Cold comfort for a husband haunted by unfaithfulness

Poor Richard, married for 30 years and blissfully happy - or so he thought - had lost his wife. Three months after her death, a 'friend' thought he could be snapped out of his grief by being told that she had been having an affair for the past 10 years.

His friends were advising him to 'remember the good times', but he had found letters revealing the address of his wife's lover, and was paralysed with grief.

And what did Independent readers suggest? Like Richard's platitudinous friends, they, too, advised him to 'remember the good times,' to 'forgive and forget'. Some even suggested 'palling up' with the lover, and 'talking about the happy times - after all, he needs comfort and affection at this sad time, just as Richard does'.

Frankly, my mind boggled. There was Don Lafferty of Horsham, West Sussex, who blithely advised: 'There is no mileage in digging up the past. Just let sleeping felines lie. He is not the first person to discover a devious woman, and he will not be the last.' Charming]

Then there was the delightful Jim from Petersfield, Hampshire. 'Richard should think he has been very lucky,' he wrote. 'He had a long and happy life with his wife. How many men can truthfully say that? Now that his wife is no longer with him, he is 'distressed', 'heartbroken' - that is pathetic] Grief at the breakdown of a marriage, or on the death of a spouse, is not 'mourning for the departed' but simply wallowing in self-pity.' Ouch.

But some were more sympathetic - like Emily Marbach, of London, who tried to reassure Richard that his wife had indeed loved him because of the care she had taken to conceal the affair from him.

And there was Rachel, from Hampshire, who wrote: 'I read Richard's letter with tears in my eyes. How could anyone be so cruel as to divulge information about his wife's affair after she had died? Please tell Richard that, having been married for 29 years, I have had more than one affair - and it has been the affairs, one lasting six years, that have kept our marriage intact and happy.

'My husband doesn't know. Tell Richard that sometimes not all needs are satisfied in a relationship (and I'm not putting sex at the top of the list). In my case, the need to be loved and to seek constant reassurance is very strong . . . Richard's wife did love him, and they were happy.'

Rachel's letter is oddly reassuring; and though her reaction was tearful rather than furious, she was one of the few readers to highlight the treacherous role played by Richard's 'friend'. I feel that Richard, like many grieving people, needs a healthy focus for some understandable rage. The 'friend' deserves at least a bitter letter. And surely Richard should be turning some of the fury he is inflicting on himself, on to the other man; he doesn't have to give him a punch on the nose - just acknowledge the rage, perhaps in an angry letter.

There is something unnatural about the emotional map Richard describes: palpably, the anger is missing. If he could bring himself to meet the man and find out what really went on between him and his wife, some of his fears might be allayed. Who knows, the other man might tell him how she had refused to leave her husband because she loved him so much.

Richard might, however, find out something dreadfully painful. Alec Vans of Newnham, Gloucestershire, touched on this issue: 'Try to get to know this other man and see if you can talk to him about what your wife was missing from you - something quite simple, like more exciting sex?'

But it is the possibility of such a bitterly hurtful revelation that surely deters the damaged Richard from risking any kind of confrontation. And the suggestion from Lovel Richardson, of Newcastle upon Tyne, is kind but surely unrealistic: 'Since your wife did not divorce you and go off with this other man, that suggests that she loved both of you and needed both of you. If both you and he can accept that, and you are both missing her, perhaps you could befriend one another.'

But how could Richard ever be friends with his wife's lover? Only after - never before - the primitive emotions of jealousy, rage and loss have been fully expressed.

It was really only Chris Walker of Hammersmith, London, who picked up on the anger. 'Richard should allow himself to do two things: to feel angry - even, yes, with his late wife, as well as her lover; and to re-seize the initiative in his own life. Eventually he may find himself in touch with emotional truth, free from illusion and able to live forward.'

If that involves meeting his wife's lover, painfully raking over the past and experiencing the anger and betrayal he feels, it may in the end be worth it. Only when he is able to cope with the bad things can he start to remember the good.

Dear Virginia

Pen for your thoughts

At last, perhaps, we will see the end of those terrible battery hen farms. I feel very strongly about animal welfare and was delighted to read this week that the RSPCA supports the view that hens are utterly miserable kept in cages. But now I have a problem closer to home.

Next month is my six-year-old son's birthday and he has his heart set on getting a rabbit he saw in a pet shop. It would have to live in a cage; we certainly couldn't keep a dog or a cat. Last night he was in floods of tears when I told him it would be cruel and that I would find it hard to bear. I had a long talk with his godmother, who virtually persuaded me that if the rabbit were kept in a big cage, there would be nothing wrong with it. She said that when she was young, and an only child like my son, her rabbit was her best friend and she still remembers it with love. How can I resolve this? Is it more cruel to keep a caged rabbit than deny my son the chance to love an animal?

Sincerely, Oonagh