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Margaret has just been given a six-to-twelve-month prognosis. She’s in pain from the metastasized cancer, and a little wonky from the meds prescribed for the pain. She’s wrestling with the decision of whether or not to take another course of chemotherapy. Should she do the treatments to postpone her dying time with more months of living fully (but possibly extend her dying time with an unknown quality of life); or should she let go to the process of dying now, as a conscious choice (but maybe short-change the fullness of her life experiences)?

Tough questions.

But the question that plagues Margaret is a different one. “Is there some way I can make this less painful for my loved ones?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “It’s painful to let go of what we love. They love you, and don’t want you to leave. If they didn’t love you, they wouldn’t hurt so much. That’s the nature of love.”

“I suppose so,” she said, not satisfied, pulling back into her thoughts.

Since then I’ve been pondering her question. Not about chemotherapy, for Margaret is the only one who can make that decision. I’ve been thinking about that bigger question, about love and the pain of loving and losing. Regardless of the timing – now, or later, or both – ultimately that question will loom large as our own deaths begin to consume us.

There is another answer, I think, besides the “no” I gave Margaret. There is a yes-and-no answer. A paradox.

The more Margaret chooses to share with her loved ones the depths of her questioning, the reality of her pain and her moments of fear as well as her times of serenity, the more they will be encouraged to participate in the reality of their own experience of losing her. The more deeply they partake of the exchange, the more they will understand about – and ultimately love – each other. Yes, and the more, therefore, they will grieve the loss of each other. AND the more grateful they will be for the legacy of having so fully known the one they love.

Is that a win/win, or a lose/lose?

Yes. And no. A paradox.

I believe it’s worth the risk.