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BEL MOONEY: I exhumed my wife’s ashes, but didn’t tell my son or daughter

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People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou (U.S. writer and activist, 1928-2014)

Dear Bel,

This may be one of the most unusual requests for advice you have ever received.

Since 2001, I’ve lived in Spain. I have two married ‘children’ living in the UK, but no other relations or family.

In January 2000, I retired, and my then wife and myself planned to move to Spain, visiting a few times and finally deciding on the town where I now live. 

But four months after my retirement, my wife died of cancer and was cremated and buried in a plot in the UK — where the ashes of my mother and mother-in-law are interred.

Afterwards, I decided to make the move to Spain anyway and begin a new life alone, as my wife and I had intended.

Towards the end of 2001, as the time for my move drew closer, I felt I couldn’t leave her behind — not after all our shared plans and dreams.

So I made the decision to have her ashes exhumed and bring them with me to Spain to what would have been our retirement home together. 

In retrospect, I don’t think I was thinking rationally and so, for fear of upsetting my family, told no one what I had done.

I have now remarried and my wife’s ashes are still with me here in Spain.

I keep them in a special place and have never told my current wife what I did.

But now I feel much guilt over the secret I have kept ever since — and I don’t know what to do.

I have thought about scattering her ashes privately here in Spain and, when I die, having my ashes scattered here also, keeping the whole matter secret.

But it worries me so very much as I grow older.

Although their visits to the grave have diminished considerably over the years, it has always upset me if either my son or daughter tell me they have visited the grave and laid flowers on Mother’s Day.

Shall I continue to tell no one — or risk much upset and ‘confess’ what I did?

HUGH 

We all make such plans for the future — investing much emotional energy in hopes and dreams that may never be fulfilled.

I have a superstitious fear of even saying to my husband, ‘Next year we’ll do X or Y’ — because it tempts fate. That’s why I find your letter so moving — and admire the courage that took you to Spain anyway, to bring to fruition the plan you and your late wife had made together.

Your explanation of why you disinterred her ashes must be understood, but to do this without telling your offspring? Yes, that was wrong. This is why it’s important to realise you must put the matter right, before it’s too late.

All of us have it in our power to right long-ago wrongs, even if only by an effort of imagination.

I certainly don’t think you need to confess to the rest of the family. What would be the point? They would be angry and hurt, for sure, and, at this stage in your life, you have no time for such negative feelings. What’s more, you have only to imagine your second wife finding the ashes in the event of your sudden death to realise there is no time to lose.

This has gone on long enough. You must act very soon, with love and — yes — penitence.

The dilemma is so particular that I can only tell you what I would do in the circumstances, while urging you to check the legal restrictions on the treatment of ashes before deciding what exactly you should do.

A great believer in the power of ritual, I suggest two things to redeem the past and heal yourself for the future.

First, I would honour the love you and your wife shared and the plans you made, by taking a portion of her ashes (I hope you can bear to do this) from the whole, tipping them into an envelope, then going quietly to a spot where you remember she was happy in Spain — perhaps a view she loved. Then I would scatter (or bury) those ashes there, telling her aloud that you still rejoice in the life you shared and remember her with love.

After that, I would fly to England for a family visit, then go alone to that plot — after checking with the churchwarden or other official — carrying a small rose (or other plant) from a garden centre and a trowel. I would kneel to plant it, and quietly tip the remaining ashes into the hole. Firm the ground and water it, too — all the while repeating some of the words you spoke at home in Spain.

Nobody need know. Nobody should know.

But you will be at peace in the knowledge that when next one of your children visits the grave, they will no longer be deceived. And all shall be well. 

Dear Bel

Forty-seven years after leaving my West Country grammar school, I was invited to a reunion.

Among the organising committee names was the girl who made my school life a misery with her verbal and physical bullying. This girl made it her mission in life to mock my Cockney accent, humiliate me and hit me when I tried to resist her taunting.

I planned to attend the reunion, but as it neared, I just couldn’t go through with it. The thought of meeting that girl after all those years made my heart sink.

Since first hearing of the reunion, suppressed feelings have flooded to the surface, and I just can’t get out of my head the unhappiness of my early years at secondary school. I have so much to be grateful for — a wonderful husband, children and grandchildren — but am still haunted by that bullying. I know it has affected my personality.

Photographs of the school reunion were shared online, and the bullying girl still wore the supercilious smirk I remember. I wish I’d never been contacted, so all that unhappiness could have stayed in the past.

But now I just can’t get it out of my mind and feel tortured. Part of me also wishes I had gone to the reunion and confronted her, but the thought of that terrifies me, and then I just feel pathetic. Can you offer advice?

BARBARA

Reading sparks creative thoughts — this time, it was The Storyteller’s Secret by the American inspirational speaker Carmine Gallo.

About how successful people turn passions into performance, the book noted that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, said people should follow ‘what makes our heart sing’.

I pondered this. It doesn’t mean ‘What do I like?’ or ‘What’s my favourite hobby?’ Enjoyment isn’t necessarily joy. Lying awake at 3am (as so often these days), these first three ‘heart-songs’ bounced into my head:

1. Our home. The rooms and all my treasured things bring me peace and delight. I don’t want to leave it.

2. The sound of the grandchildren calling my new nickname, ‘Bibi’ (apart from when they’re whining, that is!). Bibi is Swahili for ‘old lady’ or granny — and this new stage in life is so precious.

3. My adored Maltese dog, Bonnie. Yes, she died in November 2015, but just thinking about that pure, unconditional love we shared still brings me joy. (Incidentally, my book on this subject, Goodbye Pet & See You In Heaven, is just in paperback).

Of course, there are other things. My heart sings when I visit one of our great cathedrals, when I hear my parents laugh, when I look at trees, when I see my husband looking ‘Easy Rider’ on the Harley-Davidson. A patriot, I feel that uplift at great national occasions. But those very first thoughts are more revealing.

And when I talked about this on the phone with my best friend Gaynor, she simply said: ‘I can tell you honestly, our friendship makes my heart sing.’ Naturally, my own heart took to the microphone just hearing those sweet words!

I can see that for a football fan, the winning goal in a crucial match will spark sheer ecstasy. For a farmer, it might be a good crop.

This is a good exercise for everybody! Jot down three things that make your heart sing. I’d love to know them.

Being a victim of bullying in childhood can have serious long-term effects, which is why this mental health issue matters so much.

People should realise that it’s no good telling the bullied to ‘just stand up for yourself’. Literature from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Lord Of The Flies reminds us that bullying is a part of the human condition: the strong preying on the weak.

I, too, was bullied in my first year at grammar school in Liverpool and told nobody, but still remember things that were said, and the cruelty of being sent to Coventry by girls I thought friends.

A few years ago, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed the long-term effects of bullying. Victims were shown to be at higher risk of every depressive and anxiety disorder.

They were four times as likely to develop anxiety in adulthood, and had a five-times greater risk of depression as well as ten times the likelihood of suicidal thoughts or actions and 15 times the likelihood of developing a panic disorder.

Such figures reinforce your feeling that the reunion triggered memories of a very real trauma.

Researchers concluded that adult mental health struggles such as the one you are experiencing are an effect of the bullying and not of pre-existing conditions that made you vulnerable to that horrible girl in the first place.

What to do now? Take a look at the website StandAgainstViolence.co.uk and perhaps you might get involved in their work.

Even if you only make a donation, you will feel you have helped today’s young people.

You may also find the following online article about the lifetime impact of bullying useful: mentalhelpnet/articles/the-long-term-effects -of-bullying

I’m not sure you need to go down the therapy route. Reading around the subject will help you make up your mind. Consider the good fortune and life that you have. Then reflect that the girl who made your life such a misery might, in fact, be deeply unhappy now.

I would tell myself every day that she is less blessed than you are — and that you feel sorry for her.

This mantra may help to shift your mindset.

Look in the mirror and tell yourself you’re glad that whatever she did is over, but partly led to you being the kind of woman who is so loved.

Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week. Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email bel.mooney@dailymail.co.uk. A pseudonym will be used if you wish. Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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