To learn more about living, talk to a person who's dying

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

It's probably safe to say Maggie Callanan knows a thing or two about dying. A hospice nurse for nearly three decades, she has helped more than 2,000 terminally ill people prepare for the inevitable.

Callanan was in the Chicago area last week, sharing some of the insights she has gleaned along the way. She does not hide from the reality that dying can be difficult for all involved. But she's convinced that the way in which those near death communicate can be nothing short of miraculous. The terminally ill still have plenty of wisdom, faith and love to share with the rest of us, she insists.

What's particularly striking is the similar way that many such people tend to express themselves. Many said they could see loved ones who are no longer alive. There was often a general sense that they had to pack for a trip, as it was time to be with them again.

While some experts might attribute such comments to confusion caused by brain chemistry changes, Callanan said she believes otherwise.

The author of the book "Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying," counters that perhaps it is the rest of us who are confused.

“The patient knows what's going on," she insists.

Callanan added that providers and families should not just be prepared to hear travel-related comments, but to treat them as an opening for meaningful dialogue — even if the communication is by necessity metaphoric.

In her wise book, she takes the message further. Here are a few notable observations:

• Given the benefits hospice and palliative care can offer, there is simply no reason for a dying person to experience a painful death.

• The dying really have two options for spending their remaining time: raging against illness or celebrating life.

• While a terminal diagnosis may close one door, it can open others.

Increasingly, long-term care operators are embracing hospice and palliative care services. And Callanan has an important message for those who have, or are about to: At its core, hospice care is not just about ending a journey. In many ways, it's about keeping dreams alive.

If your community is already delivering hospice services, please feel free to share below any insights the experience has revealed.

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