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Saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela

Updated: July 21, 2013 7:12PM

The celebration last week of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday came with beautiful tributes, including moving praise for South Africa’s first black president from children throughout his country.

On the same day, President Jacob Zuma said in an optimistic statement that doctors had confirmed Mandela’s health was steadily improving though he remained hospitalized.

Mandela has been critically ill and in the hospital for more than 40 days because of a lung infection, the latest among many hospitalizations in the last year.

Since he entered the hospital there have been conflicting reports, some making death seem imminent and others signaling he will recover from this latest setback. A Twitter update from Politico on July 15 said, “Nelson Mandela could leave hospital to recuperate at home.”

Contrary to the hopeful article Politico linked to, he was not discharged.

Clearly, the man is dying and a nation is reluctant to let go.

This is something with which many of us can identify. We see a loved one dying and say please don’t go. Yet, it can become selfish when death is near for that person and we do all we can to prolong life.

A friend who works in health care has told me stories about patients being tied to tubes and machines at the request of family members who cannot let go. Her feeling was that it only prolonged suffering instead of living.

“It’s different for every single family,” said Mary Runge, CEO and president of Horizon Hospice and Palliative Care. “Some are more ready than others. It depends on how long the disease has gone on.”

In cases of long-term illness, families see how loved ones have changed and death brings a sense of relief, she said.

“Then you have a situation where it’s a sudden diagnosis. Patients have been active and vibrant and suddenly have six months to live. They want to search for everything they can find to treat them. It doesn’t make a difference if they are 7 or 92.”

I think of Mandela, and I see someone who has defied odds his whole life. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he triumphed against apartheid though it left visible scars. He has been afflicted with tuberculosis that he contracted during decades-long imprisonment.

Yet, he has made it to 95. That’s tremendous staying power.

Runge said she can understand why people have hope for his survival. “We never, ever say, ‘Give up hope,’ ” she added. “There is nothing false about hope.”

But it’s time to hope that he will die in peace instead of hanging on for those who love him. I have questioned whether that’s possible ever since a photo was released in the spring of leaders of the African National Congress surrounding a sickly Mandela, propped up with a pillow and his legs covered by a blanket.

Of course, only close family and doctors know the true state of his condition, but you hope that this man who has lived for dignified causes will be allowed to die with dignity.

Runge said there is a mantra in hospice care: “Living until you die.”

That’s a wonderful way to view the end of life. But the reality is that many out there suffer until the very end, sometimes unnecessarily because loved ones can’t come to grips with reality. You hope Mandela isn’t among them.

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