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Is It OK to Let My Relatives Think Their Dead Sister Is Still Alive?

My great-aunt R. passed away from natural causes almost three years ago. Her daughter, N., decided to withhold telling R.’s sisters about the death because we were unable to hold a proper funeral at the time and also because one of the sisters has a health condition where stress can cause seizures. We all agreed to tell the elders once the pandemic lifted and we could hold a funeral service.

The past two years have involved all of us perpetuating the lie that Aunt R. is still alive. Family phone calls that involve N. and her aunts get awkward; they constantly ask about their sister. N. will say “she’s resting” or “she’s at the store” or provide some other excuse for why her mother can’t come to the phone.

The family is about to gather in person to hold a very simple gathering to properly mourn and grieve R. N., however, has now decided that telling her aunts about their sister’s death will do more harm than good. When the aunt with that health condition learns of her sister’s passing, it will, we all agree, probably trigger a seizure. Given her age and frailty, there’s a high likelihood a seizure could severely injure or kill her. N. does not want to be responsible for that outcome.

I feel everyone deserves proper closure when someone passes, and I am therefore leaning toward having the truth come out. But this feels like a situation in which there are significant downsides to the truth as well as to the lie. Chris C.

There are circumstances when not telling someone of a loved one’s death could be justified, as when the person you’re misleading is cognitively disabled and unable to understand the information. I can even make sense of delaying the news a short while until it can be delivered in person or until the recipient had recovered from the throes of an acute illness. But the situation you describe is a very different one. However old or fragile I was, I cannot imagine wanting to be kept in the dark about the death of a close relative.

Still, that ship has sailed, and the question is whether you can correct its course. Your family has fastened on a medical reason for denying your elders the truth: that one of them will be physically stricken, perhaps fatally, by the shock of being told the news. And the news, at this point, isn’t just that a sister has died (always distressing but, in the late years of life, not astonishing); it is that the family conspired to perpetrate a deception. A misguided effort to avoid causing someone stress has only magnified stress that the truth would bring.

But I wonder whether it’s only your great-aunts who labor under an illusion. Dying from a stress-induced seizure is rare, a medical specialist I consulted confirms. (The most serious risk of death from seizures comes from falls or other accidents.) Precautions can be taken to diminish the risk further. Try to keep separate the stress that your great-aunts will experience were they to learn the truth and the stress the rest of you are experiencing at the prospect of coming clean. The ruse, no matter how well intended, was a misjudgment from the start; each day you perpetuate it represents a further misjudgment.

My sister-in-law recently surprised me by saying that she and my brother were divorcing. I later learned that the divorce was her idea. My brother is heartbroken; my mother is devastated.

My boyfriend is planning to propose to me on a trip in three weeks. Is it right for me to become engaged while my brother’s marriage is crumbling? Is it selfish to start a never-ending string of questions about marriage that commandeers family dinners and the like over the next few months? Or should I ask my boyfriend to postpone for half a year, when the divorce isn’t so fresh? Name Withheld

Isn’t your boyfriend’s letting you know that he’s planning to propose tantamount to proposing? And isn’t your not signaling that you’ll reject him tantamount to accepting? You two are already planning to marry. And you’re already keeping that fact from your family. One might think the issue isn’t whether you should go through with an engagement ceremony on your vacation; it’s when you should tell your family that you will be marrying.

You’re evidently thinking that once you’ve actually had a ritual of engagement, presumably complete with a ring, you would be keeping from your family something that they will feel they should have known. Airy intention will have been given a concrete shape. In that case, you could fairly decide to delay the announcement if you think it would be better for your family — and if your boyfriend has no objections. (You say nothing about his views on the matter.) But I have a question for you: Why are you so sure that your family would rather be brooding over your brother’s divorce than celebrating your decision to get married?

Over the past year or so my husband and I noticed that our dear friend and neighbor, a woman in her early 60s, has developed a cough. She is a nonsmoker and is otherwise the picture of health. When I gently asked her about it, she said she had done a search on the internet and that it was acid reflux.

Weeks went by, then months, and she was still coughing — and it began to sound worse. While shopping, I suggested that she might want to see a clinician about it. A week later she informed me that she had seen a nurse practitioner and that a CT scan had been ordered. When I later asked her how the scan had gone, she said that she had canceled the appointment because it was too expensive and her health insurance did not cover it in full. My friend has money; I suspected that she had canceled the appointment out of fear.

She also has a caring husband and a loving son, both of whom must have noticed the progression of this cough. I’m very concerned for my friend but at a loss for what to do. Should I speak with her husband and son about my concern? Should I offer to go with her to the CT? Or should I follow my husband’s advice? He says it’s none of my business. But I love my friend and want to do the right thing. Name Withheld

As you say, her family must have noticed what you’ve noticed. Maybe she has resisted them the way she has resisted you. There are all sorts of possible explanations for her chronic, worsening cough (including C.O.P.D., pulmonary fibrosis, infection, slow-progressing cancer and, yes, gastroesophageal reflux disease), but all would benefit from proper medical care.

Respecting someone’s personal autonomy can be balanced with care and concern — as your husband doesn’t appear to see. That doesn’t mean keeping mum when bad choices are being made. None of your business? No, it’s some of your business. By all means, volunteer to accompany her to that CT scan — but it sounds as if she’ll brush off your offer. Think about bringing up the subject the next time you’re together with her and some of her family. Doing so might get them to face up to what they need to do. It’s her decision, but ample support and encouragement should help her make the right one.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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