Question: My 87 year old father has cancer and about six months to live. He will not tell his wife (my mother) or my sister who lives close by and helps them out. He has made me promise not to tell. I live far away. How can I help all of them? How can I convince him to share the closure of his life with those close by him. My mother is in denial of death--hers, his, ours. How can I help these people I care about?
I see your dilemma: wanting to honor your father's wishes and wanting to inform your family of this gift of time they have been given.
Let's start with your father since he is the principal player here. I'm thinking, and I could be wrong since nobody really knows your father's reasoning except him, that your father is protecting his family from what he sees as a difficult, even devastating time. What people who hold this perspective don't see is that life is full of devastating experiences (someone close to us dying at the top of the list) and we can't shield our loved ones from it, as much as we would like. Actually, we take away their opportunity for growth and to strengthen our lives by not sharing ourselves with them. Your mother and sister will begin to notice his decline and become confused and irritated with him. Later, they will experience immense guilt for not figuring out he was dying and anger that they were left out. Your father is going to need help physically as his condition continues to deteriorate so at some point the rest of the family will have to be told anyway. This secret he is wishing you to keep cannot be kept. It is just a matter of time before his condition will be noticed and those closest to him will be brought into his very small loop.
Your father's wish to protect your mother is normal and admirable but unrealistic. First, people are stronger than we give them credit; second, she will have to live through this experience whether now or in a few months. Your mother can deny death all she wants, that doesn't keep it from knocking on every one's door.
You didn't mention why your sister isn't to know.
Now to you: you aren't going to be able to “win” in this situation no matter what choice you make. In someone's eyes you are going to look like the "bad guy".
I would start by having another face to face talk with your father. Talk about the issues I pointed out above. Listen to his response. You may decide to tell him you love him very much and at the same time cannot honor his request to keep the secret.
Everybody dies. It is a major life experience. There are only two ways to die--fast, as in a heart attack or accident, and gradual, from old age or because of a disease. Fast death leaves us with unanswered questions and a lot of guilt. Gradual death is our opportunity to do and say that which needs to be said and done. It is our gift of opportunity if we will take it. Perhaps you can help your father come to terms with his gift and encourage him to give that gift to those he loves.
All of this advice suggested may not be accepted by your father and then you will have to decide what choice you can live with--keep his secret and let your mother and sister find out on their own (and they will eventually figure out he is dying even if it is days before his death) or break your promise and nurture, support and help guide your family through this devastating experience. Whatever you do, consider what you can live with, without guilt, when this is all over.