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Janice Van Dyck

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Go Ahead. It's Okay to Die

Posted: 09/16/11 08:10 PM ET

From the time we learn to walk, we learn to let go of what is known and try for a potentially greater reward. We learn that making decisions that are right for us is one of life's greatest satisfactions. It can be scary to take steps away, to live or to die on our own. The decision can become downright paralyzing if there's someone who refuses to let us go.

It's hard to be the one who must let go of someone whom you hold precariously in your grip, whether it's your child learning to walk or a very ill loved one whose lifetime is coming to an end.

Never underestimate the power of letting go. Likewise, never forget the price of holding on too long.

Many families beg a terminally ill person to hang on. We've all seen it happen. Loved ones ask a dying person to try one more treatment, to take chances with those precious last days. "For me," they say, "Do it for me," hoping for a miracle at best, or at worst, knowing it's a last-ditch attempt to prolong the inevitable. Sometimes a terminally ill person begs to be relieved of that responsibility or ignores the plea. But too many other times, a terminally ill person tries again to meet the needs of his or her family -- a parting gift of love.

But, at what cost? Whether it's measured by the life-sapping destruction of another round of chemotherapy on an already weakened body, the pain of multiple last-ditch surgeries or the emotional weight of leaving a loved one who isn't ready to be left, it is the cost of holding on too long. And, it's often a heavy cost for the dying person who must pay.

Letting go requires, first, giving permission for a person to leave you. Think about our children taking those first steps, or if you don't have kids, about the time you took your own first steps. Should it be acceptable for a parent to say, "Get back here, Junior. You're not leaving me yet," or "Please, if you love me, don't stand up," or even "What will I do if you take that step?" No. I think most people would say that is not acceptable.

Learning to walk is normal. And so is dying.

When a very ill person accepts his or her death and asks you to, don't ask them to pay the price of your hanging on too long.

The greatest gift you can give is to give them permission to die -- their way, on their time. Give permission. "It's okay to die," you can say. "You have nothing more you need to do for us here. Be at peace." This is the power of letting go.

Many people know when it's their time to die. Whether they feel it in their bones, wake up with a sudden understanding or feel it coming for a while, they are not afraid when it comes into the room and hovers. Old wives tales talk about elderly Eskimos setting out away from the family to die on some ice floe, or American Indians who head for the forest to die alone. I have no idea whether that's folklore or whether there's truth to it. But I do know it's not uncommon for animals to separate, to go off quietly to die. There seems to be some instinct that guides them. There seems to be some need for peace, quiet and non-interference.

Different cultures and religions believe different things about what does or does not happen after death. But many believe that peace at the time of death is important for the spirit of the dying person -- whether that spirit ceases with the breath or whether it lives on.

It can also be important for those of us who go on living. The power of letting go means no one becomes the victim of death. We become willing participants in life's process, and that choice -- that conscious decision to let go -- is our role in it. It is our only power.

Janice M. Van Dyck is author of "Finding Frances," a novel about a woman's choice to deny aggressive treatment at the end of her life. It is fiction based on true events.