Deathbed Promises

Dear Barbara, Please talk about deathbed promises.

Being at the bedside as a person approaches death is often scary, usually sad, and very emotional. We are generally not thinking with our mind but feeling with our heart. When death has come and gone, we begin reliving the moments ---over and over. With the review we often have regrets, guilt and “I wish I had" thoughts. In the aftermath we start thinking. We start seeing beyond just our feelings.

Enter “deathbed promises”. Promises made in the sadness, fear and uncertainty of the moment. Promises we feel bound to keep because they are the last interaction we had with someone we were close to or in some cases, not so close to. Death seems to hold us hostage to the words of the moment.

I don’t think we are bound to those promises. We need to look at the promises made, evaluate them as to: can it be done, should it be done, and am I willing to do it? I think the paramount principle underlying the promise needs to be how will the outcome of the promise affect the living?

The death of someone who has had an impact on our life, either for positive or negative, can affect the rest of our life. How we adjust to life without that person, how we adjust to the negative aspects of the relationship now that it is over, determines the healthiness of our grief.

Unfinished business with the dead can leave us immobile and depressed in our grief. We need to find closure. Closure with whatever issues are holding us in an unhealthy grief pattern. Not knowing what to do with a deathbed promise can be an example of unfinished business.

If you choose to not honor the promise, which is perfectly acceptable and often very appropriate, I suggest you write a letter to the person who has died. Tell them in the letter why you cannot fulfill what you said you would while in the moment of sadness and confusion before their death. Write it all out, cry it all out, no one will see this letter so put all your feelings positive and negative on that paper. Now burn it. Burn the paper, scatter the ashes. As the ashes catch the air and fly away, picture the emotions, feelings, and concerns that you have had regarding the promise. Consider the promise now complete. You are free to move forward in your grief. You are free to begin figuring out how you will live your life with only the memory of the person that has died.

Something to think about with Deathbed Promises...

MY FRIEND, I CARE, The Grief Experience, is my book for the grieving. Often people use it as a sympathy card. It's costs less than a greeting card and offers help to those who have just lost a loved one. Many hospices have the patient's team sign it and give it to the family after the patient has died. It can be the perfect balm for the ache one feels after their loss. Do you know someone who could benefit from this book?

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kazi Mansoor

Great article!


Interesting article. I think there may also be “deathbed promises” that are not verbalized but that the surviving person is thinking of or feeling, and these emotions also linger and may interfere with moving forward.


Barbara had me write a letter to my mother (I didn’t make it in time for her death) and although I didn’t make any promises, I talked about our sometimes challenging relationship. In that letter, I was able to say things to her that I couldn’t have in her life, and it really did make a difference in the way I processed my grief. No one saw the letter, and it was put in with her for cremation. I was able to express my confusion, and wishes that we had had a closer relationship. All I can say is that IT HELPED.

Harriet Cohen

These kinds of difficult situations are why we need to have conversations about death and dying and legacy as soon as possible, so things can be discussed and sorted out before that ending moment that is so drenched in grief and guilt. Creating a personal legacy project with the individual that honors them in their own way and words, and at a less tense moment, can perhaps foreclose the need for the deathbed promise. Start a discussion that names in advance the possible subjects of such ‘promises’ and how they might be carried out in some meaningful but doable way. This might help the individual to be at peace. If it is left to the last fraught moment it will be more a reflection of that and any difficult preceding history.

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