Talking Points

When it's time to let go

Accepting death isn’t easy, but the alternative leads to even deeper suffering

My mom died a year ago, and her passing brought me a disorienting mixture of grief and relief. She was 98, and had suffered from dementia for more than a decade. In her last two months, my mother's joy in eating ("Yum, yum!") finally faded, and seeing her laboring to breathe tortured me. When her body finally gave out, it was no surprise, but the sudden absence death creates is always a shock. In ensuing weeks, I found myself with what is referred to in a recent Washington Post piece on grief as "dreadful freedom." I'd spent afternoons with my mom virtually every Saturday and Sunday for the 13 years since my father died, took her on my family's vacations, drove her to doctors, hired and managed caregivers, winced as her care gradually consumed her life's savings and then some, witnessed time and disease ravage her mind and body. Now that her life was over, part of mine was, too. My weekends were strangely, terribly, wonderfully free.

When death brings relief from prolonged suffering, those left behind often feel some guilt-tinged relief. I've experienced that emotion more than once. When COPD, cirrhosis, and botched hospital care left my father in a coma and on a ventilator, I had to invoke his living will to compel doctors to turn off the machines. As his breathing ceased, I knew he'd be grateful and felt joy that he'd been freed of a broken body. The same occurred when my brother died at age 31 of AIDS, after a fast-forward decline into serial infections and emaciation that was nearly unbearable to witness. A central teaching in Buddhism, whose wisdom I greatly admire, is that the art of life is embracing every moment, and letting go as those moments end. We deepen our suffering by clinging to a status quo that is not in our power to preserve. It's a supremely difficult skill to master, this letting go, but it can bring a measure of peace. Ends, it seems, are often followed by beginnings. Farewell to 2022, and to all the loved ones we survivors had to let go.