dilemmas

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This week's problem:

Tessa's husband died four years ago, leaving her childless. Though they know she's still heartbroken, her parents have organised the celebration of their golden wedding on the eve of the anniversary of his death, assuming Tessa will cope as usual. Her siblings think she should have "got over" it by now. Tessa can neither bear to go nor to refuse, as her parents are old and frail. What should she do?

When children are small, it's parents who care for them, feed them, dress them, drive them to the doctor when they feel ill. When parents themselves become incapable, the roles reverse and the children may find themselves drying their parents' tears and even wiping their bottoms.

In the years between, the caring is usually shared between both generations. But in Tessa's case, both she and her parents are looking for some good parenting from each other - a disastrous situation.

Part of the trouble may be that Tessa's parents have a completely different view of death from Tessa's. Theirs was probably a post-war marriage (this year is the year of golden weddings); they're used to death on a scale greater than Tessa has ever known, and at present their friends must be starting to drop off their perches like leaves off trees. And yet at the same time, they're completely clueless when it comes to experiencing the agonising death of a partner.

Having never experienced such a loss, I'm pretty clueless myself, but unlike Tessa's parents I do believe friends who've been through this particular mill when they say that, apart from the death of a child, it's the most painful experience anyone can go through.

I do believe them when they tell me that anniversaries are agony, that the build-up to the day is fraught with depression and anxiety, that the relief when it's over is enormous.

And yet even if Tessa's parents lack empathy, it seems pretty extraordinary that they could bear to stage an event which would hurt their child so much. Good parents spend their time trying to help and heal their children; not putting the boot in where it hurts most.

Good parents put their children's feelings first, at least while they're capable, and if this pair are up to ordering champagne, sausage rolls and a general knees-up to celebrate their long marriage, they should be equally capable of organising a date which doesn't make their daughter feel that her emotions have been totally invalidated.

Most people would agree that Tessa's brothers and sisters must be inhuman to expect her to have "got over" an event like her husband's death. Just because her parents are dear, quavering, shaky, old things doesn't mean that they shouldn't be equally condemned.

She could of course turn up, stiff upper lip at the ready. But I think Tessa should write and say that unless they're prepared to change the date, no way will she be raising a glass that day. That way her feelings will be expressed loud and clear, and perhaps then her family might realise that she still needs their love and support instead of the indifference they're offering at the moment.

readers' responses

Tessa should go to her parents' golden wedding celebration. Do not her comments indicate a streak of jealousy? I say this from experience, having been a widower for 17 years this month. My wife and I were childhood sweethearts and even now when I see elderly couples walking arm-in-arm or hand-in-hand the green-eyed monster shows itself. And what would her late husband have her do? If he were anything like my wife, he would say you are lucky to have parents surviving to see a golden wedding and you should join in the festivities in spite of mixed feelings. After all, good families are worth the earth.

Claude Verrier, Clwyd

Tessa must stand up to her parents. If they cannot change the date of their wedding anniversary celebration, Tessa should not attend and tell them the reason.

She describes her parents as "frail". Physically, maybe. But it seems to me that they are pretty robust mentally to inflict this dilemma on their daughter. It looks as though this is not an isolated incident of mental cruelty, but a pattern. "They know I mind but believe I'll cope because I always do." It's time to stop "coping" and let them know you are grieving.

Nicolas Werner, Brighton

Tessa ought to state very clearly why she does not wish to be present at her parents' golden anniversary celebration. There comes a time after bereavement when one just cannot cope any more with putting on a brave face, going along with conversation, remaining silent when insensitive people talk of "getting over it" and giving in to emotional blackmail.

There is a curious feeling of guilt experienced by the bereaved, part of which is the belief that one must not project one's emotions on to others and put pressure on them. Tessa is concerned because she does not wish her sadness to spoil the family celebrations and this is worrying her. I think the time has come for her, consciously and seriously, to think only of herself and let the family think what they like. Her parents may be getting old, but presumably they love their daughter and would not want her to say any more than she has already.

I write from experience, having lost two husbands, the first in the war and the second three and a half years ago. One just does not "get over" a bereavement and then pack it away in a box and ignore it. One has to try to accept the loss and live with it and this is incredibly difficult. I hope that Tessa's family can be persuaded to give her the support she really needs. I wish her well and hope that some day the sun will shine again for her. I know how she feels.

Yvonne Heward, Lincolnshire

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I share a flat with my cousin. Although we are close, our upbringings were completely different and this is the first time I have spent a lot of time with her. I suspect she is anorexic and she displays some classic symptoms - an obsession with food (although she hardly ever eats), constantly reading recipe books (but never making any of the recipes), always suffering from either constipation or diarrhoea, indulging in obsessive exercise and she is over-interested in what I'm eating. She looks dreadful - beyond slim, her hair has lost all shine, and her skin has a grey pallor. I believe the anorexia to be a symptom of much greater problems in her relationships and work, but her parents and boyfriend seem reluctant to confront her about her anorexia or help her with her deep-rooted problems. How can I help her to stop destroying herself before my eyes? How can I help someone who has yet to recognise she has a problem?

Yours sincerely,

Andrew

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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