Ask Miriam – October 2021

Published On: October 7th, 2021Categories: Ask Miriam
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Dear Miriam,

I am one of four children, and I am caring for my mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago. She needs help with bathing and dressing, but she still knows who we are and is mostly in good spirits. That said, her short-term memory is gone, and she is generally pretty confused. Unfortunately, my youngest brother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our family is heartbroken; however, we have not yet told our mother that he is dying, and we don’t know what to do. She would be devastated. Do you think we should tell her? And what do we tell her when he dies? Do we take her to the funeral?


Dear Heartbroken,

I am so sorry that your family is going through so much loss and sadness. It can be very challenging to decide how much to share with a person who is unable to remember well. Despite that, a person with dementia who experiences the death of a loved one can still feel grief and loss.

When someone like your mother is in the mid or later stages of the disease, they forget conversations quickly because they have poor short-term memory. It may be unnecessarily painful for them to hear the news of something sad over and over again, as if it were the first time they are hearing it each time.

In these cases, using what we call “therapeutic fibs” can be a kinder approach. If she has been told once that your brother has an illness, or later, that he died, and does not remember, you can instead tell her know that he is simply on a business trip or a similar explanation that makes sense to her. She may still have feelings of sadness and missing him. This way, you are not repeatedly causing her additional grief. You can help deal with missing him by acknowledging her feelings and helping her find ways of reminiscing about the person she loves, perhaps by looking at photos, or a ritual such as lighting a candle may be comforting.

Taking someone who is confused to the funeral of a loved one can be challenging but is a very individual decision. Remember that the environment will be unfamiliar, and there may be many people around. If the family feels it is important for her to be there, consider having a person assigned to stay with her and a place for her to go to if she becomes distressed.

There is no right or wrong way to do this. Listen to your heart, talk with your family, and allow your brother to take the lead in considering whether and how to tell your mother. He has to decide what feels best for him too. For additional assistance with helping a person with dementia cope with death, please call our Helpline at 844-435-7259, or view our caregiver tip video about grief. Questions for Miriam can be sent to


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