A letter from a recent widow in your column started thoughts that I’ve been putting aside for over three years.
I lost my husband Tom in November 2016 after a long battle with cancer. We were married for 42 years and had a special needs daughter and a son. They were both in their thirties when Tom died, and although our daughter couldn’t understand her father’s condition, her caregivers brought her to him in his last days.
I hope this gave him comfort because they were always very close. Our married son came to the hospital and spent many hours there supporting both his father and me.
I have not been noble in recent days. . . like Ann, I also hated illness and found it impossible to be loving and sympathetic. After years of trying optimistically, I couldn’t accept that he would die.
I didn’t spend time telling him how much I loved him because I honestly thought my love passed away a few years ago. He expected me to hold him and whisper loving things, but I just didn’t.
My brother-in-law asked if I wanted some time alone with Tom, but I said “no” and have felt guilty ever since. I found life with Tom very annoying at times and thought about leaving on several occasions.
After his death, I felt relieved that he was no longer in pain and discomfort – and somehow I didn’t have to worry about him.
But I’ve now met someone I love and find myself constantly tormented by guilt at the end about my actions towards Tom.
He had expected that I would be much more sympathetic, instead of my “Come on, we’ll get through this” attitude. In a way, it was my way of dealing with what I knew was a hopeless situation.
I hope to come to terms with all this eventually, but it doesn’t get any easier – it gets even worse.
Right now I have too much time to reflect on the past and now (early 1970s) I feel like I have almost no time to be happy. How can I learn to live again? Am I wallowing in self-pity?
Maybe I should bring myself together, but it’s easier said than done. I don’t want to go back to the past for the rest of my life.
This week, Bel advises an elderly woman who still feels guilty about how she coped with her husband’s death three years ago
It is often said that sadness is the other side of love; what is not so often acknowledged is that guilt is.
It hides there, never completely washed away by tears, knowing that if we had the time again, we might behave differently – be kinder, more patient, more considerate. Visit mom more often. Forgive the brother who wronged us for the last goodbye.
Your regrets and guilt are so common – in fact, I’ve received two other emails in the past two weeks proving the point.
Here is Mrs. VH, whose husband died last year after a long illness: “If only I had known it was his last day on earth. . . then I remembered in great detail the horrible events that led to his death, and my failures.
“I was so busy taking care of him that I forgot to make life fun for him, play his favorite music and entertain him. I was sometimes in a bad mood when he got up, even though he was prone to falling. . . ‘
Thought of the day
Significant events – whether serious, happy, or unhappy – do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring him to 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’s Mrs. JV, who mourns the father who died in a hospice last year and felt so guilty for having had enough and gone home, and now told me, “I live with the guilt because everything Daddy wanted to do was go home and I told him he couldn’t. Because I saw him on Friday and said “Until tomorrow”, but not. . . why did I not stay Or go back? Or at least go back? Why do I feel so bad now? ‘
I can’t give these two women an “answer” any more than I can; yet I try to talk to all three. The first thing to understand is that such futile regret is a destructive eating of your energy and must be controlled. As much as we all want to rewrite scripts for different parts of the past, we can’t.
Best to say, “Ouch, that was bad, it was a difficult time – and then again. . . (Followed by a good thought.)
No one can expect an entire personality to change simply because death is on the horizon.
If you are a lively person, you stay that way; if you have reservations about marriage, you cannot change difficulties for worship overnight. It doesn’t work like that.
The only way to “change” the past is to reverse your perception of it. That’s where focusing on the positive thoughts comes in. So Mrs. VH has to think consciously about all the care she has given her husband, and Mrs. JV has to make sure that she returns to her three children for which she left her father’s deathbed. In other words, love.
And I believe it is love that reminds you of your daughter’s visit to her father (which you must have organized) and to believe that it made him happy.
Who Thought Love Is Straightforward? Who can expect to become Florence Nightingale if you hate illness? Each of us can do our best – and be happy about it.
So please try to remember what was good in the past that you shared with your husband and watch out now. You can “learn to live again” by believing me when I call, “It’s never too late to be happy!”
I wish you a lot of fun with a new person who will help that process.
Do I have to burn my old family photos?
I know this is unusual, but it is something that annoys me and I wonder if you have any helpful thoughts.
I am 77 – mother of two sons (53 and 51) who both live far away. One has never been married; the other married a lady with two adult children. So he has two lovely step-grandchildren, which I see when I can.
My problem is this: I am an only child and my parents have long since died. I left a pile of family photos from both sides of the family, including great-grandparents.
After a good old solution during lock, now I have tins with photos that I no longer need or want but how can I delete them?
They are all part of my family and my history. There are a lot of me as a baby and young child but they just take up space which is a premium in my one bedroom bungalow. I can’t consider a bonfire.
My boys are not interested except that one of them might like some of my father’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 can of tobacco I found a telegram with all its details, so I can now investigate his military time because he would never talk about it.
He must have told a great story. Now I begin to realize that I wish I knew more.
As for the rest. . . what must we do? I expect others to have this dilemma as well.
Where do our stories go when we die? The most ordinary people can be extremely important to those who love them, but their stories still remain untold.
Some families cherish family history; I know my grown children are just as interested in my unfamiliar Liverpool background as they are in their father’s very different heritage. But of course, at some point, the interest, and the knowledge it evokes, will slowly and inevitably disappear.
I can’t help feeling a little sad to see old photo albums in junk stores and wish (sentimental maybe) that someone had held the great-grandmother’s vague relics.
I am actually surprised that only one of your sons is “maybe” interested in your father’s war memorabilia. My favorite Antiques Roadshow presenter is militaria expert Mark Smith because he seems to be stuck with an emotional wavelength when it comes to those long-dead soldiers, sailors, and crew.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail …
And you have proven yourself, through your sudden, late-blooming interest, that the past never completely dies.
In your place, I would go through all the photos and choose the very best from the generations you have. Type (and print) as much knowledge as you have for each. It may just be a name, but even a rough date is good.
It also takes a minute to look up some important things online that happened in Britain and the world when x was born or married. Record the facts in the captions. You know most about your own life, of course, so put it down.
Then grab a scrapbook and glue stick and put together an album. I would also make a special one for your father’s military career, put everything in a document and buy a good ‘memory box’ to store the document and memorabilia.
I would then offer these two treasures (because they are) to your married son as a gift and suggest that he keep them for his grandchildren. Who knows? Maybe they are historians once.
As for the rest, I think I would bury them (some people will complain about leaching chemicals in the soil) or burn them (the same people will say it’s pollution) to give you a sense of end. Those souls that have ever lived and breathed will be honored by the ritual, especially if you give them the blessing of a spoken goodbye.
And finally … A blessing that moved me to tears
I was delighted to see so many of you respond to last week’s ‘And Finally’ – the story of Dietrich Hanff, the German-Jewish refugee who came to England in 1939 and subsequently lost his entire family in concentration camps experienced.
While I was writing, I imagined Dieti with his wonderful foster parents, my friends Robin and Heather Tanner, in the beautiful little house they lived in until their deaths.
I don’t mind telling you I shed some tears – and more came when I read an email from one of Dieti’s students, who remembered him with love, respect, and gratitude. Even more so when I read the wonderful blessing to the entire Hanff family, sent by a Jewish reader deeply moved by the story.
Please contact Bel
Bel answers weekly readers’ questions about emotional and relationship problems.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or send an email to [email protected]
If desired, a pseudonym is used.
Bel reads all letters but regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
You sent stories about war and disease, along with frustration about modern “weedy lashes” (my sense!) And gratitude for that crucial perspective given by my “story of courage and tragedy.”
It all confirmed my conviction that most people want to be lifted up, instead of being constantly pushed down by negativity. I also feel that way – and that’s (by the way) why I prefer novels that catapult you into the lives of others.
Speaking of delighted, I’d like you to see my weekly videos on Mail’s new fully singing, dancing digital platform; your favorite newspaper with a whole bunch of glorious goodies added – like radio, TV, discussions, tutorial videos etc. I know a subscriber who still buys a printed newspaper but is also addicted to these extras!
My Tuesday contribution to the health section aims to make you smile, think and (hopefully) feel a little better.
My husband and I are making the movies so I welcome you to my house and will hopefully continue after closing.
Check out my page at mailplus.co.uk/tv/feel-well-with-bel to see how this week’s movie indirectly brings us back to that story of courage.