QUESTION: The children have been informed that their mother is dying, and the physician believes that it is his responsibility to inform their mother of the hopelessness of her condition. The children have insisted that this news be kept from her as they feel it will hasten her death and make the last period of her life miserable. Which path should be followed? (Norman Levin, Cleveland OH)
ANSWER: It is our principle task during illness, including the final illness, to maintain an attitude of hope in the patient. Therefore, the rabbinic tradition rejected the approach of the prophet Isaiah to King Hezekiah in which he demanded that the king "set his house in order, for you will die and not live" (II Kings 20.1), actually the king was healed and survived. The Talmudic discussion of such situations felt that prayer and hope should not cease even when the outlook was bleak (Ber 10a). In another Biblical story which the rabbis quoted, the prophet Elijah was asked whether Ben Hadad the Aramean King would recover, and he lied to encourage him (II Kings 8.10 f). We may therefore stretch the truth to engender hope. This mood of hopefulness was carried even further by the injunction not to inform a seriously ill patient of the death of a relative as that might change her mood (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 377).
We must, of course, weigh this attitude against that of giving the patient sufficient time to prepare her affairs before death and also the opportunity to make confession (Sem 4.1; M San 6.2; 32a). In this instance there are no pressing business affairs which need to be settled. Personal confession can occur at any time; it need not be formalized into an occasion which will frighten the mother. The physician has done his duty by speaking of the condition to the children. If the mother inquires repeatedly from the physician and indicates that she wishes to know the truth, then she should be told to her. If that does not occur we should follow the path of tradition and the inclination of the children and allow the mother to retain her currently hopeful attitude.