A friend of mine has a relative in the final stages of dying; some of his difficult interactions with this relative (not an immediate family member) have stirred thoughts about our obligations to and expectations of those who are dying. I’d like to talk about two related aspects of the issue: First, to what degree do we conceive of old age/death as a kind of second infancy that changes all the rules? And second, are people in the final stages of dying exempt from the expectations we usually have for other people — such as consideration, fairness and reciprocity — and do their needs always trump our own?
I’ve known clients with parents who expected them to sacrifice their lives entirely in order to care for them in the final stages of dying. Some of these parents had done reasonably well in their parenting role; others had been entirely deficient and then became infantile and demanding when forced to confront their mortality. What comes to mind is the Biblical commandment to “honor your father and mother.” I’ve always found it relevant that the Bible does not says you should “love” your parents; rather, you should accord them a certain level of respect, given that they brought you into the world and reared you. But what are the limits of “honoring”? Does that mean you must take care of them during their dying months, even to your own detriment, even when they did a miserable job taking care of you when you were small? How does forgiveness come into play, and are some failures unforgivable?