Dear Prudence: My wife of 43 years died an excruciating death from lung cancer in April. We were childless, which I thought was a sorrow to both of us, but I was wrong. We are simple people who never consulted a doctor or fertility clinic about the problem. Two days before she died, my wife said God was punishing her, not for her lifetime smoking habit, as I expected, but because she had taken birth control pills for 20 years without my knowledge. Worse, she had had two abortions without telling me! I told her I forgave her, but that’s not really true. I’m still stunned beyond belief, mourning the children we never had who could have been such a joy and comfort. The only person I could confide in was our parish priest, who told me that she’s burning in hell and will do so for all eternity. I really don’t think that’s true, as she was otherwise a very good woman, but now I don’t feel welcome at church as well. I think this will haunt me until the end of my days. Any advice you could give me would be very much appreciated.
Prudence says: The cruelty of your wife’s behavior, both during your marriage and as she faced her own end, is hard to fathom. The death of a beloved spouse of more than four decades is going to upend anyone’s world. But of course you feel undone by her deathbed confession. You say your wife was “a very good woman.” I’m sure you could unroll an endless list of her genuinely generous and loving acts. But she also engaged in a profound and continuous betrayal of you, then compounded this by not taking her secret to the grave. I’m not much of an afterlife person, but I agree that your priest’s response was gratuitous and mean. He needed to help you sort out your new understanding of your marriage, and to compassionately attend to you, the living. If you find solace in your faith, ask among your friends for a parish whose priest has a generous spirit. I also urge you to find a counseling center that specializes in bereavement. You will be able to talk to a therapist who will help you work through both your anger and loss. I hope you have friends and family who are a comfort, and paid or volunteer work that is a satisfaction. Even though it may be hard to believe now, with help and time, you will be able to heal.
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