When Kindness Demands a Lie

Vic and Virginia ~2000

“Give my son a kiss from me,” my mother-in-law Virginia whispers.

“OK, I will,” I say as I give her hand a squeeze. She wants to kiss the child who was the center of her world. There’s no use saying her 67-year-old son died in 2008. For years, she hated God for what “he took from her,” but she rarely remembers Vic’s death now.

“Where’s my Victor?” she often asks.

“He’s traveling,” I say. Or “He’s out of town.” I’ve become a smooth liar. She doesn’t see my sad eyes and doesn’t notice that the story I told last time doesn’t match the one I tell today.

“When will my grandsons visit?” At 101, she still knows how to keep a conversation going with questions.

Virginia, 1970

“Anthony and Jenna will be here in six weeks,” I say. That’s the truth, but if it were a lie, she wouldn’t know. “David and Liz were here at Christmas.”

“Do I like their girlfriends?” she asks.

“You like them a lot.” I don’t remind her she went to David and Liz’s wedding in 2013.

“I’m glad,” she says with a fleeting smile. She trusts me, although she didn’t in the past. Did she think I’d steal her money after Vic died? More likely she feared I’d steal her independence and put her in a nursing home. It would have been easier to talk about her fear openly, but that was not her way.

“It’s Anthony’s birthday today,” I say.

Virginia, 2017

“Oh, really?” she says. “I want to give him something, but I don’t know where my money went.” She feels around at her side for a purse that hasn’t been there for years and shakes her head in despair.

“Don’t worry, Virginia,” I say. “I’m taking good care of your money for you. When Anthony comes, I’ll get you a card to give him and write you a check for his birthday.”

“Oh, good,” she says, leaning back into her red pillows. “$100?”

“Whatever you want to give, Virginia.” I want this woman who lived a long independent life to make any choices she can.

Vic and Virginia, 1945

I notice she never offers to give me a gift. When I was young, her inability to accept me made me furious. I still feel a twinge of hurt feelings, but not much now. No one her son brought home would have been good enough.

“I’ll see you Friday,” I say as I put Willow on a leash.

“If I’m here,” Virginia says.

“Where will you be?” I ask, knowing the answer.

“At home. In Norwalk.” Norwalk is where Virginia lived as a child and where she raised her son.

Virginia with her best buddy Willow


“You live here now, Virginia.”

“I do?”

“Yes, this is your apartment. You moved here ten years ago.”

“Then who sleeps there?” she asks pointing to the extra bed where the night aide sleeps.

“Sarah sleeps there. Someone spends the night with you every night.”

“Oh, good,” Virginia says. “I’m scared.” She pauses and looks away. “I’m scared…but not scared. I just don’t know where I am.”

“I know, Virginia. I’m taking care of you.”

“Thank you,” she says with vulnerable brown eyes that say, I’m helpless. Don’t abandon me.

David, Vic, Virginia, and Anthony ~2000

As I open the door to leave. She calls out, “Remember to give your husband a kiss from me.”

“OK, Virginia,” I say as the afternoon health aide walks in.

How could I forget?


Have you had to choose between a painful truth and a gentle lie? How do you handle telling the truth to someone with fading memory who sometimes remembers and insists on the truth, but usually forgets? For other posts about my fifty-year relationship with my husband’s mother, see My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype (the early years) or Disbelief (the way our relationship had evolved by 2015).

  1. Hi Elaine,

    Sometimes the truth can be incredibly painful. Like the time I was madly in love with a guy who told me it was not mutual. That hurts. But I got over him, of course I did. I spent quite some time telling him in my mind what a stupid fool he was to not see how delicious, delicate and sexy I was 😉

    Sometimes a gentle lie can safe a dream. My youngest son wants to be a famous soccer player. I know that he is good, but not as good to become selected by the national team. But still me and my husband payed money so he could play in a game were scouts were watching. And huge him because he was disappointed that his dream was not manifested. Children (and grown ups too) they need hope. As Andy said to red in the Shawshank Redemption: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thanks for the stories and the wonderful quote, Susanne. If she presses me, I tell her the truth, but in the last month, she’s not asked for more or questioned me when I changed the subject. Her memory isn’t entirely gone, but it’s selective.

  2. I’m daunted by the multitudinous challenges you face every time you’re with her. I guess you get sort of used to it, but then, how could you ever really get used to it? I suppose it’s a wonderful exercise in centering and re-centering. And shutting down your ego. And detaching yourself from outcomes. And not taking things personally. And persevering. And building fortitude. And so on and so on and so on. Blessings and love to you my friend. You’re teaching us all vital lessons.

    • I don’t quite get used to it, Jeanie. Something in me doesn’t want to enter her apartment ever again. I don’t want to talk to the health aides and problem solve with them, although the set-up is fairly efficient at the moment. I’m grateful to the five dedicated and kind women who take care of her and show up for their shifts. After talking to social workers and eldercare specialists, I don’t see a better alternative right now. As long as the primary health aide organizes the health care schedule, body care, and food preparation, this is a better alternative than a nursing home. It’s also less expensive, believe it or not, although that isn’t a primary motivation. As you know, the bonus for me is learning to forgive and feel compassion for a woman who was my shadow for fifty years.

  3. Your compassion is tireless Elaine. Virginia is a legend of her own time. I suppose her memory loss is both a blessing and a curse at times.
    Sometimes a white lie is does better than the truth.

    • In this case, there’s no doubt that a lie, deflection, or subject change is best. Along with losing her memory, she’s lost her desire to fight and defend, so that loss is helpful for me.

      • Thank goodness for tender mercies. 🙂

        • Yes, thank goodness. I hope you’re still experiencing a rejuvenating break from winter with your husband. You’ve both been through hard times. I hope to check up on what you’ve been doing this weekend.

  4. I’ve enjoyed leafing through your family albums: First David and Liz’s wedding and then back to yours in the 1960s. You’ve always been a great story-teller, but I’ve noticed you’ve really mastered dialogue over the years.

    When we visit Aunt Ruthie, I always try to tell the truth, but if a gentle lie slips out neither of us would mind. She seldom asks questions any more, but I always assure her of my love. She’s slipping away now.

    Such poignant words: “Remember to give your husband a kiss from me.” You didn’t mention tears, but I imagine there were some.

    • Marian, thanks for your encouraging words. I use more dialogue in memoir writing than I used to. Deafness makes me work hard to understand a conversation, so once I hear those words, I like to write them down–especially poignant ones like Virginia’s.

      I often think Virginia is slipping away, but then she rallies. This has been going on a few years, but she’s still amazingly strong. She nods off and sleeps in her chair much of the morning. By afternoon, she’s wide awake. When I return with groceries, she’s usually sitting with a friend and waiting for or drinking a glass of red wine on ice (poured by the afternoon health aide). She doesn’t cry unless the truth slips into consciousness, which hasn’t happened for a few months. When she asks me to kiss Vic for her, she assumes he’s traveling or at home.

  5. After reading so may of your “posts” and your book, I can only say “thank you.”

  6. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful, rich article. Your clear-cut title effortlessly sums up the situation that you find yourself in. I really enjoyed learning more about your enduring relationship with Virginia, and bearing witness to your family lives together with your photos. You know, if you ever felt inclined, collectively your articles about Virginia would make a strong foundation for a wonderful, and unique book, “My Lover’s Mama: Working with the Negative Mother Archetype” or something comparable, I’m sure you’d find the right title.

    Many years ago, when I was younger I worked in a nursing home and often found myself telling the residents a variety of gentle lies instead of the painful truth. By telling them what they wanted to hear, not to deceive them, I did so to support them further. During the night shift when quietness descended, I would read them letters from loved ones, letters sometimes written years ago. I would tell them stories of my life, read requested poems and talk about many things. At the time I didn’t realise how sacred this experience was, thank you so much for helping me to remember.

    Call it what you will, it’s all the same to the Soul, for choosing compassion is often our wisest decision. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • I’ve thought of doing that, Deborah. It may be a little too close now, so maybe when/if the story ends. But why wait? This sounds like a natural and I’ll keep it in mind as I write the pieces in the present tense. I’m working on two articles with May 1 deadlines. After that, I’ll want a new project. You must have read my post called “My Lover’s Mama and The Negative Mother Archetype.” Your title adds a sense of action to the title and invites me to add some of the many ways I’ve worked with my relationship with Virginia over the years, especially Active Imagination and dreams. It might be helpful to others, but it would definitely root out more meaning from this longest of all relationships in my life now that Vic and my brother have died.

      I love knowing about your nursing home work. What a place to practice kindness! My writing teacher/friend spent years helping a woman in her 90s write her memoir. When the older woman lost her ability to speak, my friend read her own memoir stories to her. I’m sure it brought tears to both of them. As the Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Thank you, Deborah.

      • Dear Elaine, Because you have faithfully chronicled, and documented your long relationship with Virginia and continue to do so, at some point in the future, long after her passing, I believe your unique mixture of stories, dreams and active imaginations would be of enormous importance and a great help to yourself and others alike. For never before have I read about such a difficult, challenging, yet enduring relationship with a “lover’s mother” and how over the past fifty years that relationship was bravely, and compassionately met. Thank you so much for sharing that beautiful, heart-warming story about your friend. Love and blessings, Deborah.

        • Thank you, Deborah. I hear you and will consider. It ties together what I love–memoir and Archetypal Psychology. She hasn’t always been as vulnerable as she is now. I haven’t always been as patient with her as I am now. (Which makes me think I should interview her to get more of her side of the story–although her memory is unreliable. It would still be interesting.) Our relationship had some good moments when we were both younger and felt challenged by each other, but it usually adversarial. It all brings me to the Myth of Eros and Psyche. I get to play the Psyche role, Vic can be Eros, and Virginia gets to be Aphrodite. My Labors were almost as challenging as the ones Psyche was given. 😉

  7. So nice to read your lovely words, dear Elaine. Amazing that your relationship with Vic’s mom has transformed into its present sweetness. I know it has taken so much patience and time. Vic would be so proud — and of course grateful!!

    • Thank you, Peggy. I miss you. I agree Vic would be amazed. Maybe proud, and definitely grateful. He was never able to get through his mother’s anger, but felt responsible for her. He knew she’d had a hard time raising him, and he also appreciated her sense of humor. I’m grateful her short-term memory loss for softening her hard edges.

  8. I’m getting nervous just thinking about having to lie. I’m sure I’ve told gentle untruths in the past. But I’ve never had to deliver fiction to anyone on a regular basis. Not looking forward to that day. I think I have a gift for dressing up a truth, or coloring it in such a way that it can be taken in several different ways. I believe somewhere in my life I learned to stretch and pluck at a truth to make it more palatable. It’s not the way I would like to be treated – no – serve me the whole, honest-to-god truth please even if it stings. And I’d really like to treat others the way I expect to be treated. But it’s kind of like what happens when I’m immersed in Photoshop. I start with my eye on the truth, and bit by bit, tweak it into oblivion, into something more exciting, more dramatic, and then call it creative license.
    Maybe telling gentle lies (outside of Photoshop) is really taking the license to avoid drama.

    • Robin, you make me dig into what’s a lie and what’s a compassionate response. Until recently, I told Virginia the truth about Vic which meant drama every time–to be repeated in 5 or 10 minutes when she’d forgotten and asked again where Vic was again. That felt right at the time because she pushed me for the truth. After her sister died a few months ago, Virginia was in a hysterical panic for days. It was activated each time another old friend or long lost family member called to grieve with her (with lots of Italian drama). At some point, it seemed better to not push the truth in her face repeatedly because each time was hearing about her sister’s death for the first time. She had no way to work with it or take it in. I decided to try letting health aides pick up the phone first when it rang. They took the phone into the bathroom to talk to grieving relatives and suggested they not bring up Rosie’s death unless Virginia brought it up. Then they handed the phone to Virginia. She didn’t bring up her sister’s death. Within a few days, Virginia calmed down and forgot. Virginia has never been one to look for truth. She was angry at Vic and me for telling her the truth that he had a deadly cancer. I want the truth, too, and drama is no problem for me. My sons will have to figure it out when it’s my turn.

      So, recently, I decided it wasn’t necessary for Virginia to learn over and over again that Vic died, her sister died, her husband died (20+ years ago), her brother died (15 years ago)… Each time was learning about their death for the first time. If she pushes me about where Vic is, I’ll tell her the truth. And, yes, there will be drama. Thanks for helping me think this through.

      • Elaine, my friend, yes: “Each time was learning about [Vic’s] death for the first time” ~ but also each time was, for you, having to share that devastating news of her son’s (your beloved”s) death and to witness her reaction over and over again. I can only imagine how painful that must have been for YOU. I don’t think you are obligated to be the bearer of such painful news, over and over again. You’ve a right ~ indeed an obligation ~ to take care of you, too, and at such times it’s important to remember to put your own oxygen mask on first. You are an amazing woman, and an inspiration to all of us. ♥

        • Thank you, Marty, for your loving and wise response. It was hard to deliver bad news over and over again, but I was willing to talk about this with her (gently) when she wanted to know. That was the first she’d spoken openly about Vic’s death since he died in 2008. (Before that, she had raged against her fate and refused to discuss his death with me, hospice bereavement counselors, or her priest.) Recently, perhaps because of increased memory loss and other natural changes for someone who is 101, she seems to imagine Vic is traveling or at home or somewhere close by rather than dead. I imagine he feels very close to her heart.

      • We can avoid the truth without telling a lie. It is easy to say ‘tell me the truth even if it stings’, but the constant pain of grief can destroy a person and your relationship. I follow a validation approach mixed with common sense which involves speaking to the person’s emotional need behind the words. In my experience, the person with dementia is emotional wise and is telling us what he/she needs.

        What would a son mean to me/us?

        To me, a son (which I have two) means; love, responsibility, concern, affection, duty, care, fun.

        If I asked for one of my son’s (both have different strengths and vulnerabilities).
        I could be saying; ‘I feel something isn’t right.’
        ‘I miss my responsibilities and role as a mother.’
        ‘I need a hug / I want to give a hug.’
        ‘I need something/someone to love.’
        ‘I am worried that about his safety.’

        As a helper I may respond with:
        ‘Are you concerned about him?’
        ‘What was/is he like’?
        ‘What sort of things did he get up to?’
        ‘We miss not seeing them.’
        ‘What would you like to say to him if he were here.’

        I am reading body language all the time.

        I would build on her strengths as a mother (naturally you would know the person) and restore a sense of self and confidence.

        I’m preserving the relationship at all costs. If this breaks down the person will withdraw or become fretful, and all practical care tasks become impossible.


        • Thanks, Julia. I appreciate your perspective and your suggestions. This blog is a short part of a longer conversation from that day that included hugs, hand-holding, and plenty of validation. She’s an amazing powerhouse of a woman even at 101. She’s had a difficult life, but is now surrounded by love and constant care from me and a whole team, including my dog–her favorite friend. We also have long talks about her grandsons. Unlike my mother who died in 2007, Virginia isn’t ashamed about memory loss and doesn’t try to hide her forgetfulness. We’ve come to a loving place of trust and affection. Sometimes this feels like a miracle.

  9. A lovely, warm and nurturing relationship. ‘Give my son a kiss’ – can be saying ‘I miss him, I love him and he is always there in my heart.’ Perhaps the kiss is metaphoric. Therefore it is not a lie, but you are acknowledging a need to touch and remember something dear. We get stuck on facts and logic, people experiencing dementia work on feelings and emotional needs.

    There are ways we can have conversations that are therapeutic which identify the deeper need behind the words ‘Validating Me’ is a programme we offer. I am more positive and equipped to respond confidently to the person’s emotional and psychological needs, particularly in stressful and awkward situations like this story.

    • Thank you for your comment, Julia. Yes, I agree. I went through and have written about 12 years of Alzheimer’s care with my own mother and have a fifty year relationship with my mother-in-law who began losing her memory a few years ago in her late 90s. I’ve also written extensively about this relationship which was stormy when I was young, but is loving and gentle now. I’ve been a student of psychology (Jungian mostly) since 1970 and hospice bereavement worker since 2009, so I look at her request as metaphorical. Just a few years ago, Virginia and I discussed her dreams. She liked to tell me, especially when she had a dream about her son. I also have lots of therapeutic help working with this relationship with my mother-in-law from my therapist and from a social worker who works with the elderly.

      There is no doubt how much she loves her only child–and how much she’s suffered. She refused to see him while he was dying–and then went through years of anger and regret. When I told her, “I will,” in response to her request that I kiss her son for her, I took it both symbolically and literally. I go to his grave often and gave “him” a kiss from her.

      I used poetic license by using the term “lie.” I’m constantly responding to her changing needs and doing all I can to keep her feeling loved and safe with people she knows in her own apartment. It takes a village to support an old person outside a nursing home. Thanks so much for telling me about your program “Validating Me.” That’s the goal every day. The feeling of her request was poignant and sad, but not stressful or awkward for either of us. We’ve been through a lot together.

  10. This is a magical post, Elaine. When my mother was forgetful I became distraught and kept trying to tell her the truth. It of course didn’t work and made both of us more than anxious. Now I’m noticing my husband’s forgetfulness and we can laugh about it now, but one day he won’t be able to laugh, nor will I. Reading your post is a breath of reality that helps me see further that the truth isn’t always the best way to go.

    • Thank you, Joan. I think we’re all learning a lot more about dealing with memory loss. In the past, I told “the truth” when my mother-in-law pushed for it with questions. That isn’t happening now. I dealt with memory loss with my mother for a dozen years and that helped me, plus talking with social workers and therapists about the best way to help. I’m sorry your husband’s memory is an issue–and a concern. With my family background of memory loss, I’m concerned about myself but seem OK for now. So far, I always pass my doctor’s memory tests with flying colors. My mother-in-law (as opposed to my mother who pretended she remembered when she didn’t and was so ashamed) taught me how much easier these things are when the person who has forgotten isn’t ashamed or defensive about it. Wishing you and your husband well.

    • I agree with Joan.

      This is exactly how people with memory problems should be treated. Your compassion for your mother-in-law shines through every word, Elaine. 🙂

      • We’re managing well right now, but there may be more challenges any day. I’m grateful for the primary health aide who keeps the health aide scheduling going and gets replacements when someone is ill or away. I hope Virginia can stay where she is until her last days. Thanks for your input, Lydia.

  11. Virginia is lucky to have you, Elaine. Does your hearing loss ever make it difficult for you to oversee her care? That isn’t something you’ve talked about much, at least not in this context.

    • She is lucky, Paula. She even realizes that which is a minor miracle. Hearing loss makes everything more difficult, but I’m OK speaking with people in person if I can read their lips. I’m a good lip and body language reader. I can manage phones well with bluetooth equipment that sends the phone signal directly into my hearing aides, but my main form of communication with #1 Health Aide is texting. She is first in command and takes responsibility for scheduling, body care routines, and food preparation. I do shopping, finances, pet support (thank you, Willow), dealing with social services agencies, outings (rarely now), problem solving, and decision making. Without dedication of #1 Health aide, we couldn’t have a nursing home for one. If someone is sick or on vacation, she lines up replacements–even if she’s the sick one. We have two women with flexible hours who fill in when needed. The team is devoted to Virginia. They say, “She’s our Grandmother now.” We’re all lucky this is working out, but it takes constant tweaking and attention. It’s common in Virginia’s senior apartment building (independent, not assisted living) to have team care as residents age.

  12. At some times in our lives we maybe called upon to be the ” secret keeper”. It is a daunting task to remain silent about painful truths, but we are chosen because of our compassion and quiet resolve. Your kindness Elaine is an example to your boys. It is whisper in Vic’s ears. It is the song in your heart.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • What a wonderful way to think of this, Kim. Thank you for your encouraging and kind words. Supporting Virginia has been a challenging but also life-affirming experience. I’m glad I was given the chance to heal our rocky history and my own heart.

  13. I loved re-reading this Elaine thank you. This time I hope my response appears. I am sitting vigil with my very ill friend and have been for days, weeks -. Her memory is alive and well, her body is collapsing and she knows it. She’s a medical doctor so she knows the signs. There is no room for gentle lies though honestly I wish there were.

    The comments are lovely as are your responses to them – and above all, I’m in awe in your continued patience with her and your comment -‘We’ve come to a loving place of trust and affection. Sometimes this feels like a miracle’. It IS a miracle – enabled by you.

    • Ah, Susan. You’re in that waiting time. I’m so glad your friend has you to sit vigil with her, and I hope there are others to bring a sense of community and support to you during this exhausting time that’s best suited to open hearts and poetry. I wish her a gentle and speedy passage.

      Yes, it’s a miracle. Virginia now looks at me with pleading and somewhat desperate eyes, as though I might save her. She rarely speaks about death, but has new fears about being alone even for a minute. Her doctor is afraid to add anti-anxiety drugs because of her tendency to fall, but if she isn’t calmer today when I see her, I’ll push for chemical help. So we wait, too, but much further from the sacred threshold. Sending you lots of love.

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