My mother is 90 years old, in frail health but of sound mind. Last year, one of her 3 grandchildren and the youngest of my 2 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, and 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.
My heart goes out to you and your family for the loss of your son and the tremendous pain that I’m sure you’ve experienced. I cannot even begin to imagine how much the suffering is exacerbated by withholding the information from your mother and the strain that this silence has placed on your relationship with your sister.
While there is no exact halachic (Jewish legal) precedent to follow in a situation like this, there is one story from the Bible that immediately comes to mind: the sale of Joseph by his brothers and its impact on Jacob their father. The rabbis tell us that for the entire time Jacob was separated from Joseph, Jacob was not comforted. Though the other brothers told Jacob that Joseph had been killed and even shown him Joseph’s coat dipped in blood, Jacob was able to sense that something was not right. As you are already experiencing, your mother is able to sense that something is not right when you try to answer her questions about your son.
Another important detail from the story of Jacob and Joseph is how the brothers eventually told Jacob that Joseph was alive. They were concerned that Jacob was too weak to handle the shocking news that Joseph was in fact alive and well, after all these years. They enlisted Serach, the daughter of Asher to tell Jacob that Joseph was alive and had attained a position of power in Egypt. Serach had the unique capacity to know the proper time to tell Jacob in a way that would not shock or overwhelm him. Our Rabbis teach that because of her sensitivity in breaking the news to Jacob she lived forever. The character of Serach teaches the importance of how we break news to people in a vulnerable or compromised state. Obviously this must be done with extreme care and sensitivity. Telling your mother of the death of your son – her grandson – is an extremely difficult task. In addition to the intense emotions and shock surrounding the death, you also have to explain face the fact that this information was withheld for so long. I would suggest consulting with her doctors and caregivers to confirm that she is healthy enough to handle such news, and to get their suggestions on how best to give her the news.
I think that it is important to tell your mother of your son’s death. It is unfair for her to be denied the opportunity to mourn her grandson. It is unfair to her and your son for your mother to be led to think that he is neglecting their relationship. It is also unfair for you to carry the burden of this terrible secret every time you speak with your mother and to be denied the motherly comfort that only she can provide. I hope that your family is able to find some comfort after the terrible loss you have experienced. The utmost discretion and sensitivity must be exercised in telling your mother what happened, but ultimately this is probably the best move for her, for you and for your family.
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 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.”
There are issues here that touch on both the general psychological level and the Jewish level. Our obligation to our parents, as Jews is to honor them and revere them (the latter often mis-translated as “fear”). What this means is that they deserve special treatment, but they also have the right to know what is going on with their family, to share in both triumphs and struggles.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a true giant among philosophers wrote, “The years of old age… are indeed formative years rich in possibilities.” What he is saying is that the old are not to be cast aside or only as a depository for wisdom when needed, but as the people that they are, capable of growth and change. By not giving this information to your mother, not only is she becoming upset that she no longer hears from her grandson (and feels rejected) but you are infantilizing one who is, by your description, of sound mind. That is not within the bounds of honoring one’s parent. If your mother was not in sound mind, then I think your sister would be correct in not telling your mother.
Furthermore, in ways that may not be apparent now, but will become very clear once you tell her, the relationship between the two of you is incomplete. In telling her (and apologizing for the delay without blaming your sister), after her initial grief you will be able to speak with her about it, share your grief and heal from this family tragedy together. This will actually help your mother in terms of it being clear that you still need her and are willing to go to her for support. Even in the unlikely event your sister is proven right (or seems right by coincidence), you will be able to say goodbye to your mother knowing that nothing was left unsaid.
This approach, of course, risks your relationship with your sister, but the parent-child relationship always takes precedence in Jewish custom. This is ultimately between you and your mother, your sister has not had to deal with the pain of losing a child and hopefully never will. You clearly need your mother’s support, go get it while it is still available to you.
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