This challenging question confronted a friend of mine this past week: Her mother recently passed away after a protracted decline. Sadly, her dad is suffering from dementia. My friend and her siblings struggled with whether they should tell him that his wife, their mom, had just passed away.
Would he find the loss overwhelming?
Would he even comprehend the sad news?
He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife. But if the news is too much for him to handle, should they wait until there is a better time to inform him?
Further complicating things, he was physically unable to attend the funeral.
Both options, to tell him or not, are based in compassion for Dad. But which one is right for him? Compassion is such a difficult practice. It is often very challenging to know what is the right thing to do for another person.
My friend reached out to me for counsel. My first suggestion was to consult her dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues. The doctor can help ascertain how aware her dad is of his surroundings. The children, all adults, can also shed some light on their dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well he will process the news. It is all but impossible to appreciate how much their dad truly understands.
We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news, even without the complications of these circumstances. Maybe my friend’s dad will have only a moment of clarity or possibly the news will stay with him. He may work through his grief or become overwhelmed by it.
I have learned along my journey that we actually only have moments together. Sometimes these moments last and create enduring memories. Sometimes they fade away. The best we can do is to be fully present in each moment together and hope that it endures. The struggle that this family confronts is a struggle we will all face, for each of us will experience loss and then try to reconcile with it in the aftermath. We can try to anticipate how people will respond, but we need to be careful in presuming too much, acting for them instead of allowing them the dignity of exercising their own agency.
The Talmud teaches that we treat parents with honor and respect. Might the ways we do that include withholding speech or information that would be hurtful? If my friend’s dad still has some comprehension, won’t he feel the sadness in those surrounding him and wonder why his wife no longer visits? Further, how will he react if he learns of his wife’s passing long after the fact without the chance to mourn her loss? Arguably, we honor our parents when we include them in even the most difficult situations, rather than attempting to protect them. Each of us will be called upon to grapple with a similar situation. We must take the utmost care to ensure that our motives are true and that we act in the best interests of our parents, rather than in the fulfillment of own needs disguised as compassion. My friend’s struggle resulted from the fact that she loves her father and wants what is best for him.
Zichronah Livrachah. May the memory of my friend’s mother be a blessing for the family. May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.