Friday, February 11, 2005

Don't Tell My Child She's Dying

At a recent conference on death and dying, there was a panel of survivors who spoke about their experiences of their loved ones' deaths. One speaker brought up the ever-controversial subject of whether or not to tell people that they are dying.

A few interesting perspectives to this scenario have made the answer blurrier for me.

For one, in some cultures (in this case the speaker was Chinese), it is not considered appropriate to tell someone that they are dying. Saying such a thing would be like cursing them and would be viewed as incredibly disrespectful. Although in the U.S. we are often shocked - how could we not tell them? This is their right as an individual! It's not fair for a family member to decide not to tell them! This is a very culture-specific sentiment. In this country, we are all about the individual. In other cultures, however, the family and/or community is viewed as more important than the individual. And we need to be mindful of these cultural differences, even when it comes to questions of ethics. Perhaps even more so when it comes to questions of ethics. One could say that even the notion of ethics is culturally-constructed.

This speaker had lost her 8 year-old daughter to cancer. At the time of her daugther's initial diagnosis, she had told the nurses not to tell her daughter that she was dying because she wanted her daughter to be happy and to enjoy what was left of her short life. The nurses obliged her requests, though they were certain that the daughter must already know. The daughter had spent years in the hospital and had witnesssed many of her hospital friends die from the exact same fate of this disease. But the mother insisted that she knew her daughter best and was certain that her daughter was unaware of the seriousness of her condition. The child was never told. At the very end, the child became short of breath and with one of her last gasps, she looked at her mother, "Mom, is this serious?" she asked. And shortly after, she died.

The mother, who spoke at this conference years later, is proud of her decision. Her grief was still evident from the tears that she cried as she relayed her story. (One never recovers from grief, but simply learns how to live with it). Her pride in her decision was consoling to her. She found a great sense of peace in knowing her child had been relatively happy and carefree until the end. Her grief, however, was complicated by the fact that she felt she had suffered from the pressures the doctors and nurses placed on her to tell her daughter that she was dying. So, in the end, what was more important? That may not be as simple as one would initially think.

Many of the people attending the conference still judged this woman's actions and disagreed. But I just listenned.

Perhaps there is a balance - education on the benefits of informing the loved one that they are dying along with a respect for cultural differences that may strongly indicate otherwise.

This is a somewhat new perspective for me. But as I've always said - I am still learning.

And what do you think of this mother's decision?

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