Facing the Loss of Someone Dear

You want to hold on, but letting go can be the right thing to do

No one wants to lose a loved one.  But as the end of life approaches for a loved one, letting go may be the kindest thing you can do.

Accepting that your loved one is dying ahead of time will allow him or her to have some choice or control over his or her care, help families make difficult end-of-life decisions and make a profound transition somewhat easier for all.  Often, as the end of life nears, we keep two incompatible ideas in our minds at the same time – holding on and letting go.

Holding on

All of us have an instinctive desire to go on living. We feel attachments to loved ones, such as family members and friends, and even pets, and we do not want to leave them. We do not so much decide to go on living, as find ourselves doing it automatically.

When we realize that the end of life may be approaching, other thoughts and feelings arise. The person who is ill will want to be with loved ones and may also feel a sense of responsibility towards them, not wanting to fail them or cause them grief.  He or she may have unfinished business.  For example, the person may want to reconcile with estranged family members or friends and will find it both easier and more important to do so.

Fears arise and may be so strong that they are hard to think about or even admit: fear of change, of the dying process, of what happens after death, of losing control, of dependency and so on. Both the person who is ill and the caregiver also might experience resentment, sadness and anger at having to do what neither wants to do, namely face death and dying.

In one way or another, hope remains. The object of hope may change. As death comes closer, the family may hope for a restful night, or another visit with a particular friend, or just a quiet passing from this life to whatever we hope follows it.

Letting go

As death nears, most people feel a lessening of their desire to live longer. This is not a matter of depression. Instead, they sense it is time to let go, perhaps as in other times in life when one senses it is time for a major change. Examples might be leaving home, getting married, divorcing or changing jobs.

Some people describe a sense of profound tiredness, of a tiredness that no longer goes away with rest. Others, who may have overcome many adversities in their lives, reach a point where they feel they have struggled as much as they have been called upon to do and will struggle no more. Refusing to let go can prolong dying, but it cannot prevent it. Dying, thus prolonged, can become more a time of suffering than of living.

Family members and friends who love the dying person may experience a similar change. At first, one refuses to admit the possibility of a loved one dying. Then one refuses to accept the death happening. Lastly, one may see that dying is the better of two bad choices, and be ready to give the loved one permission to die.

The dying may be distressed at causing grief for those who love them, and receiving permission to die can relieve their distress. There is a time for this to happen. Before that, it feels wrong to accept a loss, but after that it can be an act of great kindness to say, "You may go when you feel it is time. I will be okay."

Help a loved one stay in charge as life ends

When someone you love is ready to die

Based on the Family Caregiver Alliance fact sheet "End of Life Choices: Holding on and Letting Go."

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