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Volume 1, Issue 2
Summer 2005:

Letting Go: Love's Final Gift

June Bingham

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Summer; 1(2):a17

Love never fails. Just as our loved ones help us to keep going, so our love can help them to hang on in time of sickness. But when a relative is dying and medical treatment has failed, we owe it to him or her to prevent what doctors and nurses call a "bad death," the painful deterioration that occurs when dying is unnaturally prolonged by modern medicine.

The opposite of the "bad death" is a peaceful letting go. As Morrie told his adoring young friend in Tuesdays With Morrie, "Don't give up too soon, but don't hang on too long." Or as Edna St. Vincent Millay put it, "Love in the open hand, no thing but that."

If you had to choose a single word to describe what stands in the way of letting go, what would it be? Some psychiatrists would say guilt; some pastors would say fear; some families of dying patients would say hope against hope.

Yet often the family members who have loved the dying person best are those who have the least trouble in letting go, while the relatives with clouded feelings toward the patient keep begging the doctors to "do everything," long after it's clear that "everything" can't possibly bring the patient back to a meaningful life. "But Mom's a fighter," they may insist, although old age or disease has robbed Mom of the physical capacity for such a battle. "But we're praying for a miracle," they may plead, although at some level they know that even the best of miracles has a built-in limit.

To face our own death is hard: to face that of a close relative is equally hard. What helps to provide us survivors with the needed courage is to think out — or talk out with a professional or relative or friend — how tangled our feelings toward the patient may be. For sometimes, in a moment of clarity, apart from our sense of loss and failure, a loving calm makes itself felt and our burden of lonely guilt is lightened. This calm can also include forgiveness of the patient and ourself, as well as the doctors and nurses, for not having been superhuman.

In sum, that single word we seek may be "acceptance."

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