I’m sure it’s happened to many of you, so I doubt if it’s hard to imagine. You’ve almost hit your limit after a day of cleaning out your deceased loved one’s closet. Knee deep in old shoe boxes and worn out from reminiscing over every skirt, shirt and pair of slacks you reach into the back of an almost empty closet and pull out a dusty old box. Curiously you open it up and inside you find a box of personal treasures. What does it contain? Old photos? Cards? Letters? A diary? Unsure of what you’ve stumbled upon you begin to sort through but it doesn’t take you long to realize – this stuff is personal.
You, my friend, have stumbled upon an ethical and emotional quagmire. To read or not to read – what to do, what to do?
Some of you may think there’s a clear cut answer. In fact you may be screaming at your computer saying “What?!? No!” or “Yes, of course!”. But in the world of grief, emotion and relationships, nothing is black and white and, as is often the case, the answer to this riddle totally depends.
Backing up, this discussion originally started when a reader, who is also a mental health professional, emailed us about a woman who found her mother’s diary a year after her death. The reader had already asked several of his colleagues who gave him a myriad of answers and he thought it would be a great to extend the question to the WYG community. We completely agreed and subsequently posted the question for our Facebook grief friends to answer. To no one’s surprise, we got a variety of responses.
As we said there’s no clear cut answer, so I’m sorry if you’ve found yourself here in hopes of being told what to do. I would however like to congratulate you on your restraint; you’re patience puts those (like me) who devoured every syllable of every word they could find to shame. In all seriousness, we can’t answer this question for you but I do think we can help you make a decision. Together with our readers, we’d like to offer you perspectives and considerations on both sides of the debate.
Of Note: For the most part, this is not an ethical discussion about respecting the privacy of the dead. Perhaps it should be, but I’m far too realistic to believe ethics overpower emotion for our community at large.
Not to Read:
1. Respect for Privacy:
Okay now that I just said I wasn’t going to focus on the ethics, let’s discuss the privacy of the dead. Most people don’t plan on dying…even when they’re dying… so they have no reason to go around hiding or destroying private items. We don’t assume things like private letters and journals will become public record until we die at the age of 100 and by then no one will care.
When we asked this question there were many people who said they would be mortified to know someone might see their private thoughts. Here’s one of the comments we received on Facebook:
“What should be considered is whether or not the diary/journal is private to your loved one or that individual. If it was private before their death then it should contine to be private after. I would say no you shouldn’t read it. I think many people fear what others may think of them after death. The thought of someone reading your personal feelings or beliefs after you’re gone without having an opportunity to discuss or explain them is unfair. [But] I suppose it depends on the relationship you have with the individual.”
This brings to mind a conversation I just had with someone about their end of life wishes. This individual didn’t have many stipulations but did express to me that, should anything happen to him, he did not want anyone going through his laptop. His computer, like most of ours, is home to old email, social media accounts, and personal writing. Like our Facebook commenter, he did not like the idea of being embarrassed or misconstrued after his death.
If you’ve found a private item, consider what you’ve found and the person it belonged to. Was this item presumably not created with the knowledge it would someday be shared with you? Was your loved one a fairly private person? If the answer to either of these is “yes” then I would advise you to think long and hard about what your loved one would have wanted. Here is a post about making decisions on your loved one’s behalf. Yes, you are in effect making a decision for them.
A Facebook reader explains her decision making process:
“My mom was always writing me notes — she left notes around the house explaining where certain items came from — and I am pretty sure she wrote her journals hoping I would read them one day. She may have even told me that but I don’t remember. So I skimmed the most recent one after she died last year and was glad she only said nice things about me. I might read the others one day. But based on our relationship and what she said, I am sure she was fine with me reading them.”
2. Cause for Confusion:
Although many people choose to read their loved one’s personal items in hopes of gaining deeper connection and greater understanding, they actually risk becoming more confused. People have secrets and there’s a good chance your loved one kept theirs in that box you just unearthed from the closet or on their hard drive or in their secret safety deposit box.
Your loved one’s private items may contain information that changes how you see them and, unfortunately, they aren’t around to help you understand. Nor can they explain themselves or repair their image – the information is 100% up for interpretation. Consider whether your loved one was concerned about their image, it may be wise to respect their right to preserve that image in death.
How do you want to remember your loved one? Are you concerned you might find something that changes your perception? Are you wise enough to put this into context if you do? One of our Facebook readers suggests if you look at private items to do so, “…with an open mind. Look at everything from all possible angles.” We think this is pretty solid advice.
3. Whatever you see…you can’t un-see:
Everyone has bad days – days when you fight with people you love; days when you feel depressed or despondent; days when you’re agitated and can only see negative. On these days you feel range of emotions and one way or another you need to deal with them. For some, their go-to coping mechanism is writing about their feelings in a journal or diary. Others choose to vent to a friend or family member. When you have good days though, you don’t need these same coping mechanisms. Instead you might try and enjoy the moment or, knowing no one’s feelings will be hurt, you might tell your loved ones you are happy and you love them.
One Facebook reader comments:
“I would say no. I have written so much about what I was feeling “in the moment” that I would never want my loved ones to read because it could be misconstrued or taken out of context.”
I recall a night at my grandmother’s house when I was probably no older than 13. Her house was full of old treasures so I was prone to snooping in her closets and behind closed doors. One night I uncovered a box of my mother’s old letters. My mother was still alive at the time but I was 13 and thought my parents we’re two dimensional drones put on this earth to feed and clothe me. I was certain their lives were quite perfect, contended in the joys of carrying out their parental duties. I never imagined they had private thoughts or complex feelings so why would I not have read their letters.
Once I started reading, I immediately wished I hadn’t. Not because the letters contained anything scandalous, but because they clued me into a reality my parents had clearly shielded me from. Bills, stress, six kids, bills, bills – my mother seemed sad and depressed. Here I thought she was blissfully happy, just counting down the days until she could drop another $300 at the Limited Two because her teenage daughter needed a new back to school wardrobe. In reality my mom was just an adult with adult problems but my 13 year old brain had no context for grown-up reality.
Your grieving brain may have difficulty putting your loved one’s feelings and emotions into context and, again, they are not around to help you understand. Your loved one may have said bad, sad or mad things in the heat of the moment. Just remember, many people only journal long enough to get through the hard times or they only write to their Aunt Sally when their desperate and really need help. Hopefully, if you choose to read your loved one’s private thoughts you will do so with an open mind. Still, you may end up feeling hurt, sad, mad, confused, or betrayed. You have been forewarned.
One Facebook reader suggests the following:
“I think I would feel compelled to read it. Might I be hurt by some “in the moment” feelings? Sure but I think, the benefits would outweigh that risk. Perhaps discussing certain entries with a loved one if I needed support.”
1. To connect with our loved ones:
Some of my most treasured items are letters written by my mother. Seeing her handwriting and reading her words makes me feel connected to her. I yearn to have more of these connections so I can say without question if I found a stack of letters, a diary or a journal I would binge read them like there’s no tomorrow. In fact I’ve written a post about reading my mother’s treatment journal,which wasn’t exactly something she cared about keeping private but it was definitely personal. Reading this journal was brutal but I felt distant from my mother during her diagnosis and illness and I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what she experienced.
Oftentimes, letters and diaries written during a certain period in our loved one’s life helps us to connect with who they were at 20, 30, or 45. This helps us to connect with them in a capacity we wouldn’t previously have understood. For example, I would LOVE to find a journal or letter from when my mother was 32 like me. What did she think as a young wife and mother? What kept her awake at night? What were her priorities? I would pay one million dollars to know.
2. To Find Answers:
It’s not uncommon to have questions about a loved one after their death. Perhaps you have existing questions or perhaps these questions have surfaced since their death. About a year ago I spoke with the mother of a boy who died in his young 20s in a car accident. She said at his funeral she met so many people she never knew he knew and learned so many things about the young man he was; things he would never have thought to share with his mother. People often learn new things about their loved one after their death and it makes them wonder, “what else didn’t I know?” So what do they do? They look for clues.
Another way you might seek answers is in the form of guidance and advice for your own life. You may look to your loved one’s personal correspondence in an effort to glean information about their outlook on being parent or a spouse; religion or philosophy; or values and morals. This is normal but I caution you in taking advice they never meant to give. This kind of advice is two dimensional and you have no idea what they would tell you to do if they knew the subtleties and complexities of your specific situation.
Old journals and letters, especially those that are really old, are like snapshots in time. There’s a reason why the National Archives are crammed full of old letters and one of the most important pieces of historical literature is the diary of a teenage girl. Writing from the past enlightens and illustrates a time we can only conjure in our imagination. One Facebook reader shares:
“I found my mother’s diary after she passed. I contemplated reading it, but decided to start it one day. I couldn’t put it down…. It had sooo much history in it. Family history of so many people that had passed on…many that I remembered from my childhood. I am so glad I read it. It made me feel like I got a chance to know my mother on a different level.”
Have you found a journal, diary, or letter belonging to your deceased loved one? What did you decide to do? Share your thoughts below. Then go ahead and subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox.