The Current

How to die well: What David Maginley has learned from counselling hundreds on their deathbeds

David Maginley is a hospital chaplain who sits with people on their deathbed. He shares the most common regrets people reveal, and what's holding them back from being at peace in their final hours.

Dying people regret words not said, or words that pushed love away, says Maginley

David Maginley, a chaplain at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, talks to Anna Maria Tremonti from the CBC studio in Halifax. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

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Sitting in a hospital in Nova Scotia, Ferne Selig said she was ready to die. 

"I've had a good life, and I mean this very sincerely, I could go, I could go anytime," she told David Maginley, a chaplain at a hospital in Halifax.

"After our last conversation, I'm quite looking forward to it, to be honest with you," Selig said.

Selig had been living with cancer for 14 months. In her working life, the 65-year-old had been a master Mary Kay beauty consultant, who earned the enviable pink Cadillac for her sales.

Maginley had been talking with her for some time, in his role at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. The Current accompanied him on his visit with Selig.

Selig's only experience of dying was with her mother, who died of cancer in 2015. Now she found herself in the same position, as she felt her own death drawing near.

"I was so sure she was coming last night, David. I'd have bet my house that my mother was gonna take me last night," she said.

As she spoke, Selig became overwhelmed with emotion, and Maginley helped her to understand what she was feeling.

He told her the emotion was the "awareness of death: it's grief, it's anticipation, and it took over your body, your breath."

"You were washed by it, submerged in it. And all we want to do is not suppress it, we want to breathe into it, and discover that we're actually floating, not drowning."

Maginley talks with a patient in Halifax. This patient did not receive a terminal diagnosis, but Maginley has counselled hundreds who have. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

As Selig began to feel better, they joked together that this was "a good rehearsal."

"This is what makes dying so overwhelming," Maginley said. "We prepare to say goodbye to you. It's heartbreaking.

"But you prepare to say goodbye to reality. And every love you've ever known. The scale of that is too much."

Unfortunately, he said, "to do that well involves this surrender, and giving yourself to the experience."

Selig died shortly after the visit in April.

Speaking to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti this week, Maginley said that emotions like Selig's are common in a person's final days.

"Our mind is trying to cope, but our body tells us the truth about our emotions," he said.

"She rode the wave and it brought her back to herself. She felt empty. She felt peaceful. She discovered that she floats."

The unfinished love stories

Maginley has been supporting cancer patients for almost 20 years.

A four-time cancer survivor himself, he published his book Beyond Surviving: Cancer and Your Spiritual Journey in 2017.

He said that what people fear most is "not the dying, it's the leaving."

"It's leaving your loved ones, the not being part of their stories," he told Tremonti.

Culturally we have a massive aversion to death, seeing it as a failure that must be prevented at all costs, he said.

"It becomes something we strive against with every aspect of our being, subconsciously. But it's inevitable homework for everyone."

It's the words we did not say … affirming love, or the words we did that just pushed love away.- David Maginley

That homework is about forgiving the past and having a sense of humour about your own failings and shortfalls.

He told Tremonti about a woman named Liz, who had been sexually abused by her father a child. When she pressed charges as an adult, he was jailed.

Years later, after Liz received a terminal diagnosis, her father turned up at her door.

Liz told Maginley that her father "came in, and he stood so awkwardly and afraid in front of me."

"I felt my heart filled with peace and forgiveness for this man. I had worked through my pain and I wasn't going to be carrying it," Liz said. She got off her bed, hugged her father, and they talked.

Maginley said that Liz died well, because she had done her homework.

"She had realized that to forgive is to set yourself free from the pain you've been carrying. It has no bearing upon what the other person has said, feels, thinks or does."

Maginley's book tells of his personal and professional transformation through cancer.

Having 'open-hearted conversations'

If you do have a serious diagnosis, Maginley thinks it's important to have those conversations about palliative care early, even while you're still fighting for life.

"Those open-hearted conversations, I recognize, are profoundly difficult, but so empowering when everybody feels onboard, and you're able to make good choices."

He said that from sitting with the dying, he's seen that regrets are never about finances or career accomplishments, but always relationships.

"It's the words we did not say … affirming love, or the words we did that just pushed love away," he said.

"I think most of us leave this world with broken bits and unfinished business."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Mary-Catherine McIntosh