Keeping secrets from a dying woman

Is it ever right to withhold serious information from a dying individual?

In a story that would not typically be newsworthy, an 88 year old woman died recently due to old age. Ten years after her husband’s passing, she laid in the same bed that he took his last breath in. Her small frame vanished into the large oak bed, but the company of her children and grandchildren huddled around her helped fill the emptiness of the room. They sang songs that she’d remember and tried to speak of things that she could still comprehend. Money and bills were pushed aside for her last hours, while they reminisced with the woman as she slipped away.

A Tragic Secret

But that loving family was keeping a secret from the dying woman: her eldest daughter, who lived some 3000 miles away on a different coast, had passed away three weeks before from cancer, surrounded by her own children in a not-so-well lit hospital room that smelled of Lysol and latex glove. The daughter passed away with tubes in her body, plugged into machines that couldn’t do enough for her after all.

The family as a whole decided that, for the sake of the 88 year old mother who didn’t know any different anyway, there was no need for her to know of her daughter’s passing on the other coast. If anything, they argue, it would just make the last three weeks of her life filled with sadness when it could have been, and ultimately was, filled with songs and food from her childhood.

Family Discretion

Quite recently, a profile of hospice workers in The New Yorker presented a similar scenario: They documented instances in which caregivers across the country are asked by the families of their patients to avoid telling their patients themselves about potentially painful diagnoses, believing that knowing that a person was gravely ill and had little time left would only speed their passing and make it more uncomfortable. In fact, in some countries like China, it is relatively common for doctors to insist on giving test results or other health information about a seriously ill patient to a family member, to let them decide when, how, or if to share the information.This way, the families can decide whether or not to tell their loved one of the news or let them live out their days in a blind bliss.

Right vs. Wrong

But is this the right thing to do? Is it ever right to withhold serious health information from a dying individual? Should a dying mother know that there’s been a tragedy in her family? We talk a lot about white lies, but what about “white secrets? Is keeping a secret that cannot directly hurt someone else if they never found out the right thing to do?

And where do we draw the line? Questions of health aside… Imagine a husband cheats on his spouse a single time, and there are seemingly no repercussions that could hurt his significant other if they didn’t find out, should he really tell him or her for the sake of honesty?

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is right and what is wrong. Far too often, that line is not as distinct as we’d like. Many of the most difficult things that we’ll be asked to do in our lives involve navigating the grey area that lies between. Have you ever faced a situation like this, having to decide whether or not to divulge something to a loved one? How did you handle it?

 

22 comments

  1. Marquise says:

    I believe that it was wrong of them to not tell their mother when it happened. They could have at least told here the day before her death. I believe a mother and father should know about there child’s death

    1. safetyfirstintexas says:

      in my opinion; about 2 tenths of a millisecond after her passage, she was reunited with her passed daughter and they have the rest of eternity together. too often we only focus on the alive part of our souls journey, instead of the totality of its existence.

  2. Rev. L R Young says:

    I believe that the family meant well, and that their intentions were honorable. However, we have heard the adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions “.

    My grandmother had cancer that had metastasized to her brain. The Doctors and my mother all felt she shouldn’t be told. I felt quite strongly that she had the right to know and further that she needed to know. Finally she was told the next day. Four days later, she passed away in her sleep. She had those days to talk to her loved ones and make any final arrangements. I have always been glad that I stuck my twenty year old opinion in the mix .

  3. Bill Thompson says:

    I was the care giver for my mother until she died, I minister to seniors in a convalescant home and I have found out a few things in the process. My mother may have gotten clumsy towards the end and seemed incoherent but she knew what has going on. Every detail. She planned to die on her 40th anniversay and didn’t say a thing. When I first started ministering at the convalescent home the residents seemed like they were in a coma. Many times they were judged and ignored. At one session I decided to turn it around and put them to work. Imagine a room with 12 female residents not participating and falling asleep. My message to them was about the church and how they got started as a Christian. I asked them to please give their testimony on when they found the Lord. It was a slow response and then I told one woman, “you look like you don’t like speaking in public, but I would bet that you could write a book about your life”. She geared back and admitted it was true and very preciously gave her testimony and after she was done the rest of the group wanted to give theirs. I looked up and thanked God. Without patience, love and understanding people will stay to themselves. Once the door is open you find out that there is someone in there and they are precious. Everyone of them became my new grandma. So to anwer the question; they know whats going on. Don’t ever doubt it. Be as honest with them today as you were yesterday. Put yourself in their place – would you want to be left out? I think not. God has made us tough and he will not let us suffer more than we can bear!

  4. Alvin R Jones says:

    For the benefit of peace of mind, somethings are better left untold to those needing that peace of mind , particularly that of a hospice patient. If we will all are to meet in the spirit some day………we can discuss it then.

  5. hsw says:

    Years ago my then husband’s grandparents were both rushed to the hospital within hour of each other. The grandmother passed within a couple of days, and the grandfather was given days to live. The family made the decision to tell him she was in the hospital, but when she passed they elected not to tell him. He died peacefully and I’ve never had any reason to regret what was done.

    Bottom line – is it helpful or hurtful? As with the example of the one-time infidelity, some things are better left unsaid.

  6. cmdsgtmajor says:

    A smart man knows what to say, a wise man knows whether or not to say it. Anon

  7. reflectionsofthemother says:

    My mother was in advanced Alzheimer’s. Her friend of many years died. The daughter called me and told ME, but even she was hesitant to tell my mom. Mom probably would have gotten angry because she couldn’t remember who Eileen even was. In a situation like this, I think it is best to withhold that kind of news.

  8. Michelle says:

    I think no one rule applies in situations like these. It’s a case by case issue. Some people it is best they know and some people it isn’t. People want easy to follow black and white rules and sometimes in life there aren’t.

  9. Kevin Zent says:

    A sticky question indeed. My thought would be to decide if telling the individual would cause them more pain than good. I would pray about it and hope that God would guide me in making the right decision. I guess in the end if being compassionate means keeping something bad from someone on their deathbed then I would do that. Whatever the bad news is cannot be changed but the amount of compassion and charity one gives is always under our control.

    1. Robert Ruston says:

      Fully agree with you Kevin.

  10. John says:

    I believe that it was wrong of them to not tell their mother. She could’ve at least prayed for her daughter. I believe a mother and father should always know about there children at all times.

  11. Kathleen says:

    When my great aunt was diagnosed with cancer, we debated whether to tell her or not. After all, cancer could be cured by that time but she grew up in a time when cancer was a death sentence. In the end, we did tell her and she died two days later – finding out she had cancer removed her will to live. If I had it to do over again, I don’t know that I would tell her.

  12. Alvin Ronald jones says:

    Amen Kevin!

  13. Claire Trautmann says:

    This really is a decision for the family to make. As a minister all you can do is support them.

  14. Mollie J. McPherson says:

    I think it depends on the mental condition of the person dying. If they know what is going on around them and can recognize everyone, yes tell them. If they don’t know people around them, or show signs of dementia, then it may confuse them if they can not remember things or people. Also it might be helpful if you prayed about it and think it over at least over night, then make your decision.

  15. Morgan Walker says:

    Not telling a dying person sad news to shield them from possible sorrow, anger, more doubt, regret etc sounds like love. I would encourage love and compassion on the precipice of the great journey. I pray that I take my own advice when called upon.

  16. kdebott66 says:

    As someone who has faced this within our Family, I understand. Years ago when my Mothers Oldest Sister was dying from Cancer, her Family decided to not tell her that her 3rd oldest Child was in another State in Prison for Grand Theft. They didn’t want her last remaining days sadder than she already was.

  17. safetyfirstintexas says:

    honor the wishes of the family without interjecting your own beliefs upon them. we each as a single man or woman have a right to a belief ;and then also as a family.be patient and supportive of the decision. there is no right or wrong in this solution, just belief and love. honor each fraction of god in each person as if you were standing next to him as a whole,and you cant go wrong. namaste.

  18. Rev. Donna says:

    To tell someone or not, is a question that must be weighed within each person’s heart & led by divine guidance. It is unique in each situation. My elderly aunt (99 yrs of age) is in a nursing home. Her beloved brother passed away recently. Our family has mercifully opted not to tell her – what purpose would it serve except to make her grieve & bring her down? She will see him again one day in the angelic realm & as her mind comes & goes, she has not asked about him.

  19. Brian H Davies says:

    Some years ago my mother was close to death and my younger sister was in hospital undergoing chemo treatment for what was just prolonging the inevitable. As my mother had raised 10 children and was 96 years old we figured that mum should be left to pass away in peace, as extra worries weren’t going to help anyone, and in fact would probably cause a lot of undue distress. Mum died peacefully and my sister a year later and we all agreed that as mum was a very compassionate person she would understand and none of the remaining siblings have any lasting regrets, as after all we put into practice mum’s compassion for all.

  20. Oliver White says:

    I once got high on hydrogen sulfate. It was an enlightening experience that to this day I am happy to have witnessed. To see grown men and women gowning to the horror of liquid fecal matter running down their legs from flatulence that just could not be trusted. Having given our Savior the finger while he was in the shower will always remind me of my own cynicism towards this inane money pit.

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