Should an elderly woman be told of her grandson’s death?
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — Question: My mother is 90 years old, in frail health but of sound mind. Last year, one of her three grandchildren and the youngest of my two sons died in an accident at age 29. My son and my mom were close. As an adult, my son moved to another state but made a point of visiting every few years. He has remained in contact with regular phone calls and other correspondence. My sister has demanded that my mother not be informed of my son’s death. She argues that my mother will die in a few years anyway and so should be spared the sad news, that the grieving process could hasten my mom’s death. “Let mom die in peace.”
I’ve complied with my sister’s demands. Whenever my mom asks me about my son, my rehearsed response is “Your grandson loves you dearly.” But as time passes without contact from my son, I’m concerned that my mom has concluded that my son has lost interest in his grandmother. For my mom’s sake, I’m uncomfortable with keeping her in the dark. But I’m also conflicted. I miss my son so very much. To include my mom in my own grieving would benefit me. After all, she is my Mom. Any ideas?
Answer: To begin with, I wish to offer you my sincerest condolences on the loss of your beloved son.
After discussing your letter with two psychologists, an ethicist, and an attorney, we arrived at the mutual opinion that you have every right to tell your mother what exactly happened. One does not live to be 90 years old without enduring some painful moments.
Mothering is a lifetime vocation, and I feel she will rise to the occasion and give you the maternal support you need. Oftentimes an older parent can display a courage and ability to rise to the occasion. She has a right to know. And you, as her daughter, have the right to tell her. Hiding the truth in this case is denying your mother’s personal autonomy.
If the situation was in reverse, and you were in your mother’s shoes, what would you want? Pose the same question to your sister (if you haven’t already), “Beloved sister, what would you do if the situation were in reverse?” It is possible she would not act any different, but that is ultimately her choice.
Naturally, it goes without saying that the manner in which you disclose this information is of the utmost importance. Be careful how you word with what you’re going to say. Given the sensitivity of the matter, you may want to have an old family friend or rabbi (if you are close with your rabbi) present with you to lend emotional support.
Incidentally, physicians are often confronted with this type of situation all the time. Physicians often have to tell an elderly or dangerously ill patient the truth about their condition and their chances for survival. Most of the literature I have studied on this subject indicates that the elderly patient has every right to know, but the matter must be tactfully approached.
Your letter did not indicate what kind of relationship you have with your sister. Nevertheless, she is entitled to her opinion, but you are not beholden to accept her opinion simply because she is your sister. As a loved one approaches death, there is considerable separation anxiety that children feel. That is normal, but your mother also realizes that on some psychological and moral level, she has responsibilities to you. Allow the floodgates of motherhood to bring healing to your relationship. And for this final act of kindness and love, you will forever feel grateful that she was there with you—to the very end.
“A mother’s love is patient and forgiving when all others are forsaking, it never fails or falters, even though the heart is breaking.”
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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