My mother doesn't want to know how long she has to live, so how do I say the things I need to say before it's too late?

6 answers | Last updated: Jun 26, 2014
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother, who has had a recent recurrence of cancer, has told her doctor, myself, and other family members that she doesn't want to be told if her cancer is terminal or how long she has to live. So far we've honored this request, but she doesn't have much time, and there are things we'd all like to say to her before it's too late. Instead, we have superficial conversations and pretend that there isn't a massive elephant in the room. My siblings and I are wondering whether we should go ahead and tell her that she is dying, so we can talk honestly about what is going on and say good-bye. There are also details that need to be discussed. For example, we'd like to consider hospice care as her health deteriorates. What's the right thing to do?

Expert Answers

Wendy Wank is a palliative care nurse practitioner at Hospice by the Bay, in Larkspur, California.

Everyone has her own way of dealing with death, and your mother is clearly coping with her illness and mortality by choosing to stay in the dark. This puts you and your siblings in a very difficult position: You don't want to defy her wishes, but you do want to express your feelings and share these last days with your mother in an authentic way.

There's no easy answer to your situation -- or necessarily a "right" one. You and your siblings know your mother better than anyone else. You're the best judges of what she can cope with and how you'll feel in the long run if you tell her against her wishes -- or if you refrain from talking altogether.

I think your mother knows that she's dying, and that despite what she has said, she'll wish to discuss her death with you as it gets closer. In my experience as a hospice nurse, people almost always know when they're dying, whether they talk about it or not. And most people find it a relief to have their impending death acknowledged and to be able to discuss it with those they love.

This doesn't mean that you should walk into your mother's room and blurt out the information the next time you go to see her. Choose a quiet moment and approach the subject gently to see how she responds. You could say something like, "Mom, I know you don't want the details of your health prognosis, but there are some issues we need to discuss about your care over the next few months."

This opening will give her the chance to revisit the topic and let you know whether her feelings have changed. You may find that she's more open to talking about her death than she was even a few days earlier, as she's had time to come to terms with it on her own. Or she may be willing to talk about practical details, including hospice care, without touching directly on her feelings about dying.

Once you introduce the subject, let your mother take the lead in the conversation, and if it's clear she won't discuss the matter, give it a few days and try again. Each person moves at her own pace in terms of being able to accept the realities of dying.

Although it's relatively rare, I have known a few patients who refused to acknowledge their death right to the end. If your mother remains resistant, consider talking to a religious counselor or a hospice representative about how to handle the situation given your mother's specific needs -- and your own.

Community Answers

I have been there answered...


I have had 20 plus years experience dealing with geriatric and hospice patients.  I am responding to this question because many times I have heard family members say "I don't know how they are hanging on."  The next thing I generally would hear is a well meaning care giver, or concerned person inform the person saying this that it's because some one close to them has to tell this person it is ok to go.  I however have always felt different.  Our bodies are amazing things, when we become ill they do all they can to fight and get us well.  When we are terminally ill this continues this fight makes it a difficult dying a difficult task for the body to accomplish.  In my experience I have many patients say "I wish I could just die." They struggle watching their loved ones become more and more exhausted; they wish they could end their loved ones suffering, while fearing for their own. 
I believe this why it is important that people talk everyday, about the lessons learned, the time spent, and the gifts given.  Tell them how much of difference knowing them has meant to you.  Tell them how hard it is to let go of them.  Let them know they can take their time you will be there. I have found that in the process of dying death is not the real fear, it is the fear that our lives made no difference, and that it was all for nothing.  Let your loved one know what you intend to pass on to others how they will never be forgotten. In addition always remember none of us know when we are dying some us know what it looks like we will die from. THIS IS YOUR LIFE, THIS DAY IS PRECIOUS, THIS MOMENT WILL NOT COME AGAIN LIVE IT, SPEAK IT FEEL IT.

A fellow caregiver answered...

as i was reading your letter it could of been me writing that letter when my sister was dying she didn't want to be in the room with the doctor and to talk about when she was gone just didn't happen so friends and family were told your not allowed to cry when visiting and you cant talk about death. The 1 thing I'm most proud of is that I allowed her to die the way she wanted and not the way I thought it should be. I still miss my sister 2 1/2 years later and I never got to say the things I wanted to say.AS her time grew closer she would share little things the things she wanted to share I hope you get some comfort knowing that not all people want to hear what everyone wants to say and that this is her death and it should be the way she wants to spend her last days, it very painful not being able to say your peace and have the closure you want but remember you are not the one dying, and its hard but its a gift you give to them and when she is gone you can have some comfort knowing you let her leave on her terms not yours. MY prayers go out to you it only get harder God bless you

Tawncy answered...

On Nov.1, 2008, my darling, angel mother went home to be with The Lord...It didn't happen the way that I always thought it would. My mother was another one who didn't want to talk about her dying, leaving us kids, etc. She was 94 and thought she should live forever. Rather than talk to her about her dying, I did things for her that I knew would make her happy, things that I know she wanted to do, or places she wanted to go, and I showed her how much she and her life had meant to me. I tried to encourage her to go thru her house and designate what things she wanted to go to a certain person, etc., but she always seemed to side-step the issue. My suggestion to you is to do things for your mother that you know she appreciates, share things with her that you want to share with only her, and let her see the love you have in your heart for her, show her...rather than tell her. About the terminal condition...maybe she thinks if she doesn't know about it, then it won't happen..and you might suggest to her that you want her to be comfortable and that by having hospice come to see her, then you know she's being made as comfortable as possible. I've just read the other suggestions that others have sent to you, and I hope that all of us have been able to help you in some way to deal with this difficult time. God Bless You....

Joyg answered...

I totally agree with I Have Been There. Because I have been at the bedside of my husband of 54 years in a skilled nursing facility for the last 13 months. He died last week, 2/20/10. We didn't talk about death, we talked about all of the wonderful memories we had shared. Every family member over the last two years had the time to laugh and remember with him through old stories and pictures. Even the grandchildren participated. We had fun!! Music, which he loved, played on the TV's 40 Music channel and we changed it frequently to change his mood. I would hold his hand and sing the old songs to him and we would "dance" with the rymthm in our hands. The nurses loved working in his room because of the positive and light hearted vibes they got. He was surrounded by love. When Christmas came I wanted more people to be able to tell him old stories so as a gift we gave him a Voice Quilt. When you go to their website, I set up an account where all of his friends and relatives could call in and leave a message. 72 people turned in stories which become a "message box of love". We played them everyday and all of us had fun listening. Know that they may not want to talk about death, but they would like to know they were loved and that their life made a difference. Next Tuesday will be Bob's service, A Musical Memorial of a Life Well Lived, with live music and stories of his life inbetween. Bob was a man well loved.

Serenitylynnpcb answered...

I love what cyndihorsman had to say. As a nurse who has dealt with death and the dying many times over the years, I have seen so many family members air their own guilt and issues of the past over the deathbed. I know many want to say they're sorry, but some things need to remain in the past and just show that you love and support the person who is dying. See a clergyman or counciler if you you have issues you can't forget, but allow the dying to have their last moments in this life as peaceful and loving as possible.