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choosing not to tell

when the table turns: choosing not tell

by Judy
July 31, 2013 

Thank you for your responses to my last blog about whether to tell an elderly relative about the death of a loved one. It has stimulated me to reflect on this more and also more has happened since I last wrote. What particularly strikes me is how much we don’t want to lie to our loved ones in general and yet it is sometimes more compassionate to lie in cases where suffering will incur and for no real reason. For example, one woman wrote me about her mother and father who both had dementia. When the mother died, her father knew of course and went to the funeral but he would then forget she had died. If the daughter picked him up to go out, he would ask if her mother was going too and she would sometimes  “lie”  to save him from grieving all over again. A few other people told me about situations where a sister or brother died and the surviving sibling had Alzheimer’s and they chose not to tell him or her about the death as it would only add, as one woman said, "to confusion and cause more unrest than anything.”

More recently, my mom who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but definitely has memory loss forgot that her cousin Leo had died – the cousin I wrote about in my last blog - and when she was reminded about his death, after having a dream about him, she again went through grieving and was upset most of the morning. It affected her in a bigger way as well because she became upset in general about losing so many of her friends. She cried for awhile in that inconsolable way that is so heart wrenching. After this happened, I felt I would consciously not remind her of Leo’s death and only tell her if I had no other choice.

I really don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering especially when my mother is not who she was - she isn’t even who she was a few months ago. It’s almost like being with a young child and watching the changes week by week -probably not as extreme - but when I think of a year ago, I can mark so many changes in my mom until this moment now. She is definitely not able to handle complexity, intensity, and emotional pain very well. She is very fragile. Why aggravate her when it has no purpose at this stage in her life?

We are all being presented with situations that nothing could have prepared us for and in that have to really listen to our heart and not any prescribed way to behave or rules we have learned. And this isn’t always easy as we hold an ideal of how we should be with one another and definitely lying is not acceptable especially about someone’s death.

I have been thinking of another, slightly different example in my own life; in this case about information that was withheld from me when I was young. It was about my father who had a heart attack when he was very young; only forty-one years old and for the rest of his life until he died at sixty-one, he suffered with angina. Now I was never told any of this as my father didn’t want us, his children or most people to know. When I found out after he died, I was upset. I felt like had I known, it would have given me more understanding of him; would have enhanced my relationship. But as I step even further back, I see that this is the way my father wanted to live; he didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He wanted to protect us and himself. I was only nine years old when my Dad had a heart attack and I can well imagine him not wanting me to know and then for a variety of reasons, continuing with that narrative. And I really don’t know, had I known, how it would have affected my relationship. At this point I can only imagine.

It gives me pause in thinking what a big heart we need for both ourselves and others and also to understand we are forever changing. I have a lot more empathy now than I had when I was young and more patience. My mother has softened enormously as she has aged and now in the twilight of her life, I want to spare her any unnecessary suffering and that may include what might be called “benevolent lying” at times. One woman wrote movingly in response to my last essay, “You never know if you are making the right choice and have to go with your gut instinct.” For certain there is a real reckoning that takes place in oneself, without any past guidelines, to dig deeply and go with one’s best heartfelt response. That’s all one can really do.

Feel free to share your thoughts


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