“What do I tell her?” Sonja was beside herself. It had been a very a rough Fourth of July. Her mother, at 92, and barely 90 pounds, is in hospice. Sonja is the only person who can make her eat.
“Lie,” I said without the slightest hesitation. “When she asks you where her mother is, tell her she’s in the next room, but she’s sleeping, and that’s why your mother can’t see her right now. She’ll be comforted, then promptly forget.
“The point is to give her comfort.”
“That’s my gift for today,” she said. “Permission to lie to my mother.”
Sonja is engaging in the deeply sacred work of torch-passing as her mother slowly, quietly slips away. She’s still there, but not really. Her mind wanders.
My father did the same thing. So did a friend’s father, who would ask where the police were, in terror. He was reliving some gang pranks back in his youth. When told the police had no idea where he was, he was able to relax. It seems to me that this is more important than trying to force a dying person to face reality, whatever that may be. For so many, when they are that close to death, reality may well be what they’re reliving, not your presence. The presence of mind to know the difference could well ease their passing, if nothing else.
There is a time to lie, when it’s time to die. At least that’s how I see it. If a parent is barely present in the present, but living in another dimension, for my part, it makes enormous sense to ease whatever pain or discomfort they may be experiencing by telling them what they need to hear.
Some of us, facing the death of a loved one, demand closure. There may be harsh unfinished business. Before they depart we want answers. An apology. Some other concocted reason to make us feel better before they make the next journey.
Before my father died of cancer, I would have liked some kind of closure. He’d written me out of the family will when I called him on his alcoholism. Banned me from the house when I told him I wouldn’t tolerate being verbally abused. So there was a bucketful of crap I wanted to clean up. However, I didn’t attempt to have those conversations.
So, I didn’t get that closure. We often don’t. Dad died quietly without ever having said a single thing to me. That’s perfectly all right. It’s not a dying person’s job to make us feel better. They have enough to do as it is. It can be hard work to die.
Sonja would give anything to have that last deep conversation with her frail, tiny mother. She would love a real goodbye talk with the mother she once knew.
It’s not going to happen. Nor did it happen for my dear friend Jill when her 95-year-old mother took a spill, cracked her head and fell into a coma. Jill sat vigil with her mother for months on end. The conversations she conducted were in the quiet of her innermost thoughts.
In the end, that may be all we have: our own thoughts. It’s not the job of the dying to give us comfort. It’s our job to give it to them in the best way possible. Sometimes that’s simply telling them what they need to hear.
That’s compassionate. Merciful. Kind.
We would all wish for such things when it’s our turn.
Ultimately, if we have the courage, if we operate out of love, it’s possible that offering small lies which offer peace and security can be the best gifts we give those we are losing. In all things, all of us wish to feel safe. It’s in such small ways we can indeed give a sense of safety to someone who journey no longer includes us.
We have no right to place demands on the dying to make us feel better. We have time to process our losses. Time is the one thing they no longer have. Why not make it as easy as possible for them, and we can take care of our grief later?
In the end, as the body winds down and the mind begins to take wing for the next leg of the journey, perhaps the greatest gift of all is to simply listen, or say whatever is necessary.
Besides, for all we know, Sonja’s mother’s mother may well be sleeping in the next room, where her mother is headed.
That is for her to discover. We’ll find out soon enough.