My father is ill with a terminal disease. We’e never been close but now he seems to want to open up. I’d like to respond and build a closer relationship during this time. The problem is my emotionally fragile mother insists he not be told that he is dying. What do I do if he asks?
Death can bring out the best and the worst in people.
Most of us respond to the prospect of death with fear. Obviously there is good reason for this. Death means separation. The relationship we have with someone we love either finishes or changes. Our connection with our loved one completely finishes if you believe death is the end of existence. If you believe in an afterlife, the physical connection is severed.
The feeling of emotional or spiritual connection that some people seem to experience after the death of a loved one can be reassuring but it is not the same as having the person you love breathing beside you. There is a tremendous sense of loss no matter what you believe.
For the person dying this separation can be even more daunting. The dying person is facing the prospect of losing everything they presently know. All of their loved ones, their home and their interests. At the very least, this is major change and uncertainty.
For the dying, this ordeal is frequently eased by their body gradually diminishing. As they become weaker, the easier it is to let go. And letting go is the chief requirement when we face our own death or that of a loved one.
You know that close relationships are built on honesty and you want to be honest with your father. If he asks whether or not he is dying, he wants to know the truth. That doesn’t mean he won’t be upset. He wants to know so he can come to terms with his loss before he dies. Emotionally mature people want to face life crises with knowledge, not in ignorance. And that includes the crisis of dying.
People who don’t want to know and who cannot deal with the truth will not ask. They remain in denial. They don’t seek reassurance by asking if they are dying. They cut the subject of death out of their conversation and talk about the future when they’ll be well again.
Your mother is afraid of death. She can’t talk about it. She knows she cannot comfort your father as he goes through the grief of losing all he has. To be a comfort we need to have come to a position of peace about death. Your mother doesn’t know how to deal with her own feelings so she wants to avoid the topic altogether. Realise that this is for her protection not your father’s.
If your father asks, tell him the truth. He knows that your mother can’t handle it. That is why he’ll ask you, not her. If you like, tell him what your mother wanted you to say. He won’t mention it to her.
Dying people are very sensitive to the emotional needs of those around them. Even with family all around, many die alone because they sensed no one was strong enough to cope with the truth.