Category Archives: Grieving

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Honesty or selfishness: You be the judge

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My husband told me that he and my friend are attracted to each other — two days after my father died!

 Cary’s classic column from  FRIDAY, JUL 18, 2003

Dear Cary,

This past Tuesday, my father died. Although it was not unexpected, I loved him deeply and am dealing with a lot of grief. A close friend of mine has been living with me and my family for the past three or four months. Several years ago, she lived with us for a while, but eventually moved out when she (and my husband and I) became uncomfortable with the fact that she and my husband were attracted to each other. At that time, I assumed that a large part of the attraction, at least on my spouse’s part, was due to the fact that things were not good between us. For my friend, it was largely due to her then-single state.

Things are much better between us now than they were. However, very recently I thought I perceived that spark of attraction between them. There was too much going on (father dying, etc.) for me to give much thought to it. Two days after my father’s death, my husband confessed to me that he and my friend were, indeed, feeling an attraction. My friend is currently single again, which he somehow blamed as the source of the attraction. Apparently they talked about it and both agreed they were committed to their relationships with me and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. According to my husband, my friend felt strongly about not saying anything to me. My husband, however, felt that in the name of “honesty” he wanted me to know.

Why the fuck did he have to tell me this now? My dad just died. I’m up to my eyebrows in grief, and I feel like my spouse just dumped this problem in my lap. I feel like it’s his problem, and he tried to make it mine (and pretty much succeeded) so that he wouldn’t have to deal with this issue like an adult, by himself. I love this man, but sometimes he is the most self-absorbed son of a bitch on the planet. Of course, between kids, funeral arrangements, and the fact that I am highly confrontation-averse, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about this. It’s also taken me two days to process all of it, and figure out how I feel about it, but man, I know now, and I am mad as hell that he chose this time to dump this crap on me. Was this just heartfelt honesty or the actions of an adolescent trapped in a middle-aged male body?

Fuming, Grieving, and About to Boil Over

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Dear Fuming,

Honesty as a mask for thoughtlessness is a crock of shit. Don’t you just feel like punching him now?

So sorry to hear about your father.

Let me tell you what happened to me the other day, if I may, because it’s related to your story. My father is still living, bless his heart and prostate. Two days ago, as I was preparing dinner for a kitchen full of friends, the phone rang and it was my dad and he said, “Cary? I have some very disturbing news. You’re going to be in an auto accident.”

That was about the extent of the conversation. I thanked him for the news. The next day, my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was the slow guy in the right lane.

I tried to work it out in my head: My father believes in psychic phenomena — prophetic dreams, channeling the dead, etc. None of his predictions have ever come true, as far as I know, so I figured I don’t have much to worry about. He’s always said strange things. He’s getting older and stranger. If it was anybody else I’d dismiss it. But it was my dad, so it creeped me out.

Then I talked to my sister. Apparently, around the same time he called me, he called her and told her I’d been killed in an auto accident. After much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments she got him to explain that I was indeed killed in an auto accident, but it happened in a dream he had.

Is your husband 80 years old? Has he raised five kids, survived prostate cancer and saved the world for democracy? If so, maybe you’d cut him some slack. But he’s not 80, is he? He should know better.

We were raised on a bogus “honesty” standard. We need a new standard. How about: compassion. Think of the other person. What will the news do to her? Will it amuse her? Will it make her happier, better able to cope with life, stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident? For instance, if you tell someone how well you think she’s coping with a recent tragedy, that you admire her strength, that might make her feel better. Even if she thinks you’re lying, the words will have a good effect. I mean, you can give someone an honest massage or a dishonest massage and it’s still going to feel good.

Likewise, if you honestly punch somebody in the face, it hurts just as much as a dishonest punch.

Knowing that your husband is attracted to your friend is not really useful knowledge. Useful knowledge would be something like: What is he going to do?

Could you maybe get that straight with him? Tell him you don’t want to talk about your friend. Also tell him you don’t want him alone with her. It should be the three of you or nothing. Also tell him he needs to work on his timing. And then drop it. You don’t need to talk about it anymore. The only time he should mention it again is if he and your friend decide to run away together to Montana and start an organic farm. Then he should tell you, so you’ll know to pick the kids up at school before driving to Montana to kick the shit out of him.

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Does time heal all wounds?

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I have been through a lot of loss, but I can’t seem to get over losing her love.

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, JUL 14, 2004

Dear Cary,

At Christmas she left me, told me she had fallen out of love.
It has been half a year; I have dated, moved on, accepted that she is never coming back. I have taken other lovers, spent time with friends, done all the things you do to make peace with yourself, to accept that it is over and that she is never coming back.

She said she had fallen out of love; I later found out she had cheated and could not face up to me about it. I have no idea if I could accept that; I suspect that I couldn’t but that is not the main issue. I dream about her, about the times we shared, how loved I had felt.

My life has not been a pleasant one: orphaned, adopted by a very dysfunctional family. I found something that meant the world to me and then it went away. I know logically that it is for the best, no such thing as a good breakup, if it was good, you wouldn’t break up. I still find myself in tears when I run across her picture, or try to talk about the past with a friend. Five years of my life and it left a lot of tracks behind, it is not something I can avoid.

I was always under the impression that time healed all wounds, but I find myself with tears streaming down my face and I don’t know that there is a solution to this.
I survived my parents dying. I survived being in the Army and having to fight in a conflict I did not believe in. I survived my best friend committing suicide, but I can’t seem to heal past this.

When is it that this is supposed to stop? Is there something just broken inside of me?

Solo

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Dear Solo,

When people say time heals all wounds, they rarely mention the recommended dose. They don’t say, Time heals all wounds at a ratio of six months’ grieving for the first year of a relationship, with the period for each subsequent year diminishing on a curve determined by past experience and other concurrent psychological factors including recent traumatic events. They just say time heals all wounds and leave it at that. Which can raise your expectations unnecessarily.

Whatever you’re getting over always takes more time to get over than you think. First there’s this period where you’re willingly grieving; the incident is fresh in your mind and in the minds of others; people know you’ve been through something tough and they cut you some slack. You figure you need some time off. You take it. But at some point you think, OK, enough with that. I’m ready. I’m done. I’m cured. And then you try to get up and start living a normal life and it hits you again: There’s another wave of grief, and then another wave and another, and you can’t believe it. That’s the second phase, which is all about accepting that it’s not over until it’s over.

You mention some other losses in your life that you feel you handled better than this one. You say you survived these other things, but you can’t seem to beat this. Having survived these other things, it might seem that you ought to be able to beat this as well. But there’s another way to look at it. It could be that you never actually beat those past events or rose above them, but simply survived them. So they are still hurting you. Perhaps this breakup is sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If so, that’s not a dangerous thing necessarily. It just means it’s really time to come to grips with loss.

When you can no longer carry every burden like a man, when you can no longer soldier on, when you can no longer absorb every blow, then it’s time to begin a new phase of life in which you acknowledge the loss. You stop being a soldier and become a philosopher. Instead of battling, you look for meaning. You look for the connections. With compassion, you examine your wounds to see exactly how they happened, what hit you, and from what direction; where were you standing and why were you there? Were you ordered to be there or had you just wandered into the jungle? Were you on a mission? Was someone trying to kill you or was it an accident?

This, I think, is the true healing phase. It’s not time that’s doing it. It’s you. It takes time to get functional again. And then it takes even more time to fully interrogate yourself, to conduct your own incident investigation, to get at the truth.

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My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

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I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.

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My father was murdered by my former next-door neighbor — and I’m supposed to just get over it?

 I’m having a rough time; I’d like some justice and some peace.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 2, 2008

Dear Cary,

I am not sure where to start or even if I should be writing to you. I have been struggling with something, and at times I think that I have it beaten enough and that asking for help is just useless whining for attention. At other times, it rears up, and I think that it may overtake me.

Two years ago, my father was murdered. Someone wanted money for drugs, and he was beaten and left to die. A second person was involved. She helped plan the robbery, waited nearby and did nothing, though she knew my father was seriously hurt. She sent someone back in the house to rob him again, then covered up the murder from police. She and the murderer are in jail. I grew up next door to the murderer. I saw him beaten, heard him begging his father to stop, saw the delinquent he grew into and how he used people up, even before he was on drugs. My father helped him learn to read, and he took my father’s life. I did not know the girl who was involved. She is up for parole next year, when she will have served only a year in jail. She lied as she pleaded guilty this past spring, diminishing her role. The attorneys for our side acted as if I was lucky that they had worked out a deal and gotten her any time at all.

What I am trying to tell you is that I am very angry and in a lot of pain. I know this hurt other people, but I seem to have taken it the worst. I had a breakdown after my father died. In about two months, I slept about 30 hours. Sometimes I still don’t think that I will make it. Others seem more able to go on. They often say things about how he is in heaven. They tried to pretend that Jesus took him up right away and that he didn’t suffer, no matter that the coroner told me it took him hours to die. I know this is their defense mechanism, but sometimes it comes across as smugness.

I was the only one to speak at the hearing of the girl involved. No one else wanted to, and my brother, who was estranged from my father, had to be begged to even show up. One aunt said something like, “This is the world. They’re not Christians. They don’t care what I have to say,” but I wanted help. I spoke, but could barely get through it. There is something in me that almost obsessively focuses on painful things, where others seem to just as obsessively ignore them. I was diagnosed bipolar, but medicine seemed to rob me of any creativity or humor, so I went off it over a year ago. (Long-term use has also had bad side effects for two relatives.) I feel as if I can’t let the girl, who is up for parole next year, get out. I feel as if it is all up to me. I feel as if my father will be forgotten, unless I remember. I know people are tired of me crying, so I hide it when I can. I know I should do something constructive and keep busy. I know there is much worse suffering in the world. I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen. I cannot make peace. Sometimes I am not sure if I can keep going on without him. I feel as if I am serving a life sentence.

I just thought you would give me an outside opinion. These last two years are a long story that I have been struggling with.

Thank you for your time.

Anonymous

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Dear Anonymous,

I think I can suggest some things you can do that will help you. But I do not want to launch into that right away. A person who has been through what you have been through, you tell someone what you have been through and right off they launch into a set of prescriptions for you, and you know you’re not supposed to be angry, they’re only trying to help, but you feel shorted somehow. You were just telling your story. And they launch right into all this stuff you’re supposed to do to make you better … and by the way, why aren’t you better already, why are you taking this so hard? And you know you’re not supposed to want to punch the person because they’re just trying to help. But a prescription for action was not what you were asking for, not right away, anyway. You were asking, first of all, just to be heard.

So we sit a little and let it sink in. We sit before it and regard it and we begin to feel the gravity of it. And it makes us humble. We realize that whatever we say, it will just be one small part of a long process for you. We realize that you are in pain and we can’t make that pain go away. So we sit and sense the pain you are in, too. We just sit with it for a minute and it takes hold of us, too, and we begin to react to it with deep sadness and we realize that won’t do, either; you don’t need for us to collapse into tears over your situation. That’s not what you came here for, either.

So we just respond to you as a person, not overreaching or overreacting, not smugly knowing or overly optimistic. We take in your suffering, acknowledge it, be humble before it, admit that it is real.

We live with the past. We cannot change it. We just take it in. We take it in and mourn and grieve the tragedy. We take it in; we expand to contain it. In expanding to contain it, we grow stronger.

It doesn’t feel that way right away. It feels like it’s going to destroy us.

The grief alone will not destroy you. But you need a practice, a method, a tool kit. In this kit are certain things you know will work. For instance, a place you know you can always go to: a lakeside, a burrito joint, a street corner that uplifts you when the world is sitting heavily on your shoulders, a person you know who will always be supportive when you need it. You make a list of these persons and places and tack it up somewhere, and when things get bad, you look at your list and go to one of them. You take shelter.

There are many kinds of shelter.

What happened can’t be undone. But you can do things that get you through the worst parts. You can have a set of tools to get you through.

I have been lately writing about grief a lot and I have gotten some helpful letters from people. One letter yesterday mentioned tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion and relief. There is a very good chapter about this in the book “When Things Fall Apart,” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön. It was in this book that I first read about tonglen. The poet Allen Ginsberg taught a similar thing; he suggested that we breathe in the world’s ills and breathe out light and forgiveness and peace.

Someone also recently wrote to me about her mother, a Catholic mystic who saw Jesus everywhere, and used to travel to seek out his image, and after her mother died, she found that she was crying for everyone and everything, and this frightened her. She looked into her Catholic background and there found a name for this grief for the world: “tears of the faithful,” it is called, those tears we shed for the world’s suffering. (“The sorrows of the faithless are storms, which ravage everything, but the tears of the faithful are a quiet, gracious rain which helps the beautiful flowers of virtue to grow and bloom in the soul.”)

These practices do not cure history. But they help us acknowledge suffering and connect us to humanity. They help us get through the worst of it, and slowly we improve.

There are many other things one can do. There is no technique or practice that is not worth trying. If you had a whole list, you might find only one was useful and palatable. But that one might save your life. So I do suggest that you seek out methods that work for you, that you read in the literature of grief, that you turn nothing away, that you keep an open heart and an open mind. For instance, I myself have never done “grief work” in a formal sense, but I have a feeling it could be very powerful and very healing. You might consider it. I would investigate.

It has been a crazy week. I sometimes don’t know how I am going to get to the next sentence. Then something happens.

A mockingbird has begun to sing. I can smell the sea from here. I wait for these things.

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I lost my inheritance on a “technicality”

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 1, 2009

Due to an “error,” the stepdaughter gets everything.


Dear Cary,

It really is not about the money. My dad worked two and three jobs his whole life and ended up with a relatively small estate to distribute among his eight kids and his stepdaughter. He died first. Then his wife died. My brother took her into his home and his beautiful, loving family helped her die a better death than tied screaming to a hospital bed, which is where she was.

Now the estate is being settled and due to a technicality, an error in his wife’s will, all of the proceeds are being given to the stepdaughter, even though my dad and his wife’s wills stated that all proceeds will be shared among all of the children. We are all asked to sign a paper that we relinquish all claims to the estate and accept a token amount from the stepdaughter.

I can’t bring myself to sign it. Mostly I feel like it is a disrespect of my dad and his whole life and an unethical act. I feel like if I sign this paper and accept this insulting amount of money, I am going against his wishes and it’s just plain wrong. Please believe me that the amount of money is so small as to be negligible, even if we got the full amount that the will instructed. So it really is not about the money. I know people often say that and it really IS about the money. But the money feels more symbolic to me than anything.

I don’t know what to do. Is it Buddhism that says when you don’t know what to do, do nothing? I try to live an ethical life with my actions in line with my beliefs. (Although I don’t have the guts to be a tax resistor.)

This resistance to relinquishing the claim feels like it comes from a very deep place inside, a big no to being reasonable. I have no interest at all in suing or going to court or hiring a lawyer. I just do not want to sign a paper that feels wrong to me. I don’t even know if it will hold up the distribution process or what. I don’t care. I guess I should care because some of my sisters are in extremely bad financial positions and the small amount would be a big amount to them.

This whole thing feels like a mocking twist of fate — the Cinderella story gone south. The selfish stepsister gets the prince and fortune. The good sisters and brothers get sent out in a blizzard with no bread crumbs to lead them home. The bad guys win. I have mixed up many folkloric themes but you get my drift.

I love your column and appreciate any thoughts you can share with me, Cary. Thank you very much for your work.

Sister Left Out in the Cold

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Dear Sister Left Out in the Cold,

When an “error in the will” or a “technicality” causes one heir to benefit to the exclusion of all the others, doesn’t it make you wonder what actually happened? Do you feel satisfied with the explanation that it was just a “technicality,” an “error in the will”? I don’t think I would feel satisfied with such an explanation. So I do think you should see a lawyer — not to fight this necessarily, just to get a clear understanding of what happened.

Did someone fail to file something by a deadline? Was some language the wrong language? Was something mistyped? Was something misfiled? What exactly was this “technicality”?

In my book, there’s another word for “technicalities.” That word is “law.” “Technicalities” are what the law is made of: specific, detailed, exacting requirements. Lawyers are supposed to take care of all these “technicalities” so that the wishes of the dead are honored.

When these requirements are not carried out, and that failure creates an unfair advantage for one party to the detriment of the others, that doesn’t really sound like a “technicality” to me. It sounds more like a “screwing.”

Isn’t that really what’s going on here? A screwing?

Isn’t that really why you’re upset? There was a shared understanding and a clear intent, as spelled out in two people’s wills, about what should happen. Then an entirely different thing happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it benefits one party to the detriment of all the others.

And you’re being very polite about this.

As heirs, I guess we’re supposed to honor the dead with our piety and humility and acceptance. That’s what’s underneath this, at least in part, emotionally speaking, isn’t it?

But do we really honor the dead by letting a “technicality” corrupt what they wished for?

If everyone agrees that this “technicality” is unfair, that the estate was supposed to be distributed equally, then perhaps you draw up a document stating that the stepdaughter promises, upon the settling of the estate, to distribute the proceeds to all the children, as is the intent as understood by all of you. If she’s willing to do this, then maybe you know that it’s mainly fate that seems bent on screwing you. Whereas if she clings to the notion that this “error,” this “technicality,” is what rules, then perhaps you come to understand that it was not a technicality at all.

At the very least, you deserve to know what happened.

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It may be something truly random and innocent, the fault of no one. But then what we’re talking about is incompetence. You’re being screwed by fate and incompetence. OK, at least you know. So what’s worse, to be screwed by somebody who knows he’s screwing you, or to be screwed by incompetence itself, by somebody who doesn’t even know he’s screwing you — by somebody who, in turn, is no doubt being royally screwed by somebody else and hasn’t even felt it yet?

I can’t decide. It’s so hard to pick. Maybe it depends on how good-looking he is.

Damn. I’m getting worked up now, too.

I’m getting worked up because words like “technicality” and “error in the will” are the costumery of scoundrels. I’m getting worked up because the law can be a beautiful instrument for justice and should not be used for obfuscation or to justify the unjustifiable. I’m getting worked up because we ought always, as citizens, be alert to the manifold and dazzling ways that people will use the law to blind us, to confuse us, to frighten us into submission, to remind us of our subservience before the masters of the law, to remind us that we are not really free citizens in the face of the law but servants from whom only obedience is expected, and that as children of parents we ought to be only meek and grateful for whatever passes to us, and never question the law or the lawyers and their “technicalities” and “errors.”

I’m getting worked up because use of the law to hide the truth reminds us that torture, in one universe, is what those who want to carry it out say it is, and that legality, for those who want to break the law, is whatever they say it is, and that what’s right, despite the manifestly stated wishes of all involved, is what the lawyers say is right, because they are in command of all the “technicalities.”

It stinks. You’re getting screwed and it stinks and you deserve to see the face of whoever or whatever is screwing you. Whether that face be the face of fateful incompetence, of greed, of selfishness, of covertly hostile maneuvering, of brilliant cunning, or of accident, of bureaucratic bungling, of unconscious wishes surfacing as error, whatever: You deserve to see the face of whatever is screwing you.

So find a good lawyer, one who is on your side, show the lawyer the facts, and don’t leave the office until you yourself understand what happened.

Then at least you know. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is healing. At least, by knowing the facts, we reconcile ourselves to the world of scoundrels and bungling and simple, blasted fate.

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I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

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My thoughts of the past are tormented by the present!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.


Dear Cary,

I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.

This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.

How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?

I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.

Tormented by the Present

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Dear Tormented,

Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.

So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.

Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.

For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.

If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.

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I’m still grieving over my childhood home

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Dear Cary,

It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.

Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.

The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut,  the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.

Missing My Home

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Dear Missing My Home,

The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.

But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.

I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?

I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.

FranceAd2015Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.

If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.

And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.

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I won’t grovel for my mother-in-law!

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Cary’s classic column from

After all I’ve been through, I snapped. I don’t want to apologize, but I want my family back.


Dear Cary,

In the past three years, I have had a great deal of loss. My father, both grandmothers and my 36-year-old brother died. My mother had breast cancer and I had a miscarriage. Plus, two of our family pets passed. It has been a great deal to absorb, especially when the onslaught of loss kept going and going.

When a family member grew ill, or near the end, I relied on my mother-in-law to fly in to help my husband with our kids. She is retired, well off, and visited us often. Most visits with her tended to involve her taking us out for meals and taking us shopping. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I appreciated all the gifts and meals out as a diversion from our otherwise tight budget. Holidays were over the top; she even took our family on two Mexican vacations. We didn’t ask for money, or trips, but we did accept them gratefully.

When my last family member grew ill, I traveled across the country and my mother-in law came to stay with my family. The trip ended up being longer than originally planned because I decided to stay for the funeral. When I asked my mother-in-law to change her plans and stay one more day, she said she had a dentist appointment to attend. Furthermore, she asked if the funeral date could be changed or could someone else bring the ashes home. I was aghast. My grandmother’s funeral didn’t take precedence over a dentist appointment?

When I called my husband later that night, he told me that his mother had been concerned over our finances. She was urging him to look for a better job and asking when I was returning to work. She had been talking finances with him the whole time I had been gone, knowing full well that I handle the money in our family. She talked about feeling unappreciated. She had never brought up any of these topics with me, and to do so while I was gone and in such a dire emotional place, just seemed wildly inappropriate to me. I think she was acting needy when I was in a time of actual need.

In the end, my husband took time off work and sent his mother home in time for her appointment. On a layover, on the way home from the funeral, I called my in-laws and told them that I was canceling our next planned vacation to Disneyland. In part, I was angry over my losses and didn’t feel like “business as usual” after hearing her bemoan our finances. I thought, “Fine, if you’re suddenly worried about my money then I won’t spend any more of yours.” I have since returned to work and it’s been the silent (or martyr) treatment from her for almost a year now.

After licking my many wounds for many months, I realize that what family I have left is small and that I want to be close again, at the very least for the sake of my kids. I am at an impasse with my mother-in-law that I’d like to be resolved, but I don’t feel like groveling or apologizing. I miss our old relationship, when we were close and things were fun, but realize that ship has sailed. What should I do?

Mother of All Mother-in-Law Issues

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Dear Mother of all Mother-in-Law Issues,

What should you do?

Grovel.

Seriously.

Grovel and apologize.

It will feel great.

It’s not that the groveling and apologizing will feel great. But when you finally become willing to grovel and apologize, you will have achieved a spiritual victory. You will be free of your wounded pride.

Before you feel free of your pride, you need to grieve. If you feel you can’t grieve because your mother-in-law has withdrawn her support, then you may well feel angry. Your pride may be hurt. If you are used to being the one who handles the money and someone comes in and starts giving advice, your pride is hurt. When our pride is hurt we want to strike out. When we feel threatened we want to strike out.

But you need to take care of yourself. You have “licked your wounds” but you have not allowed your grief the kindness of time. You may feel that grieving is a luxury, that before you can grieve, somebody has to step in and take care of things and make sure everything is running smoothly. So when your mother-in-law tried to take care of her own needs, you felt panic. How can you grieve, how can you get through this, if there isn’t someone making sure everything runs smoothly?

Well, as you know, death changes all that. Death doesn’t wait for us to clean up the house. It comes and plunges us into grief and certain things just have to wait.

The way we live our lives today, we don’t plan for difficulty. When overwhelming feelings arrive, as well they will, when grief arrives, and it will, when sadness comes, and it will, when the life cycle turns, we haven’t made room for it. We haven’t prepared the house for this new visitor.

So forgive those around you, and accept your own grief. Maybe the house will get messy. Maybe the kids won’t be perfectly taken care of. Maybe a little sheen will come off the glossy finish. That’s OK. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have some compassion for yourself. You’ve been hurt. You’ve been through hell. You’ve been through hell and haven’t given yourself credit. Possibly others haven’t given you credit either. So give yourself credit. Let yourself feel this. You’ve been beaten down. People you love have been taken from you. You lost a baby, for heaven’s sake! Life has taken loved ones from you. You’ve been torn apart. Let yourself feel this. Give yourself love.

How to repair your feelings toward your mother-in-law? One way is to list all the things you are grateful to your mother-in-law for. List all the things she has done for you, the gifts, the visits, the dinners. Just list all the things you are grateful for. Think of what you would miss if she were gone. And thank her for all these things.

When your mother-in-law said she had to go back, isn’t it possible that she lied, that it wasn’t about the dentist, that she had emotional reasons of her own for getting back home? People do things to meet their own needs. They don’t necessarily understand consciously what all their needs are, or how they’re meeting them, so they say things like they have a dental appointment because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. So sometimes it comes out sounding pretty lame. And offensive. But it’s very hard in most families for someone to just say what they’re feeling.

And perhaps you need to grovel — not for your mother-in-law but for yourself. Maybe something in you is calling you to grovel, for it is an oft-observed truth that in what we most resist lies a deep attraction. So go ahead and get down on the ground and feel the ground. Grovel and let out your grief. Let yourself do this. A part of you wants to. Your prideful ego wants to maintain its appearance as the completely together entity who’s in charge of the finances and knows what to do in every instance. But it is your prideful ego that stands between you and relief. So let your ego blab on about its resentments and its anger and its refusal to grovel and refusal to apologize.

You don’t need to be afraid. Death comes. The ego doesn’t want to die or accept the fact of death, and so it stands between us and true grieving. In reality we decay. We lose people. Things fall apart. We leave the stage. We make room for more. That’s how it goes. Every life is full of constant leaving. It tears us apart but that’s how it is.

Just let it go, all this stuff. Let yourself break down. Let yourself fall to your knees. You’ve had enough. You’ve held it all together long enough. Let it go.

Let your tears fall. Let your tears fall into the ocean of tears that have fallen for all the departed for all the years that we have been saying goodbye to souls old and young. Let your tears fall into the river of souls. Let yourself fall to your knees and grieve for all the souls that have passed by us. Empty yourself of this grief. Empty yourself. Empty yourself and make room for all the new souls coming into the world.

Welcome all the new souls coming into the world. Make room for the life to come.

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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