Promises to the Dying

How long must we keep our promises to the dying? Obviously, when we ourselves are dying, those promises will be broken, so does it matter if we break them before we get to that point?

Part of me thinks the promises mean nothing, because after all, the promisees are gone and with it any obligation to them, especially when they bequeathed us such sorrow, but another part of me thinks a promise is meant to be kept.

It’s not a major thing that I’m concerned about. Just a very large coffeetable book. He wasn’t one to make spontaneous purchases, and he seldom spent money on himself for non-essentials, but he saw an ad for this particular book on an inflight magazine and, all out of character, he ordered it. This book was one of the few things he asked me to keep. (Another thing he asked me to keep was a perpetual calendar he’d had since he was a boy, and the rest of the things were items I made that he rescued after I’d thrown them away.) Although it’s not a book I’d ever look at, I have been keeping it, not just because of my promise, but because it reminded me of a different side of him. But now . . . it’s just a very heavy book.

I’m going to have to put my stuff in storage when I leave here, and as big as the book is, it truly is just one thing among many. Still, I have been getting rid of my unnecessities because I don’t want to pay to store a lot of useless things or things I might never need and I almost tossed the book in the bag with the rest of the items I’m getting rid of. But my promise stayed my hand.

So, do promises to the dying have an expiration date? Obviously, if we promise something impossible to pacify them, such as (perhaps) never falling in love again, that promise has no validity. But what about other promises?


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.


16 Responses to “Promises to the Dying”

  1. Wanda Says:

    Pat, This is an interesting question. To make that decision, to keep or not to keep the book, I’d have to ask myself why he wanted you to keep it? What about this book did he feel was important enough for you to keep it? You know your mate of course so the answer to those kinds of questions are within you.

    The other side of this is why did you promise to keep it? Was it to keep him happy in the moment, to reassure him that in some way you wouldn’t forget him, that this book would remind you of him? The question of timing also comes into play, I think.

    These questions: his motives in asking, your motives in agreeing, taking them into account will surely help you with the decision.

    I have to give you my opinion on the keeping of promises. There are times when I would promise something to someone to give them peace of mind, to reassure them in their extreme distress. I can come up with many scenarios that would play out like that. And some of those promises I would feel no qualm in breaking while others I would be duty bound to keep.

    If you can’t make that decision perhaps you could ask your sister to hold onto that heavy book until you’re settle once again.

    Promises: so many factors. But then again….maybe not so many as you dig through the layers.

    Cheers Pat. Hope your weekend is going well.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I promised because he asked. I know he wanted me to keep it for the very reason I’ve been keeping it — that it reminded him of a time when he simply did what he wanted without any hesitation or debate or regret.

      I suppose I’ll keep it for a while longer. It doesn’t matter, really, since I have so much stuff anyway. I have a hunch the promise expires with the connection. When I no longer feel any sort of connection to the past, when his wishes no longer matter, then I can dispose of it.

      Thank you for your so thoughtful response, Wando. I so needed someone to help me think this through.

  2. Paula Kaye Says:

    I am way too close to the death of my husband to answer this question. I can’t yet get rid of a shirt let alone something he wanted me to keep. I’m sure when the time comes I will have to make these horrendous decisions. I hope I can just take a picture of it and let the real things go. Especially if it is something I don’t want to keep….like your book is to you!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, you are still so close. I got rid of a few of his clothes that I’d kept because I couldn’t get rid of them back when I got rid of everything else, and I broke down. Four and a half years, and some things still bring on grief. I hope you’re being patient with yourself. Grief is hard work.

  3. Barbara Chalmers Says:

    Well I guess you did keep your promise. You kept the book. For a while. Now you can let it go. The letting go is the where the gift is I think. For everyone. Bx

  4. Holly Says:

    There are other ways to keep a book. Is it possible to get it in digital version? Or scan it? Or even just a photograph of it? That way, you will still have the memories and won’t have to cart a huge book all over the place. Just a thought. I did that with a lot of Jake’s stuff.

  5. Wanda Says:

    Taking a picture of an item is advice given to those who have hoarding problems because the item reminds them of a special person, place or time. A photo fills the same function for many of us. I’ve been using it to get rid of items my grown grandchildren gave me when they were so little… the picture will remind both of us, the giver and the grandma of that special time.
    Pat you always ask thought-provoking questions.

  6. Kathy Says:

    So many great answers, Pat. I like the idea of the photo of the book as a remembrance. Great topic so if I could ramble a bit…When I first read your post, I felt such emotion. Probably because my mother promised to wait for my father when he went off to war and she didn’t wait even though I was on the way. So the idea of a broken promise hit a nerve. Your circumstances are different, of course. And then I think about the photos of my younger self (with old boyfriends) that I threw away to please the man I was with. Now I regret losing those photos because they were part of my younger self. At this age, that seems important. Obviously, the book isn’t something personal for you and I have thrown out many things I have never regretted. But you need to make sure you won’t regret it before you do it. Sometimes we don’t know until it’s too late.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Mi bloga is your bloga! Feel free to ramble. I always appreciate your experience and wisdom.

      Whew. Reneging on a promise to a man going off to war is a bit . . . well, I better not say since after all, the woman was was your mother.

      I’ve thrown away so many personal things. And lent people other things that were never returned. The son of one of my mother’s friends was going with a girl who I went to school with, and he wanted to see the yearbooks. I never got them back, which wasn’t really an issue until I got on Facebook and reconnected with many of my classmates. (It would have been nice to see who they were back then.) To be honest, I probably would have thrown them away, as I do everything eventually. I alternate between sentimentality and pragmatism, and the pragmatic side throws things away the sentimental side kept.

      Good point about waiting to make sure I won’t regret it. I think this question about promises is more of a reflection of my waning memories of him than anything else, but stil, I should wait until I know I won’t regret getting rid of it.

      Thank you.

  7. Pat S. Says:

    Perhaps the promise he wanted you to keep is not in the book itself, but what you said about why he bought it. You said “it reminded him of a time when he simply did what he wanted without any hesitation or debate or regret.” Perhaps you should do the same thing. Do what you want, without hesitation or regret. Take a picture of the book and pass it on to someone who will love it as much as he did.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It was also just about the only expensive thing he ever bought without counting the cost. I was proud of him for that.

      I always appreciate your input. You seem to have a knack for putting things into perspective. Thank you.

  8. E Says:

    I have been sorting through belongings and my house since my husband died in March (I left a comment on your August 25th post, but not sure you saw it—our circumstances are very similar). My husband in some ways made it easy for me. When he was first in the hospital for five weeks he would wake in the middle of the night and write me notes in a notebook I had brought for him. We weren’t sure he would live through surgery and his notes included alerts for weird things about the house, tips for home maintenance, apologies for having accumulated so much stuff for me to deal with, and best of all permission to sell or get rid of prized possessions when I felt like it. Although he lived another two years, I didn’t read his notes until about a month after he died—they are a gift.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I saw your post and left you a response, but somehow it disappeared. Don’t know how. I left you another response. I would never have ignored someone’s story — it is important for us to tell our truths, especially the painful ones.

      How wonderful that he left you notes. Jeff told me many things his last year, such as house maintenance that I ignored since I knew I wouldn’t be staying there after he was gone, and now I wish I had held on to every word. Now there are no more words for me. He did give me a few instructions such as how to get rid of certain of his possessions and what to keep, but somehow any instructions about what he wanted done with his ashes slipped through the cracks. I guess it wasn’t important to him.

      I’m glad you have your husband’s words and the proof of his caring. Yes, a true gift.

      • E Says:

        Thank you for your responses, Pat, both on this post and on my previous comment. Interesting to hear you say our stories must be told. Our experience is really all I want to talk about, which makes me a little sorry for folks who end up seated next to me at social gatherings lately. But reading your book about grief helped me and friends have lately been telling me that my experience has helped them reassess their lives and living situations more realistically for the future—our house with all its stairs was difficult for my husband to navigate and I was less than impressed with hospice and “professional” caregivers (I also realize our situation was very complex and challenging and maybe that is a reason/excuse, but it seems like all late stage cancer care would qualify as complex and challenging). The grief coordinator with hospice was excellent though, and so much more effective and helpful than the counselor provided through my health plan. Seven months in and surviving, though.

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