As children, even as teenagers, we hide things from our parents to protect ourselves. Later, as adults, in our 40s and 50s, we are still hiding from them. Only now, it’s to protect them. If earlier, we wanted to spare ourselves pain—the pain of a scolding, the withdrawal of an allowance, maybe even a beating—now we keep harsh truths from our parents to spare them. Or so we think.
The secreting away of information happens on many levels. There are commissions and omissions. The small fibs, euphemistically called ‘benevolent lying’, are easy to pull off. Like when we pretend we’re buying an expensive protein shake because the doctor’s told us to have it. Or when we say the nursing service is cheaper than it is, knowing our cost-conscious parent will reject it if she knows the real price. Experts call these ‘therapeutic fiblets,’ and say they reassure the elderly.
Some falsehoods are more troubling, but we voice them anyway. Like when we pretend a medicine is for something other than it is, because the patient won’t have it otherwise. You feel troubled by the untruth but bury it under the relief of seeing the comfort the medicine brings.
The small omissions are easier to pull off, like when we don’t tell our father about the driver crashing his beloved car. It’s more difficult to not share family problems, like the loss of someone’s job or problems in a marriage. But there’s nothing, we believe, they can do about it but fret and so we stow away the fact.
Keeping quiet when a loved one is seriously ill or has passed away in another city is the most difficult. It’s a different matter if the parents are too old or too unwell to comprehend. It’s the ones whose minds are firmer than their bodies that create the conflict.
On one hand, we want to protect them from grief. We know the truth will devastate them. On the other, are we in a position to decide? Is deception, however well-intended, respectful?
Ageing experts who advocate the use of ‘fiblets’ say they must be employed only to protect a family member and not for the fibber’s personal benefit. When we lie to our parents, by commission, are we protecting them or ourselves? Are we worried about how the harsh facts will affect their frail bodies, or are we worried that we will have to deal with the consequences? There’s a fine line between caring and controlling—where does this fall?
I spent last evening being blasted—justifiably—by an elderly aunt for keeping a cousin’s critical illness from her. She didn’t appreciate the protectiveness; she resented it. “I’ve lived much longer than you all, and can spot lies from a distance. I know when people are keeping things from me My body may have given up. My brain has not. How dare you think you can decide what it can and cannot take,” she said, with all the ferocity of a young tigress.She was right. The privilege of decision-making can’t be ours alone. For every good reason to lie, there’s perhaps a better reason to tell the truth.