A recent widow’s letter in your column started thoughts I’ve been putting aside for over three years.
I lost my husband Tom in November 2016 after a long struggle with a cancer. We were married for 42 years and had a daughter with special needs and a son. They were both in their 30s when Tom died and although our daughter couldn’t understand her father’s plight, her carers brought her to see him in his final days.
I hope this gave him comfort, as they were always very close. Our married son came to the hospital and spent many hours there to support both his father and me.
During these last days I wasn’t noble . . . like Ann, I too hated illness and found it impossible to be loving and sympathetic. After years trying to be optimistic, I couldn’t accept he was going to die.
I didn’t spend time telling him how much I loved him, because at that stage, to be honest, I thought my love had died some years ago. He would have expected me to hold him and whisper loving things, but I just didn’t.
My brother-in-law did ask if I wanted some time alone with Tom, but I said ‘no’, and have felt guilty ever since. I found life with Tom quite exasperating at times and thought about leaving on several occasions.
After his death, I felt relieved he was out of pain and discomfort — and also in some way that I didn’t have to worry about him.
But I have now met someone I’m very fond of and find myself constantly racked with guilt over my actions towards Tom at the end.
He would have expected me to be much more sympathetic, instead of my ‘Come on, we’ll get through this’ attitude. In a way, it was my way of coping with what I knew to be a hopeless situation.
I am hoping to come to terms with all this eventually, but it doesn’t get easier — in fact, it’s getting worse.
At the moment, I have too much time to dwell on the past and now (in my early 70s) I feel I’m running out of time to be happy. How can I learn to live again? Am I wallowing in self-pity?
Maybe I need to pull myself together, but it’s easier said than done. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life harking back to the past.
This week Bel advises an older woman who continues to feel guilty about the way she handled her husband’s death three years ago
Often it is said that grief is the other side of love; what’s not so often acknowledged is that guilt is, too.
It lurks there, never quite washed away by tears, the knowledge that if we had the time over again we might behave differently — be kinder, more patient, more attentive. Visit Mum more often. Forgive the brother who wronged us before the last goodbye.
Your regrets and guilt are so common — in fact, in the past two weeks I’ve received two other emails which prove the point.
Here is Mrs VH, whose husband died last year after a long illness: ‘If only I’d known it was his last day on earth . . . afterwards I would remember in minute detail the terrible events that led up to his death, and my failings.
‘I was so busy caring for him, I forgot to try to make life nice for him, play his favourite music, entertain him. I was sometimes bad-tempered, when he kept getting up, even though he was prone to falling over . . . ’
Thought of the day
Important events — whether serious, happy or unfortunate — do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into sharp relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.
From Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (born Kiev 1903, died Auschwitz 1942)
And here is Mrs JV, mourning the father who died in a hospice last year, feeling so guilty because she’d had enough and gone home, now telling me: ‘I live with the guilt because all Dad wanted to do was go home and I told him he couldn’t. Because I saw him on the Friday and said, “See you tomorrow” but didn’t . . . why didn’t I stay? Or go back? Or at least go back after? Why do I now feel so bad?’
I can no more supply an ‘answer’ to these two women than I can to you; nevertheless I’ll try to speak to all three. The first thing to understand is that such futile regrets are a destructive chewing-up of your energy and need to be controlled. Much as we would all like to rewrite scripts for various parts of the past, it can’t be done.
Best to say, ‘Ouch, that was bad, it was a tough time — and on the other hand . . .’ (followed by a good thought.)
Nobody can possibly expect to change a whole personality simply because death is on the horizon.
If you are a brisk person, that is how you will remain; if you have reservations about a marriage, you can’t switch past difficulties for adoration overnight. It doesn’t work that way.
The only way to ‘change’ the past is to flip your perception of it. That’s where focusing on the positive thoughts comes in. So Mrs VH must consciously think of all the care she did give her husband, and Mrs JV must focus on the fact that what she left her father’s deathbed for was to return to her three children. In other words, love.
And I believe it is love that makes you remember your daughter’s visit to her father (which you must have organised) and to believe it made him happy.
Whoever thought that love is uncomplicated? Who can expect to turn into Florence Nightingale if you hate illness? All any of us can do is our best — and then be glad of that.
So please try to remember what was good in the past you shared with your husband and now look forward. You can start to ‘learn to live again’ by believing me when I shout: ‘It is never too late to be happy!’
I wish you joy with a new person who will help that process.
Should I burn my old family photos?
I know this is unusual but it’s something niggling away at me and I wonder if you have any helpful thoughts.
I’m 77 — mother of two sons (53 and 51) who both live a long distance away. One never married; the other married a lady with two grown-up children. So he has two lovely step-grandchildren, whom I see when I can.
My problem is this: I am an only child and my parents are long dead. I’ve been left with a stack of family photos from both sides of the family, including great-grandparents.
After a good old sort out during the lockdown, I’ve now got tins of photos I no longer need or want, but how do I get rid of them?
They are all part of my family and my history. There are lots of me as a baby and young child but they’re just taking up space, which is at a premium in my one-bedroom bungalow. I can’t contemplate a bonfire.
My boys aren’t interested in any of it — except one of them may like some of my dad’s war memorabilia from Italy, Jerusalem and the desert. I never knew what rank or regiment he was in, but at the bottom of a tobacco tin I found a telegram with all his details, so I’m now able to research his Army time, as he’d never talk about it.
He must have had a terrific story to tell. Now I’m beginning to realise I wish I knew more.
As for the rest . . . what to do? I expect others may also have this dilemma.
Where do our stories go when we die? The most ordinary people can have extraordinary importance to those who love them, yet their stories still remain untold.
Some families cherish family history; I know my adult children are as interested in my non-famous Liverpool background as in the very different heritage of their father. But of course, at some stage interest, and the knowledge it sparks, will slowly, inevitably fade away.
I still can’t help feeling a bit sad to see old photograph albums in junk shops, and wish (sentimentally, perhaps) that somebody had held on to Great-Grandmother’s fuzzy relics.
It actually surprises me that only one of your sons is ‘maybe’ interested in your father’s war memorabilia. My favourite Antiques Roadshow presenter is the militaria expert Mark Smith, because he seems locked on to an emotional wavelength when it comes to those long-dead soldiers, sailors and air crew.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
And you yourself have proved, by your sudden, late-flowering interest, that the past never wholly dies.
In your place, I would go through all the photographs and pick out the very best ones from the generations you have. Then type (and print out) as much knowledge as you have for each one. It might be just a name of course, but even a rough date is good.
It also takes a minute to look up online a few key things going on in Britain and the world when x was born or married. Put the facts down in the captions. Obviously, you’ll know most about your own life so set it down.
Then get a scrap-book and a glue stick and assemble an album. I would also make a separate, special one for your father’s army career, putting it all in a document and buying a good ‘memory box’ to contain the document and the memorabilia.
I would then present these two treasures (for so they are) to your married son as a gift, and suggest he keeps them for his grandchildren. Who knows? They might be historians one day.
As for the rest, I think I would bury them (some people will complain about chemicals leaching into the earth) or burn them (the same people will say it’s pollution) to give you a sense of an ending. Those souls who once lived and breathed will be honoured by the ritual, especially if you give them the blessing of a spoken, ‘Goodbye’.
And finally…A blessing that moved me to tears
It gave me huge pleasure that so many of you responded to last week’s ‘And Finally’ — the story of Dietrich Hanff, the German Jewish refugee who came to England in 1939 and subsequently endured the loss of his entire family in concentration camps.
As I was writing, I pictured Dieti with his wonderful foster parents, my friends Robin and Heather Tanner, in the beautiful little cottage they lived in until their deaths.
I don’t mind telling you that I shed some tears — and more came when I read an email from one of Dieti’s pupils, remembering him with love, respect and gratitude. And more still when I read the beautiful blessing on the whole Hanff family, sent by a Jewish reader deeply moved by the story.
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
You sent stories of war and of illness, together with frustration at modern ‘weedy wimps’ (my phrase!) and gratitude for that crucial sense of perspective given by my ‘story of courage and tragedy’.
It all confirmed my conviction that most people want to be uplifted, instead of being continuously ground down by negativity. I too feel that way — which is (incidentally) why I prefer novels that catapult you into the lives of others.
Talking of being uplifted, I’d love you to see my weekly videos on the Mail’s new all-singing, all-dancing digital platform; your favourite newspaper with a whole range of glorious goodies added on — such as radio, TV, discussions, how-to videos etc. I know one subscriber who still buys a print newspaper but is hooked on these extras, too!
My Tuesday contribution to the health section aims to make you smile, think and (hopefully) feel a bit better.
My husband and I make the films, so I’m welcoming you into my home and hopefully will continue after lockdown.
Check out my page at mailplus.co.uk/tv/feel-well-with-bel to see how this week’s film takes us indirectly back to that story of courage.