences. The sorrow and pain of losing someone can be turned to something positive and permanent.

What we learn from this book — and dying people — can be carried forward into the rest of our lives.

We are not researchers or philosophers; we're nurses who choose to work with dying people. The material in this book has come directly from our teachers - - our dying patients, who have taught us what dying is like for them while they are experiencing it. What we have learned is so exciting and positive that it has changed our lives, and we have written this book to share those messages with you.
We didn't set out to develop a new theory on the special communication by the dying — we simply listened, with our ears, with our hearts, and with open minds. We now invite you to open your minds and hearts to the positive, final messages of the dying. — p. 18

We have kept death and birth a mystery of stainless steel and bright lights and antiseptic hospital rooms. Over the years, however, significant alternatives have gradually brought these momentous natural experiences back to our feelings and consciousness, and in some cases back home. Technology for its own sake leads us far astray; applied judiciously with nature in mind, technology may yet serve as a source of liberation. We find in this book that simple technology, controlling pain, and the human heart are our most advanced tools.

Final Gifts deals with no philosophy other than care for our fellows and loved ones. It proposes that we first observe our own fear of death and its sources and, furthermore, that we share the process of dying, not only to provide comfort to others but to ourselves as well, by allowing the experience of death to remove the veils of anxiety and dread. This process is not a panacea for the grief and pain that death may bring. However, understanding Nearing Death Awareness does "provide a framework within which death can cease to be viewed as a lonely, frightening, over-powering event, as well as a setting in which those close to the one dying can foster sources of comfort in the face of death's inevitability."

The last chapter asks us:

What does it all mean? How do the messages of Nearing Death Awareness and the dynamics that arise around a dying person you may be involved with figure into your life, whether now or in the future?
Begin with some self-examination. In dealing with difficult situations on your own or with others, how do you usually respond to stress? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How will those responses work with someone who is dying? Are you afraid of death? If so, do you know why? . . .
Most important, what do you expect to accomplish through your involvement with a dying person? Are you acting out of a sense of obligation, to seek fulfillment, or for what reason? Do you want to come away from this death with the sense of completion that accompanies the knowledge that you've done everything you could for the dying? Are you intent on using whatever time remains to savor this relationship? Do you wish to convey important messages of love, gratitude, and farewell? Do you want to learn something that will help you face your own mortality? — p. 211

In a time when we are motivated through fear to consider so-called mercy killing, and governments wrestle with euthanasia, Final Gifts is a breath of fresh air and an appeal to reason. Too often we think we know better than the universal intelligence that pervades every dimension of manifestation. Indeed, euthanasia leaves this factor out of the equation and in its basest form is the ultimate expression of materialism. Every fleeting microsecond we are in the process of transformation. During sleep we undergo nightly the rehearsal of a greater transformation — death — a perfect metamorphosis, neither absolute end nor beginning. By casting away our physical limitations are we any different from all other forms of nature that transmute the unseen — through seed or bulb, egg or chrysalis; seedling, or childhood; to the various expressions of adulthood and old age? Within each of us resides a spark of the eternal, guiding the transformation of its many outer vestures all along the cycle. At the appropriate moment it returns to the unseen, awaiting manifestation once again. These are the rhythms of eternal life — never ending, always changing.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)


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