How Can We Comfort the Dying?

Joan Olinger - Morningstar Review

If we accept that we can have visits from our dear ones after they’ve left this world—and if these visits bring us comfort—how can we give similar comfort to them before they leave?

In a new book, Honoring the Mystery: Uplifting Insights from the Language, Visions and Dreams of the Dying, Barbara Morningstar examines the world of the dying from the perspective of a professional involved in hospice care for more than 20 years—and from the place of a woman bereaved.

Clearly and precisely written at less than 100 pages, this book might become a sort of manual of comfort for a whole host of readers: If you have a loved one who is dying; if you are grieving someone who has died; if you work in health care; or, if you are facing your own death, Morningstar’s book may have what you need to help you through.

Dr. Joan Olinger read Honoring the Mystery and gives her impressions below.

By Joan Olinger

A reviewer on wrote that Honoring the Mystery is “like a warm blanket on a chilly day and a compass for a wandering soul.” I certainly agree that this is the tone of the book.

Honoring the Mystery is about fear, grief, transformation and love. It’s about letting go and trusting, about moving from denial to acceptance. In focusing on these aspects of dying, Morningstar shows readers how to find comfort, peace, and understanding in a process that can all-too-often overwhelm our ability to cope.  

She lays out her philosophy of “companioning” the dying and the bereaved by highlighting three key themes. The first (in Chapters 1 and 2) presents a novel way of viewing death, along with a new way of understanding and valuing the experiences of the dying and of the bereaved. It’s encapsulated in something a palliative care physician has said to her: “My patients are my gurus.”

A second theme illustrates, through uplifting stories, how people who are dying can experience tremendously healing and comforting visions, as well as dreams that resolve old issues and connect them with the transcendent. In fact, she says, the speech pattern of a dying person often changes from the literal to metaphorical. By realizing that language seeming out of character to us likely has symbolic meaning for the patient, we can help comfort them, meet their needs, and prepare for the transition of death.

 Morningstar’s third major theme centres on how we can open our hearts, be present with love, and empathetically bond with the dying individual.  She refers to this as “companioning”. But she isn’t directive about how to do it; rather, she illustrates her own approach by showing time and again how she draws near to a dying or grieving person. She describes how she opens her heart, gently and quietly approaches, begins with a light touch on the shoulder, then remains silent, listening and allowing the individual to speak without being judged. She writes about connecting with each person—whether it’s the one who’s dying or the ones who will be left behind—from a place of respect, dignity, and validation.  

“One of the greatest dances at the end of life is the dance between love and fear …When fear is present in the dying or their loved ones, a companion’s love and compassionate presence is more powerful than words. In the silence alone, when love is present, profound transformations happen.”(p.79)

Morningstar says dying people often have visions. Typically, they are comforting, and the person feels joyous or peaceful afterward. Historically, though, these types of visions have generally been thought of as hallucinations, delusions or the negative effects of medication. Understanding them in a different light, listening to descriptions of them, validating them and even celebrating them, can bring great comfort to the dying and their loved-ones.  

 Morningstar encourages us to be open to learning from all that a dying person has to share. She uses the analogy that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he did the best he could to describe what he saw. Scientists back on earth did not ridicule or doubt his descriptions. Instead, he was honoured for having the courage to explore new realms the rest of us could only try to imagine.

 “The dying are also adventurers—true explorers venturing into one of the most uncharted territories yet to be discovered,” she writes.  

And she challenges us to consider this possibility: That the process of dying is actually the process of birthing in reverse. Before the baby is born, it has been curled up inside the womb.  As an individual begins to die, they often are again in a curled-up cocooning position. As the life force declines a dying person sleeps a lot, just as newborn babies do. Like the baby before birth not actively eating, drinking or socializing, so too, does the individual nearing the end of physical life eat, drink, and socialize less.

Even the change in breathing that happens as a mother goes into labor can be compared to the change in breathing that a dying person experiences shortly before death, says Morningstar. If that change, which is often distressing to loved-ones, could be viewed as reverse birthing—or even birthing into a transcendent world beyond the physical—perhaps it could take on a new meaning.  We are so excited about being present when a baby is born, but we dread being present for a death. Perhaps, if we view physical death as a birth into another world, we could find a similar richness of experience there.

 Many of Morningstar’s ideas are encapsulated in a story she tells of Diane, a mother in her mid-forties, who was dying of cancer. It was very difficult for Diane to think of leaving her husband and young daughter behind. One day, she saw children running joyfully around her hospice room, and she asked the nurse who they were. The nurse was careful not to discount Diane’s claim but told her she couldn’t see the children. So, Diane continued asking the nurses over the next several days who the children were; but, their responses were always the same: they couldn’t see the children either. Eventually, Diane stopped asking, but she remained joyous in her heart, because she could see the children and they were having fun.  

One day, as Diane’s daughter Sarah cuddled with her on the bed, she asked, “Who are those children, Mom?” Surprised and delighted, Diane instructed her daughter to ask the children that question. Sarah reported back that they claimed to be her brothers and sisters—but she was an only child. Her mother suggested she ask them their names. As Sarah relayed those names, Diane realized they were the ones she had given years before (but had not even told her husband) to each of the babies she had lost to miscarriages.  

This precious experience of having these children running around in her hospice room, and of finding out they were her own children, brought Diane great comfort and emotional healing. Those babies had not been lost at all; they would be with her in her journey beyond the physical body.  

As Barbara Morningstar shares her experiences from hospice bedsides, and from her own personal life, she opens up a new frontier for us. She helps us see “the lay of the land” so that we don’t have to feel afraid as we and our loved ones prepare to depart. At some point, all of us will become explorers in the worlds that await us.

You can find out more about Barbara Morningstar, her book, and Autumn’s Cocoon Education here.

The Meaning of Forever Project continues to accept stories of comforting experiences with loved ones who have passed on, and of near-death experiences that have helped to show the continuation of life beyond the physical body. You can email your story to us at and you can find more about our project on our Facebook page, and our Meaning of Forever Website.