Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Final Gifts

Final Gifts

Worried, I called my father's doctor. "My father is saying things that don't make any sense. Do you think it's his medication?" My very elderly father now living with my family had been admitted to home hospice care a while earlier. He was only on one medication, but I felt I needed to contact the doctor to discuss the possibility of a medication reaction. Nevertheless, what my father was saying was very interesting: that my mother had contacted my father to say she was waiting for him at home. He needed to buy a ticket home. I knew that my mother died six years ago and their home in Florida have been sold. My father also knew this, but he had almost been in a trance during this talk about tickets home. My father's doctor reassured me about the medication and referred me to a very important book, Final Gifts. He commented, "Every family should know about this book." I agree!

"Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying," Bantam, 1992, was written by two experienced hospice nurses, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Obviously these nurses have been loving and caring listeners to their dying patients. The transition from a dying body to the afterlife is often difficult and frightening to the dying individual and family members. Even more frightening is the problem created when the dying are unable to communicate their needs and family members dismiss their communications as confused thinking. Callanan and Kelley describe a mindset they term "nearing death awareness" which develops slowly as a dying individual drifts between life and afterlife. This period can last days, weeks or even months and is different from the deathbed visions which often occur at the moment of death.

Let's admit it, we're scared about our own mortality, and we prefer to avoid the topic of death, often assigning it to doctors and hospitals. But let's not avoid our loved ones as they begin the transition from life to afterlife. The experience is actually awesome and empowering (yes, and also stressful as we extend out of our comfort zone.) The information from near death experiences, death bed visions and afterlife encounters tells us that the actual time of death, the transition time, is usually experienced as a peaceful and comforting experience, bathed in a white light, full of love and understanding, with deceased family members and friends coming to escort the dying individual into the afterlife. We can give our loved ones the "final gift" of acceptance, love and hope during the transition times whether they are hours, days or months. The dying give us a final gift when they reach out to communicate with us. The book explains the two types of messages from the dying: explaining what they are experiencing and what they need for a peaceful death. As a psychologist I am experienced in discussing even the most difficult topics with others, and my father and I grew closer as we shared our experiences. The book provides assistance to both family and professional caregivers as to how to communicate as death draws near. This time of sharing love and understanding will help you deal with the inevitable sadness and loss.

This book as well as home-based hospice services move the transition from life to afterlife out of the hospital and into the family context. The book demystifies the dying process and allows us to care for and comfort our loved ones with open and honest communication. During the nearing death awareness period, our dying family members are usually able to talk and they do communicate their needs but sometimes in indirect, symbolic or confusing ways. Dying individuals often speak of tickets home. The metaphor of the journey generally relates to the dying experience and home is their final destination. The dying often tell us they are in the presence of loved ones who have already passed on. It's important not to be frightened by such stories. Sometimes they tell us about their visions of the afterlife, or sometimes they tell us things they need to do before they die such as reconcile with others. In other cases dying people communicate without words, and their actions show us what they are experiencing. They may nod, smile wave or reach for someone you can not see. The book provides very practical advice as to how to deal with these experiences, helping bring them into the circle of family love and away from the specter of fear and pain usually associated with dying.

I would like to thank Dr. Michael Sharp of Plum Spring Clinic for his assistance to my father and for the information about this very valuable book.

PS. I am including some background information about this and related topics. "The Needs of the Dying" by David Kessler is another very helpful book. The Near Death Experience Research Foundation ( contains pertinent information as well as reports of near death experiences contributed by many individuals. I read them to my father who was very interested and comforted by these experiences. Another website ( contains related information and valuable links. The links include information from scientists who have studied the realm of quantum physics in an effort to understand the connections between life as we experience it, the quantum universe and the afterlife. The International Association for Near Death Studies ( is another group dedicated to the "global understanding of near-death and near-death-like experiences through research, education and support." Of the many books written on these topics and described in the websites above, I found that the book "Lessons from the Light" by Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., offered interesting and potentially valuable insights to readers.