The topic of secrets has been a grief theme for me lately. It started about a month ago when I watched the documentary Stories We Tell. Haven’t seen it? No fear, the preview is below.
Basically, the gist of the documentary is this (and don’t worry, no spoilers): Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress, lost her mom when she was 11 years old. After her mom’s death, a secret came out. Not a little secret, not a benign secret, but a holy-crap-if-this-is-true-it-is-a-pretty-humongous-deal secret. Sarah learned that her dad may not be her biological father. And so unfolds her story, her family’s story, and her mother's story. A story that raises questions about what happens when we loose someone and suddenly learn something about them that we never knew. What do we do with that? Who do share it with? What does it mean for our grief and for our memories of the person we have lost?
Shortly after watching Stories We Tell, I started reading Michael Hainey’s book, After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story. Hainey’s father died when he was just 6 years old. The circumstances of the death were never totally clear – he died on the street, so the story went. It wasn’t until Hainey was an adult that he began to question the story. Seeing inconsistencies in the obituaries, Hainey began asking questions: contacting old friends, colleagues, family. The more people he talked to the clearer it became that a secret had been kept regarding his father’s death, a secret that was now more than 30 years old and that no one wanted to tell. The grief secret theme continued: should we learn secrets, should we share them, what does it mean for our grief when the secrets have been told?
In searching for answers one of Hainey’s father’s friends, who knew the truth but refused to tell him, said, “I don’t think you have the right to know”. When Hainey questions this, the friend says, “If you had a son and thirty years from now he went to one of your friends and wanted to know details about your life, would you want your friend to tell him?”. “Yes”, Hainey replies. “I don’t think so . . .” his friend counters. Who knows who is right, and who knows if it matters? As Sarah Polley says, describing her own documentary, "I am interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down".
Learning a Secret After a Death
Here is the thing about secrets after a death: sometimes we seek the truth and sometimes the truth smacks us in the face, whether we want it or not. Michael Hainey spent years investigating. Other grievers I have known uncovered secrets accidentally, while sorting through belongings or talking to old friends.
Sometimes these secrets are wonderful and positive things, but more often they are not. Many times these secrets are complicated, but no matter what they change our story and our understanding of the past. In case you are feeling alone in learning a secret after someone you love died, these are just a handful of the secrets we commonly hear people learning of after a death:
The person who died . . .
- Was in debt.
- Was having or had an affair.
- Had a previous marriage they kept secret.
- Had other children that were kept a secret.
- Was struggling with drugs or alcohol.
- Had a problem with gambling.
- Had been aware they were sick/dying and not told anyone.
- Had not shared their true sexual orientation or gender identity.
And these are just a few of the common ones. There are many, many more.
Though I have been thinking about secrets a lot lately, though I know this issue impacts so many grieving, I hesitated to write this post because there is just so much to say. It's complicated. Each type of secret brings up its own issues. Each relationship is different, each family is different, each person’s grief is different, and the impact of each secret is different. So what is worth saying?
First, let’s start with the common questions that come up when there is a secret (or possible secret) revealed.
- If I suspect a secret, should I seek out the truth?
- Should I tell others?
- If I will tell others, who specifically?
- If I won’t tell others, how will this impact me?
I know I know, you aren’t concerned with the list of questions, you want to know the answers to those questions! Sadly it isn’t that simple. I can’t give you answers to any of these questions, but we can talk through some considerations.
If I suspect a secret, should I seek out the truth?
This one is very personal. Much like questions we get about reading a loved one’s diary or letters after their death, the decision comes down to you. The important thing is to think through the ramifications. This can be hard, because we can’t predict the future of even our own feelings, but try to imagine if you truly want to know the answer, no matter what the answer is. Also consider that you may, once knowing the secret, feel your loved one would not have wanted you to know, even after their death. Will that be okay for you? There are pros and cons for either decision, the key is to weigh them based on your own situation.
Should I tell others?
If you have learned information, you may need to share it for certain practical or legal reasons. In other cases you may feel a weight on your shoulders about whether you should share this information. If you are struggling with this issue of telling others I highly recommend watching Stories We Tell and reading After Visiting Friends, as both Polley and Hainey grapple with this decision. If you do decide to offer the information to others, you can approach it as just that: an offer. You always have the option to share that you have learned something about your loved one that had been kept a secret and ask the other person if they want you to share. It may be hard to imagine someone declining that, but if you are honest that it may be difficult information to hear some people may pass on learning the secret.
If I will tell others, who specifically?
This comes up most frequently around telling a spouse, parents and children. There is a fear of shattering the image someone had of their loved one. There is no easy answer and each situation will be different, based on both circumstances and people. But again here you can defer to giving someone the option to learn the information. Also, if multiple people already know the secret it may be helpful to discuss together, as conflict can arise when families disagree about when and how to share a secret with others.
If I won’t tell others, how will this impact me?
Again, it is very hard to predict the future, but there are a couple of things that it is important to keep in mind. First, it can be hard to carry a secret alone. How do you think this might impact you? If you decide to keep it private, can you share with a therapist, spiritual advisor or trusted friend? Second, you may have learned something that has made you angry at your loved one. Will you be able to manage these emotions when others around you are talking about the person without the information you have?
How to cope with the complicated feelings that knowing the secret brings up
Again, there are no easy answers here. But there are a few things you can do if you are dealing with a secret in your family.
1. Be prepared for a range of emotions.
Depending on what the secret is, you may feel any number of emotions ranging from anger, guilt, blame, shame, or confusion. All of these are normal grief emotions, and they are also all emotions that will need to be dealt with and processed over time.
2. Consider new and creative ways to process emotions.
These new emotions may throw your grief process for a loop. You thought you were moving along and suddenly, bam, you are spiraled into a puddle of confusion. Consider talking to a therapist, journaling, writing a letter to your loved one, creating art, joining a support group, or finding other ways to deal with these new and complex feelings.
3. Navigate a new relationship with your loved one.
I would love to say that learning a secret shouldn’t change any of your wonderful memories of your loved one, or it shouldn’t make you question things about the person and your relationship with them. But that would be crazy-talk. The reality is that, depending on the nature of the secret, you will likely go back and question many things about your loved one. This is an important part of coping with a secret – though it would be convenient to pretend nothing has changed, those emotions will creep up eventually so it is best to acknowledge them.
In the spirit of modern grief theory, we continue relationships with our loved ones, even when they are gone. Had you learned the secret when the person was alive it would (in some cases) have been a long process of sorting through the emotions and navigating the relationship, this is likely true in death as well. The fact that the person is not here to discuss the secret can make this more complex, but consider trying things like writing a letter in their voice, imagining what they would have said to you, or speaking with their close friends who knew about the secret to gain insight and perspective. Again, Stories We Tell and After Visiting Friends offer great insight into this process.
4. Don’t forget the good stuff.
We recently wrote a post on how our “lens” can impact what we find (or don’t find) in the world around us. When we learn a devastating secret, we can become so focused on it that we begin to ignore all the wonderful things about the person we lost. It is important to recognize that one secret does not erase all the other things you did know about the person. A good writing, journaling or art exercise may be compiling all the wonderful things about that person and your relationship with them. This is as much a part of their story (if not far more) than the secret.
This isn’t for everyone, but for some it helps. Take a cue from Michael Hainey and Sarah Polley, who wrote and created film to process their family secret. Not only does it have personal therapeutic benefit to tell our own stories, but it can help others to feel less alone when they are going through something similar. And perhaps, as Polley so clearly shows us in Stories We Tell, the past and our memories of those we have lost are always changing, always evolving. As we grow and change our relationship with the memory of our loved one changes in deep, meaningful and sometimes unexpected ways.
6. Last, but not least, remember secrets are not all bad.
Though Hainey and Polley both struggle with complicated emotions around the secrets of their parents, something interesting happens at the end of both narratives. Sarah's father says of the secret and their family's story, "How ironic it was that the final revalation and its aftermath had brought Sarah and I closer together". On the last page of his memoir, sitting with his mother, he describes the scene saying, "She goes silent, and in that moment I see her anew. Here I am -- a son who went looking for his father, and found his mother". The emotions of grief are unbelievably complicated on their own, secrets can take us down a path that means weeks, months or years of processing even more complex emotions. But amidst all the anger, pain, confusion, blame, guilt and whatever else is brought up, there is a chance that unexpected and beautiful things will emerge.
Struggled with learning a secret after a death of a loved one? Share your story in the comments below.
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