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Meaningful farewells help the living and the dying cope

What do you say to a loved one who is dying? How do you say goodbye in a way that helps them — and you — when emotional stress is high and grief hovers?

“Final Conversations: Helping the Living and the Dying Talk to Each Other” by Maureen P. Keeley and Julie M. Yingling (VanderWyk and Burnham, 2007) may be the first communication text dealing with this specific topic. And as such, the book offers powerful tools to prepare and have “FCs,” as the authors call final conversations.

“A lot of people said, ‘This must be a pretty depressing topic,’ when we were doing our research but that’s not really true,” Yingling says. “Most of the people we interviewed lost a loved one years ago and they have processed the grief enough to just want to tell the story. In fact, they were excited to do it.”

Yingling, a professor of communication development at Humboldt State University, and Keeley, a communications professor specializing in health issues at Texas State University, talked with 80 people in defining their work. Yingling answered questions about her work:

Q: Did you find any cultural differences in the way people want to say goodbye?

A: There is no difference in these important conversations. The most common theme is love. There is a real focus on getting the love message said before death.

Q: After the message is said, does everyone want to die surrounded by loving family members?

A: A lot of people send everyone away. A lot of people feel they want to be alone. My father did that. Most of the family was with him and about 11 p.m. he told everyone to go get some rest. He died two hours later. A lot of people just go by themselves.

Q: How do you talk to someone who is dying?

A: There is no model, but once there, and once you acknowledge it, it feels natural and you do what you need to do. Death is part of life. We better welcome it and live our lives more conscientiously. People are so affected by these conversations they often take a turn in their lives and find more joy. I don’t know whether it lasts but everyone reported that effect for them.

Q: We’ve heard lots of stories about the dying seeing visions, seeing people already dead. These tales seem to confirm spirituality and life after death.

A: It seems most of the people we talked to have some spiritual belief, but that ran the gamut. There were those who were born again and those who felt another way. We concluded the experiences of a dying loved one either confirmed what people already believed or encouraged them to look a little further into it.

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