By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
When a loved one dies, he or she is usually remembered in glowing terms: what a wonderful mother, what a loving husband, what a generous person! Even though this may not be entirely true, family members tend to go along with comforting posthumous assessments – until that day when they stumble on secrets never intended for their eyes. When that happens, those praises may take on a bitter irony.
After a death, someone usually cleans out personal belongings in the house or office. Since few of us anticipate such a scene, we often “temporarily” tuck away things in dresser drawers, boxes in the attic, at work, or in other private places that seem safe from view. Sometimes these little stashes contain things we never want to share. When discovered, they can bring very unpleasant surprises, and an already overwhelming grief becomes a complicated mix of emotions. Anger can overtake sadness and may be joined by feelings of shame, rejection and isolation.
After her father’s death, a young woman cleaned out her father’s desk and discovered pictures and divorce papers from a previous marriage. She never knew that her father was married before – what a shock! She wondered if she had stepbrothers or sisters. How would she find out? Did she want to find out? Were there people from her father’s past life who should know about the death? And what should she do with this information? Should she share it with her mother and siblings or keep it to herself, perpetuating the secret? She even wondered what other secrets he may have kept from the family. This daughter felt angry and hurt when she realized that the most trusted person in her life lied about his past.
There was the case of a mother who had told her children they had a sibling who had died at birth. After the mother’s death, the family discovered that this child, born with severe brain damage, was living in an institution in another state. The revelation led to serious family conflict between those who wanted to visit her and those who wanted nothing to do with her. Some were angry with their mother, others more forgiving, but all of them were shocked and confused.
There are numerous examples of secrets revealed after a death, and some are even more shattering. There are many stories of deceased “beloved husbands and fathers” – until the discovery of secret affairs, illegitimate children, or even records of molesting their own children. In every case, the question arises: Should I tell…? Should you tell frail and aging parents who idolized the offender? Should you shatter the memory of children who loved their father? And if you don’t tell, how can you suppress your own anger when you hear the deceased’s virtues extolled?
If you share the secrets with other family members, you may lighten your burden but you will do so by passing along some of your pain, anger, and confusion. Consider how they might react. Will their feelings be comforting, or will they be angry with you for spoiling their memories of the deceased? There is no easy answer to this problem.
The office is a common hiding place for secrets. After the death of a co-worker, colleagues must be cautious when gathering up personal belongings for the family. One employee, going through a desk of his officemate, discovered the deceased’s membership in a sex club and subscriptions to several sexual magazines. Another discovered love letters, complete with revealing photos, hidden behind a desk drawer. Computer files may disclose secrets as well; reviewing e-mail files, one worker discovered her officemate had developed risky sexual relationships with several men on the internet.
A word for officemates when a colleague dies: before the family comes to retrieve personal belongings, think about what you would do if you came upon sensitive material. Would you hand it over? Destroy it? Are there legal ramifications of such an action? If confronted with this dilemma, seek advice from your company’s legal department or human resources officer. When troubling retrieved materials must be turned over to the family, consider preparing them for what could be a shock. You might even offer them the option “to see or not to see,” and ask their permission to discard the material in question.
How people respond will vary with their personal circumstances, but it is certain that postmortem secrets complicate one’s grief. Reading about this may have reminded you of wrestling with such questions in your own family. Since this is not a rare occurrence, you would be one of many. And if you dealt with a distressing secret, it is likely that your sadness quickly turned to anger. If you still suffer from an unexpected revelation, it may help to find a grief group where you can share this sad story. There may be a trusted friend, minister, or therapist with whom you can share this information. Consider writing the deceased a letter, putting into words everything you would want to say if he or she were still alive. Or you might express your feelings with inscriptions on a helium balloon, take it outside and let it go. This works for two reasons: it’s a decision to let your anger go, and the sight of it rising to the sky is a symbolic release.
Another approach is to embrace and mourn the good memories from this relationship while working to let the negative feelings go. What might you do with this experience that could help others – and there are others out there? Perhaps, with assistance, you could start a support group that creates a safe environment for others to share their burdens. If writing helps you channel your feelings, craft an article or story that might offer hope and encouragement to another. Turning your complicated grief into something constructive will help you heal. But whatever you do, don’t keep your pain boiling inside of you. It’s part of your grief, and it needs to be discharged. Sharing your burden halves it.
It is sad that human begins are capable of dishonesty and duplicity, and it is devastating to discover such qualities in someone you love. But, in the end, you are still the same person you were before, and the dishonesty of your loved one had nothing to do with you. It is your grief that needs to be experienced and expressed, and your life that needs to move on.
© 2004. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.