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BEL MOONEY: How can we get through Christmas without our daughter?

Dear Bel,  

Every year my wife and I spent hours festooning our house inside and out with Christmas decorations and lights.

Our objective every year was to create a joyful Christmas for our daughter Sarah, 47, who suffered accumulating disabilities from birth which, in recent years, meant that, while she lived independently with her dog, she needed seven-day care.

Thought of the day 

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that we forever begin.

From Begin by Brendan Kennelly (Irish poet and professor, 1936-2021)

Every four weeks she came to live with us for a week and our lives were full of great affection. Sarah loved Christmas and stayed with us for two to three weeks over the festive period before returning home.

On January 15 this year she died suddenly, found by her carer at 9am. It was the result of a diabetic coma. I cannot describe our shock and grief.

Unfortunately, there were then horrendous problems to do with Sarah’s carers and the actual cause of death — only just clarified. This has left a massive void in our lives. I am now 76 and my wife is 72, and we are finding it impossible to comprehend a normal life. We dread Christmas without our Sarah.

We have a son of 49 and two grandsons. One has just joined the Navy as a submariner and the other is at university.

Our son has recently started a new relationship after two unpleasant divorces and we are so pleased for him. We’re very happy with how they are all living their lives. But we are desperately afraid of Christmas.

Sarah loved every second — the lights, decorations, presents, helping with lunch, eating turkey. We cannot think about those times without being tearful. Sarah’s dog, with her for 11 years, is now seriously ill and needs surgery. It’s possible she may not survive until Christmas. We are so sad and broken. What shall we do?

BRIAN  

This week Bel Mooney advises a reader who doesn’t know how to get through Christmas without his daughter

The word ‘heart-breaking’ is often overused (like ‘tragic’, ‘trauma’ and ‘mental health issues’) but here we have a letter that deserves that description.

It made me weep, even after 16 years as an advice columnist. I have no doubt at all that every single person reading this will join me in sending the deepest sympathy to you and your wife for the sad loss of your beloved daughter and the ongoing pain which has prompted you to write.

I wish I could get in my car and just come to visit you both.

It would be wrong for me to try to ‘mend’ your brokenness with easy phrases like ‘This too will pass’. The tough reality is that some sorrows never ‘pass’ — no, we carry them in our hearts for ever.

And many actually cherish that truth, because the experience has carried us to a place from which there is no returning, as when a ratchet moves onwards a notch, in one direction only.

The only ‘consolation’ is that deep grief is a testimony to great, pure love, two sides of the same coin, and we would not wish love to be eased into a kind of forgetting. The joy you, Sarah and your wife all shared is untouchable, shining for ever — as eternally beautiful, terrible and out of reach as the stars.

But what can you do about Christmas? I do wish you could see your son and grandsons. It’s clear you wouldn’t want to feel a burden; on the other hand, you are family so I hope you feel able to talk to your son about your sorrow and this fear of a desperately unhappy Christmas.

Sometimes we bottle feelings up because we don’t want to be a nuisance — but I believe you need somebody to take care of you. Or are there friends you could visit on the day? A church service to share with others?

Try to make some plans, but don’t worry about those decorations. In your place I’d buy a very small tree, put it in a corner with some fairy lights and Sarah’s picture — almost like a shrine — and tell Sarah that it is for her. She would want that.

And what of this poor, precious little dog? You have looked after her for Sarah, with a devotion to match the love she felt for your daughter, but now, at her great age, she may be joining her mistress. Why should we not believe such things? I do.

Let the little dog know she is loved, please don’t subject her to too much veterinary intervention at her age, and try with all your hearts to imagine her waggy spirit fusing with that of your daughter, in a peace beyond our understanding. You and your wife have endured a terrible year and I wish you all the strength possible to cope with this coming season.

Of course, there will be many tears because your burden is so heavy. Release them and reach out for help wherever you can.

And I hope and pray that later you will go to a rescue centre and find a needy little dog to take care of and make you smile.

Dogs do that for us. Sarah and her faithful four-legged companion have been your teachers and would want the lessons of love to continue, filling a part of the void. Please let me know.   

Surely my nephew can be forgiven 

Dear Bel

My nephew was married for 14 years — a brilliant dad to his two children (12 and six) and a hard-working, supportive husband. But gradually they got into a lot of debt while his wife continued to live beyond their means.

In time, this put a strain on their marriage. We had no idea how bad things were until one morning my nephew was taken away, with his computer, in front of his two children. It transpired he had been downloading inappropriate pictures of children.

To say we were horrified is an understatement. Of course, the horror was much worse for his wife, her parents and the children.

Up to then I’d been very involved in looking after the children because both sets of grandparents live away. I loved them dearly and couldn’t bear to see them suffer.

Initially, I was very supportive of my nephew’s wife, but knew the strains she’d helped put on the marriage. I understood her bitterness and anger, but not why she vowed that the children would never be allowed to see their father again.

Since then, we’ve not been allowed any contact, not even with the grandparents.

My nephew served a short prison sentence and since release hasn’t put a foot wrong. He’s tried hard (through the courts) to gain visiting rights — to no avail.

In so many cases where a dad has been missing from the life of their child (for whatever reason) that child reaches adulthood still feeling the loss from years ago. I want my nephew’s children to understand that he did not walk out on them and hasn’t been allowed back.

I feel we all deserve a second chance in life. He was a good father and husband and what he did was incomprehensible. Am I right in thinking he should be given a second chance?

His older child has now reached adulthood and I’m tempted to try to reach him. Can you help me see sense?

MARY

As I become older, I view fewer and fewer issues in black and white terms. Some are crystal clear, of course, but your question may puzzle many readers and even start debates. As a Christian, I believe in the forgiveness of sins — but to be forgiven requires sincere repentance.

   

More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…

You will know in your heart whether your nephew is truly sorry — and I suspect he is. There are those who would judge his crime so despicable that, sorry or not, he deserves everything he got.

And there are some cases when I’d answer you by suggesting some people’s crimes are so terrible they most emphatically should not ‘be given a second chance’.

Here? Not so. It surely doesn’t matter now whether your nephew’s ex-wife added to the strains which led to that appalling brain fog which made him act so horribly out of character.

He did something most people find repulsive. He caused his whole family to experience shock, shame and horror, and then to go on struggling with all those feelings. It’s easy to imagine how you, a loving aunt, felt at the time and since; so very hard and sad, and I really do sympathise.

Now, your nephew has done his time and led a good life since then and wants to see his children.

Of course, you understandably wish they could get to know their father now, and recognise that he’s not irredeemably wicked.

I would think that, since you were close to the children when they were young, it would be perfectly acceptable for you to reach out to each of them (assuming you can find out emails or real addresses) once the age of 18 is reached, just to open channels.

When they are adults it is up to them whether they wish to make contact with their father again.

Like you, I hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive him — but if they can’t, sadly there is nothing you can do.

And finally…We all have reasons to be cheerful

Appreciative reader Eileen writes: ‘Thank you so much for your wise words. I love the quotes you choose and put them with ‘And Finally’ into a scrap book, to reread when I need to.’

Contact Bel 

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.

That pleases me so much. Sometimes I repeat a quotation forgetfully, but sometimes, as this week, I do so on purpose. I’ve been reading obituaries of the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, who died of complications because of dementia a month ago. Magically, an anthology of modern Irish poetry (Windharp, ed Niall MacMonagle) on my bedside pile fell open at Kennelly’s marvellous, positive poem Begin. It’s my most beloved of all his work.

Immediately, I was transported back to the summer of 1967 when I attended the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, on the beautiful west coast of Ireland. How it rained! My faithful boyfriend waited in our chilly tent while I went to lectures and (I admit) flirted with other boys.

Brendan Kennelly was one of the teachers and signed his book for me as a gift: ‘To Bel, belle of Sligo — Slainte.’ I certainly did have ‘good health’ because at one wild party I disappeared with Brendan and (as my excited letter to a school friend records), ‘we had a lovely, passionate kiss’.

Handsome Kennelly was 30 and I was 20. After the course ended, my boyfriend drove me and two other students to Dublin where Brendan entertained us in his beautiful study at Trinity College. Plenty of sherry was consumed but there were no more kisses. What a shame.

It’s a jolly memory and Begin is a gloriously optimistic poem. My bedside anthology tells an optimistic anecdote to gladden and teach the heart. In 1997, as a guest on an American chat show, Brendan Kennelly was asked by host Gay Byrne what was the lowest point in his life. He replied, ‘I don’t think like that. I like that old Kerry saying, “Once you wake up in the morning and stick your old leg out, you should be grateful.” ’

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