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The Dying Process : Why it Takes Time to Let Go

by Viki Kind, End-of-Life Expert
January 27, 2012

Question: I know this will sound terrible but here is my question, “Why is it taking so long for my brother to die?” He is on hospice and the nurse keeps saying he is close to the end, but he can’t seem to let go. He fought his cancer for so long but now he is ready to go but his body won’t let him die. He keeps asking God to take him. Why is this happening?


I have been asked this question so many times so know that you are not alone in this experience. There are many reasons this can happen. Let me share with a few ideas. You may also want to talk to the hospice chaplain or social worker to see what they might suggest. 

Sometimes the person lingers because he needs to say his goodbyes or perhaps there are people in the family that need to tell him it is okay for him to go. This is one of the most painful conversations to have with the person you love. I remember when my dad was dying. It was so difficult for his girlfriend of 20 years to say her goodbyes. But he needed her to give him permission and to say that she would be okay without him. People who are dying often can’t let go if they are too worried about how the family will cope without them.

Another thing that can happen is that he may be waiting for a certain person to come to visit or for the opposite, for everyone to leave the room so he can die alone. It isn’t that he wants to be alone but he may love his family too much and he doesn’t want to burden the family with witnessing his death. 

One other thing that I have seen with those who have fought their disease for a long time is that the body, mind and spirit have been so focused on fighting against death, that it is difficult to allow the natural progression of dying to occur. My aunt was like this.  She couldn’t let go for the longest time because she had fought her multiple sclerosis for so many years. She prayed every night for God to take her but it was difficult for her to turn off her life force. The life force is exceptionally strong in some people and dying just takes longer. 

I know that this may not speed anything along but perhaps you can find comfort in understanding that there are parts of the dying journey that need to happen for the person to be able to let go. Try to find meaning in these extra days and treasure the additional time you have together. Death will come and you will be grateful for these last moments.

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Viki Kind is a clinical bioethicist, professional speaker, and hospice volunteer. Her book, The Caregiver’s Path to Compassionate Decision Making: Making Choices For Those Who Can't,” guides families and professionals through the difficult process of advocating for those who can no longer speak for themselves. She has recently launched a DVD that includes a template to create a quality-of-life statement.

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