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Can you die without secrets?

QUESTION: My brother has cancer and doctors think he has only months to live. We have always been close and when he had a love affair, more than a decade ago, he told me about it. But his wife never found out and he stayed for the sake of their children. In recent years, he’s forged a much closer relationship with his wife as they’ve both struggled with his illness. He says he wants to wipe the slate clean by telling her about the affair and would like to see his ex-lover one last time with his wife’s permission. I think he’s crazy to jeopardise the closeness he’s established with his wife. He says he wants to die without secrets. What should I advise him?

ANSWER: It is hard to deny a dying man his final wishes, but I think you are quite right to counsel caution. At the moment, your brother is quite naturally focused on the way he wants to end his days, but he’s not giving proper thought to the way his wife wants to live after he dies.

The coffin of British musician George Melly is carried by pallbearers at his funeral in London in 2007. Melly's wife allowed his former paramours to visit him on his deathbed. Credit: REUTERS

He only has a few months to deal with the consequences of disclosure, while, if he reveals all, she will have many painful years to dwell on his love for another woman.

How could this benefit her? It’s one thing if she’s long been tormented by unanswered questions and would gain peace of mind from the revelations, but quite another if she treasures the current status quo.

In my experience, there are some who would always rather know the truth, however distressing, and those who believe that ignorance is bliss. Most women I know fall into the latter camp. If your sister-in-law belongs to the former category, then she may be able to deal with your brother’s secret. She may even welcome a chance to interrogate him on the subject while he is alive and come to some form of closure.

The aunt of a friend finally persuaded her husband of more than 30 years to confess to a three-year affair with his secretary after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

She told me she was “relieved”, because it meant she could finally and forcibly refute the suggestion she had been unreasonably paranoid and jealous about this woman. She said: “He broke down in tears and said he was sorry he had lied - and I cried, too, because I had waited 20 years for this apology.”

But the fact your sister-in-law didn’t tackle your brother on his affair a decade ago, when she surely had some inkling, suggests she did not want to know. Many spouses control their jealousy and anger by deciding, with ruthless discipline, not to pursue signs of an infidelity.

One woman I know is certain her husband had a couple of affairs when their children were little and says: “I can live with the probability, but would fall apart if faced with the certainty.”

As for your brother seeking his wife’s permission to see his old mistress - I know he’s dying, but has he gone stark raving mad, too?

Yes, I know the musician and writer George Melly’s wife allowed his former paramours to visit him on his deathbed.

But he was one of the last of life’s great bohemians - and even his spirited, free-thinking wife sounded a tad acid on the subject.

Unless your brother is running a household of similar latitude, he should keep schtum.

Having said that, I do have sympathy for his urge to see his one-time lover before he dies. If this was the great passion of his life, then it is understandable that he wants to see this woman and say goodbye.

However, he must understand he owes it to his wife and children to behave with sensitivity. He should only arrange a meeting if it can be conducted with discretion away from his home.

This will probably place a heavy burden on you, as I imagine he will want you to be his co-conspirator and go-between in the matter.

You will have to consider carefully if you can look his sister-in-law in the eye having abetted your brother in such a mission.

Yes, the two of you are close, but should he be embroiling you? You are the one who will have to deal with his grieving widow and children after his death.

Tough decisions must be made about the compassion you owe him versus the consideration you owe them. I would gently encourage him to make his own arrangements to meet his former lover or to ask a favour from a friend less embroiled in the family nexus.

If your brother still feels inclined to disclose his affair, you could strike a compromise. Why not tell him you will be the guardian of his secret and that if some suspicion or incriminating document crops up after his death, you will deal with questions honestly on his behalf?

He could leave a letter for those circumstances. This would allow you to show that he wanted to unburden himself before he died, but thought it would be selfish and irresponsible at the expense of the family’s stability.

You could say, truthfully, he put his wife’s and his children’s happiness before his peace of mind. That is surely a better legacy than lobbing a truth bombshell and leaving the bereaved to deal with the shrapnel? - Daily Mail

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