Dear Virginia,

My mother died a month ago, leaving her possessions to my brother and me. As I had an old computer, I took her newer one. But I've been knocked sideways by reading some of her emails to friends. It seems she worried about me all the time, and was desperately hurt when I told her some home truths. I had no idea it affected her so much. I worry that in some way I caused her death. I can't live with myself. Can you give me any comfort?

Yours, Bette

The traffic of criticism between parents and children is usually one way. You, as a child, are allowed to tell your parents how ghastly you find them, but they're not allowed to tell you how frightful you are. They were responsible for your birth, and it's understandable that you should blame them for some of your misfortunes. It was ever thus. No doubt your own mother occasionally turned on her parents and told them a few unpleasant things about themselves. Their parents in their turn told their parents, and so on.

I'm not saying that blaming your parents is to be encouraged, but it is par for the course. It's not for nothing that the old proverb runs: "A mother's place is in the wrong."

Your mother knew this. Yes, she was hurt, but rather than hurt you by telling you how upset she felt, she exposed her anguish to her friends, privately. She didn't want you to know. She wanted you to see her as secure, stable and, up to a point, invulnerable. This was her choice. And perhaps she was mistaken. Because when one's young it's very difficult to imagine that any of one's hurtful or critical remarks have the power to hurt other people, because you often feel so powerless and worthless yourself. And it's always astonishing to learn that this is not the case.

But your mother would be mortified if she knew you were upset by her emails. She shielded you from her pain, because she loved you. Remember: they were probably written when she was suffering most and needed an outlet for her misery.

You're suffering, like most people after a bereavement, from guilt, a feeling that you were somehow responsible. Of course you weren't. No one dies of being told a few home truths. The fact that you were so amazed to read these emails makes me assume that you were on affectionate terms at her death.

Ring a couple of her friends and talk about the situation. They may be able to give you information that would lessen your guilt. Delete every email she wrote, and don't let an old family rift destroy you. If your children do the same to you – and they might – you will probably behave exactly as your mum did.

Readers say...

Go easy on yourself

Bette's note took me back 15 years to when my mother died. I found letters she'd written to herself detailing how sad she was, and so sad at leaving her four girls. It knocked me for six. Her composed, almost "cheerful", attitude to her cancer had irritated me so much that once we had a terrible argument; I accused her of being too accepting, even "enjoying" the attention. When I read her notes I was racked with guilt. But I worked out that we write down our deepest thoughts to offload the ones we don't want to share with loved ones. I do that now. Don't add misplaced guilt to your sadness at losing your mum. Be kind to yourself and let this go.

Virginia, By email


Don't play the victim

Why do you need to play the victim here? Now you feel guilty you caused her death, you're seeking comfort. You chose to read your mother's private emails. What we say in emails to or conversations with friends is only a reflection of where we are at the time. So you can turn this into a drama to attract pity for yourself: or you can see it as an opportunity to learn something about yourself. More practically, write a letter/email to your mother and say all the things you'd like to say to her if you could. Then throw it away – and move on.

Kay Gale , By email


Hard truths do hurt

Bette, you didn't tell your mother "hard truths" just for the sake of it; you did it because you thought it was for the best and it needed to be said. Don't worry; your mother would have respected you for it. Sure, what you said would have been unpleasant for her – that's what happens with hard truths. What's the alternative? To lie, or deliver platitudes? You wouldn't have been the daughter your mother loved so much if you had gone through life like that.

Mike Hockney, Newcastle upon Tyne


What did you expect?

Oh dear. What did you expect when you took your mother's computer? It seems you were rather naive. You cannot now unsay what you said to your mother, but what you can do is take full responsibility for what you say to others and, perhaps as importantly, how you say it.

Elisabeth, York