Monday, September 3, 2012

Deathbed Promises: Honoring a Mother’s Dying Wish

[Reviewed and updated December 31, 2022]

Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible. ~ Hannah Arendt

A reader writes: My mom died last month after a five-year battle with cancer. Even though I live and work in a different part of the country, I was able to spend some quality time with her before she died, including a family trip with my mom and dad, my younger sister and our 13 year-old brother. 
          When we returned from that trip, my mother asked me if I would move home to take care of my brother because she was worried that he wouldn't get the nurturing care he needs. I never answered my mom, but I didn't say no, either.
I understand her concern because I also had/have the same worry. I just can't bear the thought of returning to my hometown, living with my family, and working an unfulfilling job or being unemployed. I'm in my early 20s and just beginning on a career path I'm passionate about. My mother realized this and always supported me, but she explicitly said, "I know this will mean putting your life on hold for a while, but will you..." She also was careful to note that I was under no obligation to say yes. 
         I try to keep in touch with my family. I have talked to my brother a few times, but I don't know what to say to my dad and my sister. It's like there aren't any words in my mind to share with them. This is the first time I've told anyone what my mom asked me to do. I was holding it in because people (like my maternal grandmother) have said things like, "I know your mom would have wanted to you stay where you are." But I know this is the exact opposite of what she wanted! So I guess my question is, can I in good faith honor my mother's wishes? I really want to take care of my brother, but I really don't want to give up my life here. Can I ignore the request of my dying mother because it doesn't correspond to my own desires?

My response: I’m so sorry your mother has died, and please know that you and your family have my deepest sympathy. I’m sorry, too, that you find yourself in such a difficult position, in the wake of your mother’s death.

If I may say so, it seems to me that, as a young woman “just beginning a career path,” your first obligation is to yourself, and that includes continuing to grow into responsible adulthood and continuing to support yourself. In today’s economy, you are fortunate to have a job at all – much less a job that you feel passionate about!

I’m not at all sure what your mother meant by her request that you “take care of” your brother because he “wouldn’t get the nurturing he needs.” Do you think she expected that it was up to you to assume the mother role in your brother’s life, or was she merely asking that whenever you’re with him (in person or on the phone, or via other electronic means such as e-mail) you attend to his emotional state, give him a good listening ear, be a positive role model for him, and continue to be a good and loving sister?

You are not your brother’s mother, after all -- you are his sibling -- and the responsibility to continue to raise and to support your brother belongs to your father now. Have you considered how your father might feel about the way you may be interpreting your mother’s request? Would he be willing simply to turn his parental authority and responsibility for his son over to you, his daughter? And how would your brother feel about your assuming the parental role in his life? Consider for a moment how your brother might feel if you tried to take your mother’s place, and began telling him from time to time what he “should” or “should not” do. He is a teenager, after all, with several more years of adolescence ahead of him. Is it realistic to think that you are you prepared to “take care of” him during and throughout this phase of his life?

I suggest that you think very carefully about the request of your dying mother – not only what she may have meant by what she said, but also in how you choose to interpret what she said to you. There are many meaningful ways that you can honor the spirit of your mother’s request to “take care of” and continue to give your brother “the nurturing he needs,” simply by continuing to play an important role in his life as his good and loving older sister. Can you think of what some of those meaningful ways might be?

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