Skip to content

Promises to the dying: in hospice and in life, the need to be realistic

Making promises to the dying

By Ron King

Live out your deepest devotion with the courage of remaining in the moment and choosing to love through each day with the best you have to give.

A friend of mine promised her husband that she would never marry again so they could be together forever because that was his wish and he was dying.  Three days later he died when he was 41 and she was 39.  Today she is 64 and still single.  No one can question the loyalty or sacrifice of another, but we do need to test our own readiness and ability to make final vows and keep them.

It is natural to feel a stronger bond when the gifts we give one another are costly.  When a loved one is dying, no price seems too great to pay in order to demonstrate our love, attempt to help the other person along their journey, and deepen our bonds of attachment.  Realistic commitments may bring a sense of connection, satisfaction, and peace.   A covenant is reasonable when the obligation we make is limited and the fulfillment is possible.  Since we are not eternal or omnipotent, however, we aren’t able to fulfill every promise.  Because we don’t know what the future may bring, we also aren’t able to tell which promises both partners would agree make good sense to keep in years to come.

“Till death do we part” is hard enough to keep when everyone is alive to help us accomplish that goal.  As parents, friends and others who support our dedication pass away, the best intentions can become more difficult.  Our own physical and emotional health, as well as changing circumstances and resources, may also impact our ability to keep a promise.   When we extend that promise beyond “till death do us part”, we may be entering a contract we are not able to keep.

My grandfather asked my grandmother on his deathbed not to cry after he was gone.  She kept that promise.  Until she died 35 years later at age 99, she kept that promise.  As a result, she had chronic problems with her eyes and vision because her tear ducts ceased functioning.  What had seemed to be a caring promise to make at the time, giving him peace of mind, had physical consequences for her.

It is easy to promise that loved one will be able to die at home, or with a loved one present.  Living together “one day at a time,” however, may be a more realistic way to show mutual care for one another.  A greater commitment may be to face whatever the future brings with faith to do what seems best or necessary in each moment.  Agreeing to be honest, to listen and make choices together, to remain open to the uncertainties of life may be the greatest demonstrate our faith and love.

Resolve to do what you are able.  Know and accept what is uncertain or cannot be controlled.  Be careful about asking what may not be realistic of those you love.  Practice the humility needed to know our common human limitations.  Live out your deepest devotion with the courage of remaining in the moment and choosing to love through each day with the best you have to give.

Photo credit: KUCO /

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marty Tousley #

    Thank you, Ron, for this important article. These kinds of promises can have such devastating effects on the bereaved, for many years to come. I’ve added a link to your piece at the foot of my own blog post, which addresses a similar situation: “Deathbed Promises: Honoring a Mother’s Dying Wish,”

    March 14, 2013
    • I appreciate, Marty, how you pointed out in your article the unspoken duties or “invisible loyalties” (unconscious promises) inherent in our family connections. When you reminded your leader that she was a sibling to her brother and not his mother, you made clear the fact that different relationships we share throughout the family life cycle carry their own sense of responsibility by virtue of the needs we have, gifts we’ve received, and our place in the family system. Recognizing the silent “promises” that exist may help us realize when another promise made may conflict with commitments that belong to another generation or someone with different role than our own.

      March 14, 2013
  2. What a fabulous article. Marty’s comment above includes a link to another article which made me smile because I wrote an article with a similar title: Deathbed Promises and How to Fulfill Them, attached here: In life, and in dying, it’s an honor to fulfill the promises of our loved ones in ways that meet their best interests, and their wishes.

    March 14, 2013
    • I’m glad you addressed the “mantle of guilt” that so often accompanies making a vow that we can’t fulfill. Or feeling guilty about fulfilling it with a grudge while complaining. The fact that a person is no longer with us only amplifies the guilt and makes it difficult to resolve. The suggestions you made about redefining the specifics of a promise and fulfilling it in a creative yet realistic while sticking to the spirit of the promise should help with the guilt. Thanks for the link to your work.

      March 14, 2013
      • I am thrilled that others have benefited from my thoughts. Keep on, keeping on Ron.

        March 14, 2013
  3. Marty Tousley #

    @boomer98053, I’ve added a link to your excellent article as well. Thank you for sharing it with us!

    March 14, 2013
    • Thank you! Having a vehicle such as these Blogs on the internet certainly helps to get the word out in a quickfire way.

      March 14, 2013

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: