Dear Prudence

Deathbed Betrayal

Just before she died, my wife confessed to me why we never had children.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Got a burning question for Prudie? She’ll be online here on Slate to chat with readers each Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.

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! Of course this completely blew me out of the water. 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 think of to 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 and I feel helpless to counteract it. Any advice you could give me would be very much appreciated.


Dear Devastated,
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 that she deceived you for the entirety of her reproductive years, and further that she aborted the children for whom you must have prayed. 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 has likely dealt with patients who have had all sorts of shocking pre- and post-mortem discoveries, and who will help you work through both your anger and loss. Your perfectly natural feelings of hurt and helplessness are fresh and raw. 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.


Dear Prudence,
My 5-year-old son recently had a play date at the house of a kindergarten friend of his. When my wife picked him up, the friend’s mother explained that the two boys had gotten dirty playing in the sprinkler, and so she had given him a bath. My jaw dropped when I found out. I quizzed my son and apparently no other adults were present, no cameras were seen, and she did not touch his privates. He had fun and did not seem bothered by the bath. Nevertheless, I am upset that a stranger would strip my child and bathe him without first checking with us. My wife thinks that this can be explained as a cultural difference as the friend’s parents are immigrants, and that the mother was trying to be respectful. I want to put the kibosh on the relationship. What would you suggest?


Dear Upset,
You didn’t mention that you also checked your son for any telltale scars that would indicate that he’d had a kidney extracted for sale on the black market. This is the story of two dirty little boys who took a bath and emerged as two clean little boys. That’s it, so I suggest you simply be grateful this mother didn’t send your son home covered in mud and grass stains. I know, Dad, that horrible things do happen and when they do they make the news and freak people out. But what doesn’t make the news are the endless benign daily interactions that fortunately make up the lives of most of the people around you. I hope that your grilling your son about his happy play date didn’t lead your boy to feel he’d done something wrong or that something wrong was done to him. What you must do is check your anxiety and your impulse to put fear into your child. Of course he needs to know about private parts and inappropriate touching. But since nothing untoward happened, how sad and confusing for your son if a bath at a classmate’s house ends a promising friendship. You may think that you can’t be too careful, but you’re demonstrating that you can.


Dear Prudence,
My 10-year-old stepdaughter has started to ask about my family, why she doesn’t know them, etc. She knows that both of my parents are dead but not how or why. She knows I have an older brother, but that she’ll likely never meet him. The other stepkids are younger than her, but in time will question the same things. The sad truth is that my parents were violently abusive toward me and my brother, and died in a murder-suicide committed by my mother when I was 12. My brother is in prison because of chronic drug use. I have never lied to the kids, but this isn’t PG information. What do I say? When are they old enough for the truth?

—Sordid Past

Dear Sordid,
That you are a loving stepparent and a highly functioning person is a tribute to you, and I hope some day your stepchildren will appreciate what you overcame, and how you broke the chain of abuse. I agree with you that the story of your parents’ death is deeply upsetting information about people your stepdaughter doesn’t know, and she’s too young to hear it. In several years she will be old enough for the whole story, but there’s no reason to burden her now. You want to express to your stepdaughter that the subject of your family is not verboten and that you appreciate her wanting to know more about your life. You can tell her that members of your family had something called mental illness. Because they didn’t go to doctors and get help, they hurt themselves and others, and your childhood was very hard. You can say that your parents died in a way that makes you sad to talk about, and if it’s OK, you’d rather tell her more about it in a few years when she’ll understand better. Likely that will satisfy her. As for your brother, your stepdaughter probably is old enough to know the basics of drug addiction. You can tell her that because of his addiction, he broke the law to try to get drugs, and now he’s in jail. Then you can hug her and tell her that one of the things that makes you feel lucky is that you have such a happy family now.


Dear Prudence, 
I’m 21 years old and my sister is 24. We are both home temporarily for the summer. The other night we were smoking some weed and looking through our childhood memory boxes—can you get more wholesome? We were in the basement far away from anyone else. Then Mother Dearest stomped down and told us “how disappointed” and how “disrespected” she felt that we were smoking weed. Without even waiting for a response, she stalked away as if she had just discovered us murdering a kitten. Later Sis and I noticed our bag containing $40 worth of really good weed was gone. Turns out Mother Dearest flushed it down the toilet. We live in Colorado where weed is legal, we paid for it with our own money, and we are adults. We don’t feel respected as responsible, autonomous individuals who make their own choices. She refuses to pay us back. How do we get Mother Dearest to see that what she did was wrong?

—No, Mother Dearest

Dear No,
I understand that marijuana is legal in your home state, but it turns out to be irrelevant if you are living with your own personal weed whacker. You may think you were far away from anyone else, but obviously the aroma of your wholesome activity wafted up the stairs and did nothing to mellow out your mother. Your assertions about your autonomous adulthood made me laugh because you two are hiding out in the basement to get a little high. Most adults who don’t want their mother knowing about their activities find a way not to be sleeping in their childhood bedrooms. If you are under your mother’s roof for the summer, it’s not unreasonable for her to expect you to follow her rules. Sure she should have just told you “no marijuana in the house” instead of flushing your stash. But I love your plan to get reimbursed. That should work as soon as you compensate your mother for the room, board, laundry service, etc., she’s providing you this summer. In case you didn’t know, your mother doesn’t like drugs—so don’t take them in her non-autonomous basement. Oh, and as a mother myself, let me pass on this tip: Drop the “Dearest.”


Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

More Dear Prudence Columns

Ruh Roh!: I caught my landlord in flagrante with his dog.”
Mommy’s Little Bigot: My young daughter won’t stop spouting racist comments.”
Regrets of a Spanking Sitter: I was cruel to the kid I once baby-sat, and now the guilt is tormenting me.”
Don’t Come Around Here No More: My fiancé won’t give up in bed until he thinks he’s pleased me multiple times.”

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Beginner’s Schtup: In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman whose husband is painfully inexperienced in bed.”
Dead Ringer: In a live chat, Prudie advises a man unnerved by a deceased man who looks exactly like him.”
Touchy Feely: In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a 6-year-old daughter who can’t stop playing with herself.”
Baby’s on Us: In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a woman using her friends to raise money for her fertility treatments.”

Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.