It's a bad idea to keep secrets from
immediate family members if your loved one is facing a terminal
illness. Not always telling the care-receiver the truth—the whole truth—is
a mistake, too.
Sooner or later, that secret, the whole
truth, is going to be revealed. When that happens, a loving
relationship based on trust is damaged. People are hurt more than they
would have been if everyone had simply been honest from the beginning.
But it's so tempting.
If your parent or spouse is terribly frightened by the words
"cancer" and "malignant," why not gloss over what
the doctor has said? Why not just refer to his condition as
"stomach problems" and keep his spirits up by telling him
he'll soon be back on his feet and good as new?
Why not? Because he's an adult. Because he
has the right to hear the truth, even if it's a harsh truth. Unless
there are extenuating circumstances—significant dementia, for
example—your loved one has the right to make his own decisions, and in order to
make the best ones possible, he needs to know all the facts.
While it's not unusual—and it's certainly
understandable—that an adult child would want to shield an aging parent,
want to protect him or her from as much worry as possible, doing that
is also selling a parent short. It may help you to keep in mind that
Mom didn't reach old age without going through hard times. She didn't
get there without having squarely faced difficulties that couldn't be
Often a care-receiver, even one who is frail, is
much tougher and wiser than an others may realize.
If both your parents are still living, there
may also be times when one of them says to you, "Don't tell your
mother" or "Don't tell your father." But a spouse knows
when there's a serious problem, and hearing "everything's
fine" can make him or her worry even more because obviously
everything isn't fine. Obviously something is very wrong.
And so your parents share the secret but
neither says a word about it. Neither brings up the subject.
The same thing can happen between
Mom is trying to protect you; you're trying
to protect her. Neither of you talk about the illness.
Neither says, "This is very hard."
Neither says, "I will miss you."
Neither takes advantage of the fleeting time—the
years, the months, the days, that are left.
There may also be times when a parent wants
to keep the secret with only one child. "Don't tell your brother.
He has enough to worry about with his job." "Don't tell your
sister. It will only upset her."
Of course it will add to his worry! Of course
it will upset her! Some things in life are very worrisome, are very
upsetting, but worse still is being excluded from an inner family
Why wasn't I told? Did Dad like my sibling
more than he liked me? Did Mom have such a low opinion of my ability
to cope? Was it my sibling who shut me out?
Keeping such a serious secret—a
life-and-death secret—also robs a person of the time to prepare for
what's going to happen. Time to come to terms mentally, emotionally
and spiritually with the idea that a mother or father is going to die.
To come to terms with the idea that I, an aging parent, am going to
You need to keep in mind getting the secret
out into the open means more than simply stating it out loud. It means
being there for your parents, for your siblings, as they too
acknowledge the harsh reality that must be faced.
It means supporting, encouraging, consoling
and loving one another. Maybe it means all of you coming together, one
final time, as a family.
But what about not telling the truth when
it's not a life-and-death situation? Lying can seem like such a
good idea at the time. The perfect solution.
For example, Mom has made it clear she will
not pay for getting extra medical help at home. If her health
insurance doesn't cover a visiting nurse, then she will do without.
But you're the one handling her bills now. You know she has plenty of
money. She's just being stubborn. So you go ahead and hire a nurse and
tell Mom the insurance company has a new policy. No harm done.
That's not so. When you start lying to your
parent or begin withholding information from him or her, harm is
When the truth comes out, and it always seems
to at the worst possible moment, it can take a long time before trust
"Why didn't you tell me?" is the
"What else have you been lying
about?" comes next.
"What else are you going to lie
You may truly have your parent's best
interest at heart. You don't want to upset Dad. You don't want Mom to
know because she won't agree with the decision.
But, again, it comes down to this: Your
parent has a right to know. Mom needs to know if she is going to make
informed choices. Dad needs to know if he is going to be able to
prepare for what's coming.
If sometime you're tempted to lie, imagine
someone keeping similar, personal, vital information from you. Imagine
someone lying to you about it just so you won't worry.
You would be furious. And rightly so.
Imagine hearing that you need a very serious
operation next week and that your loved ones, those closest to you,
knew for a month, six months, a year, that this was a possibility.
Yes, you would have been scared for a year.
Yes, you would have worried. But you would have also had time to
prepare yourself for this. To turn to those loved ones for support. To
How can you turn to them now when they didn't
even respect you enough to tell you the truth?
And, once again, remember telling the truth
brings an obligation with it. It isn't just a matter of getting those
hard words out. It isn't just admitting the reality that exists. It's
helping your parent understand what those words mean.
Helping your parent get whatever additional
information is needed.
Helping your parent cope with that new and
perhaps horrible knowledge. Come to grips with that reality.
Telling the truth is another way you show
your love for your parent.
Love between adults makes many demands, and
one of them is honesty. Love never tricks a person. Love never uses a
person's resources without that person's knowledge. Love never says
"I know what's best for you and so you have no say in this."
The truth can be cold and cruel and
terrifying. When we tell that truth or when we hear it, we need the
warmth, the caring, and the comfort only a loved one can give.
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