Heather Conn Blogs

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Recommended books on dying

This is my first and probably last post of the month. I haven’t felt much like writing online. My father is dying of terminal cancer: multiple myeloma. Last week, I went to see him  in the hospital in Guelph, Ont. and got him into a hospice. I felt grateful that he knew me. 

Despite the synthetic morphine he was receiving through a pain pump, he had lucid periods and sounded off on a number of things, from the hospital’s penny-pinching in its medical care to his dislike of the choice of juices offered. We spoke directly and he made ironic comments. I was delighted to discover that his sense of humour remained beneath his delusions.


Now that I’m back home on the west coast, thousands of miles from my dad and the hospice, it feels more challenging to deal with his pending death. However, I have three books to recommend for others who are coping with someone dying:

1.  FINAL GIFTS (Bantam 1997) 

A friend of mine who’s a palliative care nurse recommended the book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. The co-authors, two hospice nurses, share their experiences with a variety of terminally ill patients of all ages. Here are the most valuable things I learned from this book:

  • People who are dying speak in symbolic language: When someone is ready to die, he or she will often use a metaphor regarding travel or going on a trip, something like “I need my passport.” It’s easy for family or friends to dismiss this as gibberish or a delusion, but it’s actually the patient’s way of saying: ‘I’m ready to go.” People dying will often use a metaphor from their line of work; hence, a pilot will ask about his plane.


  • People dying will see dead loved ones: The dead loved ones might appear to the patient in the room, sitting at the end of the bed. The person dying might converse with someone the family can’t see or reach out to touch someone from their life who has been dead a long time.


  • Those dying might share dreams that relate to death: People dying will sometimes share a recent dream that contains symbols related to dying. For instance, the dream might show a loved one who died years earlier or portray the dying person preparing for a trip.


This book helped me to stay more attentive to my father’s words and look for possible clues as to what he might be trying to say.



My cousin, who cared for my uncle (my dad’s  brother) while he was dying, recommended this book to me. I truly appreciate its perspective: author Kathleen Dowling Singh presents death as the final part of a continuous life journey towards the True Self, shedding ego and personality in transformation to merge with Spirit.

Singh draws on her extensive knowledge of transpersonal psychology and spiritual/religious traditions to address death in symbolic and archetypal terms, shifting from the usual perspective of death as a source of fear and tragedy to a glorious state of grace and surrender to Ultimate Love.

I really like the Buddhist and Tibetan viewpoints of life and death as levels of consciousness that Singh addresses, along with her mention of ego’s shadow and persona, Carl Jung’s sense of subpersonalities, and the search for Unity Consciousness. The view of life and death she outlines, including the ego’s constant attachment to protecting its own “identity project”, is in sync with my own beliefs and the spiritual practices that I have followed and learned from in recent decades.

The author works in a large hospice in southwest Florida and regularly talks to groups about death, dying, and the hospice movement. She, too, includes anecdotes about different terminally ill people she worked with and how they faced dying and death.

My cousin told me that for the final two days of his life, her dad wore an expression that she characterized as “deep joy.” She felt that he was already in touch with dead loved ones and was ready to greet them in the afterlife.

This book reinforces what an honour and spiritual gift it is to stay present with someone dying and to be with them when they pass.



Written by medical doctor Ira Byock, this book begins with a chapter on the dying and death of his own father. The author presents a loving, open portrait of his dad and discusses the challenges he had in caring for his father both as a son and as a physician.

Byock writes about his dying patients with love and compassion, and discusses with sensitivity all matters related to the dying and caregiving process. He acknowledges how impersonal his medical training was in handling the dead and dying. Before hospice care had begun in the U.S., he started an informal program in a hospital to help people “die well” with respect, comfort, and even happiness.

Byock has served as president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and is director of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national program to improved end-of-life care.

September 26, 2010 at 7:27 pm Comments (0)