Why Do Some Families Have Difficulty ‘Letting Go’ When A Loved One Is Dying?

Most seniors approaching their end of life are worn out and ‘ready to go’—they tell me they aren’t afraid to die, but their kids have difficulty letting them do so.  Doctors and nurses often observe that the children may feel we are ‘giving up’ and are upset if we aren’t still ‘doing everything’.


Some of the difficulty in ‘letting go’ is related to society’s unrealistic expectation that we can keep people alive “forever”.  In addition, adult children’s emotional responses may also be driven by feelings of guilt:  wishing they had visited more often, or done more for their parents.

Hank Dunn, a hospice chaplain in Virginia, talks about this issue in his booklet, “Hard Choices for Loving People’, and that it’s important to understand the difference between ‘giving up’ and ‘letting go’. (You can obtain a copy from Hospice of the Shoals.)  When a cure is possible and we don’t attempt it, sometimes that could be ‘giving up’. But, when a life-limiting condition—such as Alzheimer’s Disease, heart failure, or cancer—is present and therefore by definition incurable, the only realistic goal is to keep the patient comfortably functional and not prolong suffering.

Comfort-focused care allows families to improve the quality of their parent’s remaining life while ‘letting go’ of them.  When we do that, the evidence shows they not only feel better, but often live longer! As Dunn says, “Giving up is unwillingly yielding control to forces beyond myself, Letting go is choosing to yield to forces beyond myself”; Giving up lives out of fear, Letting go lives out of grace and trust.”