In their classic, Final Conversations — Helping the Living and the Dying Talk to Each Other, Drs. Maureen Keeley and Julie Yingling write: “Death and taxes are the only guarantees in life, and yet taxes are far easier to talk about. Death has become a taboo topic in our society.”
Taboo, that is, until it inevitably jolts the status quo; its irrevocable nature collapses all the avoidant defenses. You have to learn its language.
Keeley and Yingling set out to do just that. They spent more than a year interviewing 82 people about their final interactions with loved ones who were dying and knew they were dying. More than 1300 pages of transcripts were gathered.
This emotionally charged material was then organized — masterfully organized — into chapters like “Beyond Words: The Power of Nonverbal Communication” and “Heartache Released: Healing Damaged Relationships.” These granular episodes relate relevant stories from the survivors: it’s a step-by-step description of the journey to death. Each chapter ends with a practical advice section that sums up the lessons survivors have to share.
The reader learns that these final conversations can allow the living to resolve overhanging conflicts, strengthen relationships and reach closure. This is powerful, highly meaningful information: Final Conversations deserves to be read and re-read.
Dr. Keeley recently responded to our questions:
You say in your book that you have learned not to fear death. Can you tell us more about that?
Through my personal experiences with the death of my mother, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, I have seen how peaceful death can be and how it is a part of the life cycle — which tells me not to fear it. In addition, I have heard so many stories from the people who I have interviewed about the evidence of an after-life, I am confident that death is not the end. We transition into something else — which I look forward to one day experiencing/learning/growing from.
There appears to be little research in this area. Why do think that is?
There is little research, but more now than there used to be. I believe that there was little research because for a long time the focus was on the person who was dying and/or the health providers. I continue to believe that those who die are safe, surrounded by love, and continue to watch over us (or for those who don’t believe in an after-life, they are no longer in pain or fear).
We, those who go on living, must deal with our grief, our everyday loss, and figure out how to move forward. I truly believe that communication at the end of life with our loved one is what helps us cope and move on. Our grief begins when we find out that our loved one has a terminal illness and that their time with us is limited. Because of this new understanding, we have the opportunity to prioritize our relationships with that person. We have the opportunity to make sure that nothing is left unsaid. To get time with that person, to hug them, to laugh with them, to share memories, fears and hopes with this loved one is a gift.
So much of our academic and medical research focuses on continuing life instead of prioritizing time that is left by focusing on the quality of people’s final months/weeks/days.
In terms of the interest we place on the last words, particularly of celebrated people, it’s been found that many of these quotes are invalid. Why as a culture do you think we need to ascribe last words to people that may be true to their character, but in fact, are false?
People have a lot of expectations for “famous people” and it is more comforting to “ascribe last words” that are consistent with those expectations than to be left with a void or to be left with something that creates more uncertainty. In addition, final last words are meant to be private for our closest loved ones… yet, people think that they are “owed ” the opportunity to know what a famous person’s last words are because they think that they are close to them/know them because they are famous and have an impact on their lives in some way. There is truly a sense of loss for some people when a famous person that has impacted them in some way (made them laugh, made them identify with them, etc.) and therefore, they are looking for a way to cope with their loss as well; so they are looking for final words of comfort from the famous person who has died…just as we look for words from our loved ones to give us comfort after they have died.
In your book, you distinguish between spirituality and the practice of a particular religion. Where does all this leave those who are dying but have no faith at all, or any sense of spirituality?
I honestly don’t know. I like to think that if there is a higher power and that our soul is off to the next part of our journey, then I hope that those individuals are in for a wonderful surprise. And if there is nothing, then there is nothing…