Many faith traditions teach that it is wrong to lie. As a child, I had to memorize the ten commandments and number nine was especially problematic: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which we were taught, back then, meant: Never lie! Or else!
As a child, I feared dying before I had an opportunity to go to confession. I could picture myself burning for years in purgatory for telling “untruths.” My cheeks would burn in shame as I told the priest on the other side of the curtain about the times that I lied to my parents while crossing my fingers and swearing that “I didn’t do it!” It was a huge relief to be absolved of my sins with a penance of “Three Our Fathers, three Hail Mary’s, and three Glory Bes,” which I gladly and quickly took care of — a small price to pay for avoiding the heat, so to speak. As I left the church, I felt lighter. I dipped my hand in the holy water and blessed myself. But I also knew that despite my good intentions, one thing was certain: before the month was over, I would be returning to the confessional box to ask for forgiveness for telling yet another lie.
I lied to protect myself from getting punished by my parents, but occasionally I lied to protect someone else.
I wasn’t a pathological liar or even a compulsive liar, but an occasional liar. Mostly I lied to protect myself from getting punished by my parents, but occasionally I lied to protect someone else. I pictured God as an old white man, with a long white beard, shaking his head in utter dismay as he recorded my lies in a big, fat book titled: Cynthia’s Sins. Someday he would read the pages out loud and everyone would shake their heads at the details of my wretched, sinful life.
Fast forward to 2019. I’m a pastor. I’m 65 and I rarely lie, not so much because I’ve cleaned up my act but because remembering cover stories to get out of sticky situations is beyond me. The reality is that it’s hard enough for me to remember the facts. I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016 and many of my memories have evaporated. Quite simply, telling the truth is easier.
This next request may sound strange to you, especially coming from a pastor who is supposed to be encouraging people to “avoid the near occasions of sin.” But I am asking this of you: as my Alzheimer’s progresses, please lie to me — especially if the truth upsets me. Yes, I want you to know that you have my permission to lie. If it makes you feel better, call it “therapeutic fibbing.” Trust me, God will understand and you will not spend any time in purgatory because of this. In fact, I believe that your kindness might just make God smile.
Validate my feelings versus correcting me with facts.
What do I mean by therapeutic fibbing? Validate my feelings versus correcting me with facts. If I say that I had salmon for breakfast, don’t try and set me straight with the truth: “Now Cynthia, you know that you didn’t have salmon for breakfast. You had oatmeal.” If I say that I had salmon, just let it be! Does my eating salmon or oatmeal for breakfast really matter in the grand scheme of things? Is it really worth arguing about and upsetting me?
Over the years I have seen far too many caregivers correcting persons living with Alzheimer’s (or a related dementia) by arguing over details and facts, “No Dad, you didn’t work in a bank. You worked in a grocery store.” These truth tellers argue that they are just setting the record straight: that is, that Cynthia didn’t have salmon for breakfast and not to correct her is akin to being part of Cynthia’s lie. I have watched these interactions in horror. You are never going to win and will only succeed in making that person feel worse—and for what? So that you can be right? I’m asking you now to please just lie to me.
Meet me in my reality, even as it changes. “I know you love salmon, Cynthia. I bet you could eat it every day.” Instead of a confrontation about what I did or did not have for breakfast, we could have a conversation. (And just so you dear readers know, I sometimes will have leftover salmon for breakfast.) My breakfast story might be a memory of a fantasy, but even that doesn’t matter. I don’t need to be right, just loved.
I need you to protect me from the pain of loss.
Please lie to me to protect my heart from aching. When I ask about Aunt Betty, don’t respond by saying: “I’ve told you a hundred times that she’s dead!” That’s cruel. I am asking about Aunt Betty, because I love her and maybe I’m missing her in that moment. When you respond with the cold, hard fact that “Betty died years ago,” it’s like I’m hearing the news for the first time. I don’t remember that Aunt Betty is dead and I’m feeling incredibly sad. And an angry or annoyed response only makes me feel worse.
I need you to protect me from the pain of loss. In times like this, please lie to me. Tell me you aren’t sure about Aunt Betty’s whereabouts or redirect our conversation. “I love that picture of Aunt Betty. Look at that beautiful smile. I think you get your smile from Aunt Betty.” Change the subject. Sing a song. Help me transition to another activity. Take me for a walk. Switch gears. Do not correct my reality. Instead, join me in my reality.
Of course, white lies are generally okay but please don’t tell me that Aunt Betty will be coming to dinner that night if Aunt Betty is six feet under. That kind of lie doesn’t help anyone, and will only cause me more distress and confusion. Just remember the golden rule. Treat me with kindness, dignity, and respect, and we should get along just fine. For my happiness, peace, and comfort, and especially in times of great distress, please lie to me.