Sharing Loss, Sharing Compassion

"Prague," by Joshua Barnett, via Flickr.com (Creative Commons License)

This guest post to Rabbi Address’ blog is by Rabbi David Levin.

How do you tell Dad that Mom has died?  This challenging question confronted old friends this past week.

Compassion is such a difficult practice.  It is often so difficult to know what is the right thing to do for another person.

Rabbi David Levin
Rabbi David Levin

A friend’s 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, has just passed away.  Would he find the loss overwhelming?  Would he even comprehend the sad news they would share?  He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife.  But if the news was too much for him to handle, should they wait until there was 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? She reached out to me for counsel.

My first suggestion was to consult dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues.  The doctor can help ascertain how aware is dad of his surroundings.  The children, all adults, can also shed some light on dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well dad will process the news.  It is likely that despite all attempts to know, it is all but impossible to appreciate how much dad truly understands.

We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news even without the complications of these circumstances.  Maybe 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 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 his or her 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 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 things, 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 our fulfilling own needs disguised as compassion.  My friend’s struggle was because she loved her father and wanted what was best for him.

Zichronah Livrachah may my friends’ mother be a blessing for the family.  May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.

About Rabbi David Levin 15 Articles

David Levin is a reform rabbi ordained from the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (NY). David serves the community of Greater Philadelphia. He also devotes his time to special projects including Jewish Sacred Aging, teaching and free speech issues on the college campus. David worked with the Union for Reform Judaism in the Congregational Network as a Rabbinical Director serving the East Coast congregations. He also had the honor of working at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, PA. David Levin is a Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders, an interdenominational rabbinic group affiliated with CLAL.
David Levin proudly claims to be one of Rabbi Louis Frishman’s (z”l) “Temple Kids”, from Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, NY. David attended the University of Chicago earning an AB in Economics. He went on to the New York University Graduate School of Business where he earned an MBA in Finance. Before becoming a rabbi, David enjoyed a career centered in banking and real estate finance, and he also worked in the family garment business.

1 Comment

  1. In the past few years, the decision to tell or not tell has loomed large in my life in many ways. Does one tell the deeply empathic young couple leaving on their honeymoon that a beloved young family member is being operated on for allegedly incurable cancer on day one of the honeymoon? What about the death of a beloved uncle the night before the wedding of a couple where the groom has been at death’s door for a few years and is finally able to stand just long enough to experience the joy of the wedding ceremony? In each of those instances the decision to not mar the event and to tell right after it was met with righteous anger. When it came time to decide for a spouse with dementia about a dear friend who lives at a distance, the decision was to tell, gently, a bit at a time, gauging how each piece was going. Finally, we seemed to get it right. He was confused, overwhelmed, sad, angry and hurt that he couldn’t be at the funeral (so a bit irrational given the circumstances, but certainly understandable.) He kept coming back to the painful information as if it were newly shared…for quite a while. We got grief from caretakers, friends and family members for our insensitivity in telling, but the upset gradually dissipated, much as grief without dementia would have, and we felt that we had honored and respected his compassion and the relationship. I thought about my dad, many decades earlier, in a coma for a week, asked the day he died if he wanted to hold his great granddaughter, a 6 week old, and how, still in a coma, he rolled onto his side and cradled his arms to receive her. Perhaps the overarching question is whether the most compassionate person can possibly fathom what another is truly feeling or needing, and whether we have a right to assume in these extreme circumstances that we “know better.” I believe that Judaically and humanly, there are no easy or right answers to these questions, but I also believe that humility needs to be part of the factoring. Thank you for providing perspective and reflection on the thorniness of painful decisions.

What are your thoughts?