Longtime hospice nurse believes patients are glimpsing the afterlife
Maggie Callanan has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths. In 27 years as a hospice
nurse, the Massachusetts–based author and speaker cared for people of all ages
and widely divergent backgrounds as they reached the end of their lives.
But if they spoke as they neared death, it was often in nearly identical terms.
They said they could see family members who had died. They said their loved
ones were waiting for them, or telling them it wasn’t time yet.
They had to get their bags together for a trip. They had someplace important to
go. They had to go home.
Not everyone is communicative before they die; many people are too ill or
unconscious. And families shouldn’t put too much emphasis on a dying person’s
last words or put pressure on themselves to be present to hear them, said Dr.
Martha Twaddle, chief medical officer of the Midwest Palliative & Hospice
“Those words and those moments do not define the entirety of your
relationship any more than being at the bedside when they die,” she said.
“The person might just be sleeping, and you might be holding their
When dying people do make such comments, some experts on the end of life
attribute them to confusion caused by the changes in brain chemistry that
accompany death. Callanan thinks otherwise.
“People think it’s just confusion or the drugs,” said Callanan,
co-author of the book, Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying.
“But frankly, the confusion is ours,” he added. “The patient knows what’s
Callanan believes such patients are getting a glimpse of life after death,
which she believes exists. But regardless of the explanation, she told her
audience, she and co-author Patricia Kelley wanted people to know how common
these remarks were and to see them as offering important insights into
patients’ spiritual and emotional needs and their experience of death.
Unlike people who are resuscitated and return to health, she said, those who experience nearing death awareness do indeed die. But before they do, she said, they enter a state of expanded awareness in which they appear to exist in two states of reality.
This can be confusing to caregivers, she said. She recalled getting a frantic phone call from the mother of a patient in his 20s. In the background, she could hear the young man wailing, “Where is the map? I’m lost. I want to go home!”
His parents thought he was confused because they had moved him from his bedroom to the first floor. They were hauling furniture down from his bedroom to reassure him that he was still home.
Callanan, at the time new to hospice, also took his words literally. But his parents, on reflection, recalled that they spoke of heaven as an ultimate home.
“His parents went in and said, ‘You will find the map. You will get home,”’ Callanan said. The young man became calm and died within days.
Talking about having to get ready for a trip is common; people often use travel metaphors for death, she said. But when it comes to destinations, “everyone is seeing a different place.”
One man, for instance, was an avid golfer who told her he had just gotten an invitation to play a tournament in a foursome with his father and two brothers, all of whom were dead.
People shouldn’t dismiss such remarks, Callanan said, but use them to start conversations. “I said, ‘Tell me, do you know where you’re teeing off?’ He said, ‘No, because I don’t have my things together.”’ She interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t going to die immediately, which turned out be true.
And people shouldn’t contradict dying people who claim to have seen dead family members, Callanan said. Instead, they should ask to know more.
“You can write it off and say it’s a hallucination, they’re not getting enough oxygen in their brain, but no, it doesn’t apply to many people in these situations. I have to believe they are transitioning; they are in a phase we don’t understand physically or metaphysically. And it is profoundly reassuring to see it happen.”