Learning A Secret After A Death

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.

And in case you’re like me and you can’t just watch one trailer, here is a second trailer for the movie:

And in case you don’t LOVE watching trailers the gist 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?

after-visiting-friendsShortly 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”.

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 accidently, 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?

So what can you do?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

September 25, 2017

12 responses on "Learning A Secret After A Death"

  1. Great topic. My father died when I was 9 years old. He was with another woman at the time. My mother was widowed and deeply ashamed. That’s how it was in those days. We moved away and never told people. It was a family secret. I had a very difficult time understanding it because I had loved my father, but we were not to mourn or discuss him. It has definitely affected all my relationships throughout my life and I am 53 years old.

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  4. I have not seen this topic addressed before and I am so grateful WYG did. My partner died 3 years ago from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 69. I took him to the emergency room one night and two months later he died, never having been home again. (He had survived a serious heart condition for decades but somehow his lung disease went undiagnosed.) During the two months he was hospitalized, he made a couple of requests of me. One was that I burn his papers (stored in the attic) without reading them. He was a writer and kept journals and wrote lots of letters over the course of his life. I was concerned by his request and asked him several times if he was absolutely sure that his what what he wanted. He was.

    After he died I, of course, longed to go through his papers. I had only been with him for 11 years of his interesting life. The idea that I would never have another conversation with him, never hear another of his stories, never be able to discover more about him, what he thought or felt, was devastating. His one surviving close relative, his estranged older brother who did show up at the end, is weirdly devoid of memories or insight about his younger brother. This brother expressed interest in the papers should I ever decide to look at them. But so far I have kept what I consider a promise, except that I haven’t burned the papers; they are still moldering in the attic. Early on, I asked my brother what he thought I should do, and he firmly opposed my looking at the papers; he said I might be hurt by what I found and that that may have been the reason for the request. Part of me thinks it would be insane NOT to delve into these pieces of someone I so loved and miss, but part of me thinks honoring his request is a greater act of love. And then there is the self-protective part of it. My partner had four marriages before he met me. I accepted that about him–it was part of who he was. But it would still be painful to perhaps be confronted with his passion for other women.

    I have no idea what the right answer is and so I take no action. Maybe letting mold and insects destroy the records is what I’ve decided.

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  5. My brother hid that he was gay. I mean he told me everything always and we were literally best friends 33 years until his sudden death about 1 month ago. I found the proof when I was going through his stuff.

  6. My husband died 6 1/2 years ago. Around a year ago I found out he had a child with another woman. I’m appalled that he was able to ignore his own child, regardless of the situation. What makes matters worse, my sister in law whom which I am very close kept it from me. I know it wasn’t her secret to tell when he was alive, but she kept it from me for six years after his death. I’m exhausted trying to keep up the facade I always have with my daughter at how wonderful her father was. He was unfaithful (not just this time], not kind, hurtful and (obviously) a liar. I’m pretty confident he didn’t tell me or anyone as he didn’t want to ruin his image as a good husband and loving father to our daughter. People knowing he completely ignored another child would’ve horrified him and showed true colors. And now I wonder… was my whole life A lie… we were together 13 years when he died. The child he had with another is only a little over to years younger than our child together. Its tiring when dealing with a teenage daughter who thinks her father was Jesus here on earth and wish’s I was the one that died… if she only knew.. 🙄

  7. I discovered after my husband of 20 years, and four children had been living a double life. He had another wife and child.

    I have been a mess since. My children are 20, 19, 16 (daughters) , my little boy 11. My husband died two years ago.

    My daughter who was 14 then, discovered daddy had been having what she thought at the time was an affair. The lady was on holiday with us! The children were asked indirectly to keep the secret and any photos they had come by from mum , right up until his death.

    My children are so hurt and confused.

  8. This is a response to PEA. First of all, I am SO sorry that you are going through this and that you discovered your husband’s behavior in such a way. How devastating! I applaud you with your determination to get on and hope you know that living well is not just the best revenge, but what you absolutely deserve. How to get there is more problematic! I read something about this topic (discovering an affair after the death of a spouse) which said something like grief is a choice and at some point you will decide not to be sad anymore. Again, nice observation but where is the road map? I’ve concluded that it is listening to what you need and want and going after it-in all realms. In other words, being selfish, in the best possible way.
    I had a similar experience when my husband died 3 years ago. What I thought was a “flirtation”, I learned, was a many years affair with a neighbor and fake friend. I also learned that, during the time he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was pursuing an inappropriate relationship with a woman much younger, who was not interested in anything other than a collegial friendship, and reconnecting with an old love. Like your husband, he was focused inward during this time, although he did try to be strong for our family. I knew his precious energy was being sapped by his focus on these other relationships but couldn’t get the resolution I needed for something that comes close to closure. Now, I am still unable to resolve my feelings or answer my questions and wonder all the time if he ever really loved me. I am seriously destroyed but trying so hard to find joy and meaning in my life. There are glimmers and I’m trying to replicate them. For some reason, I am feeling that time is going by so quickly. I don’t want my husband’s affair(s) to define me or my outlook. Whenever I feel those bitter feelings, I just stop and acknowledge them and create a mental image of putting them on an ice floe and watching them float away. Sometimes, the mistress is on that ice floe too!
    I’m not sure any of this is helpful to you but I wanted to let you know that you are not alone and that I truly hope you can reclaim your happiness and yourself. Cheers!

  9. My husband of 15 years was diagnosed with metastatic sarcoma and died exactly seven weeks later.
    He made it look like a storybook marriage to his social media world, but knew that I was beyond unhappy with his impulsive spending and selfish attitude, as well as his not addressing (what he described as) his low libido.
    When he was diagnosed, everything came to a halt, and I went into extreme caretaker mode, trying to put the bad stuff behind us and focus on giving him whatever he needed in those way-too-rapid last few weeks. I gave him everything I could, and he had a very loving and peaceful death, surrounded by family. I spent the next year trying to hold on to these ‘romantic’ memories and denying myself the anger that I knew was just below the surface because, for all that I tried to do for him, we never once, in those seven last weeks, talked about the important things we should have(reflecting on the past years, what he hoped for my future, the things that most couples have a heart to heart on during this time), as I tried to take cues from him and didn’t want to push him into a conversation about it. He was, essentially, his selfish self to the end.
    So, in trying to focus on the long-ago good times we’d started with, I grieved him, as his family did.
    14 months later, as I was going through his home office in preparation for selling the house, I found out something that left me completely, utterly reeling: for years and years, on every (frequent) business trip throughout the US and Canada, he’d been seeing prostitutes. Mr “I have no libido” was denying me (what he could have had at home, and not too shabbily, I will add), while racking up his work Amex card to the tune of $25K just to feed his narcissistic addiction(which we had to pay back over 2 years when he got ‘downsized’)
    Complete shock to me, as he was never, ever a flirty person, or someone I could ever imagine would have the ability to carry out that secret life while crowing to the outside world about how wonderful his wife was, etc. The more I searched, the more layers I found: from his well-thought-out reviews on escort websites, to his emails with them for appointments, to the not one, but four different dating/hook-up sites he’d switched to when he had to stop spending money or it would be noticed.
    I was devastated, and completely alone, as he was so charming to the outside world that it was clear I’d look like a scorned shrew if I told anyone, so I held it from everyone except my best friend and my grief counselor.
    The experience brought me to the brink of suicide, trying to pretend everything was fine while packing up a house full of now-tarnished memories, not wanting to let on to my (adult) son the reason I was almost catatonic for weeks, just going through the motions to get out of that house that I now couldn’t stand to live in.
    It’s been ten months since the discovery, and I’m doing exponentially better, mostly due to being a super-resilient person, and I guess in part driven by the anger that makes me want to ‘live well as the best revenge’, for what it’s worth.
    The hardest thing is that he could profess to loving me, but in reality care so very little for me that he would do this, expose me to God knows what STD’s, and completely dishonor our marriage, let alone not tell me what he’d done during his dying days.
    The biggest devastation was not having the ability to confront him, and gain closure. He denied me that, and it feels like he won in his little secret game; I will never, ever forgive him for that.
    I’m stronger now, but also much harder hearted, and much less able to trust.
    Do I question whether I would rather not have known all of this? Sometimes.
    It is what it was.

    • This is a reply to the person who posted on 2/4/2018 and whose husband died of metastatic sarcoma and who then discovered he had been seeing prostitutes. I have a very similar story and I have been beyond grief with total shock. I wonder if you ever look back on your post over a year on because it is a year on for me and I would very much like to talk or correspond to you about our shared horrible experience.

  10. The only secret I learned after death that shocked me was that the whole time she lived with us my mom owned a gun, bought by her first husband and I didn’t know it until I heard that my brother inherited it after her death.
    I’m still upset that she never told me she had a gun in the house all that time that was hers.

    The only documentary I watched about grief practically tore me to shreds and it was one surrounding the grief of violent death. It was called ‘The Boys of Company C’ (the documentary, not the movie; there was a movie but I’ve never watched the fictionalized version.) This was the most terribly distressing thing I’ve ever watched on cable TV – on the Military Channel. One of my friends, who works in broadcast media and does documentaries, helped make the film and he’s ungodly talented at what he does.
    The way it was done caused me to burst into tears that I couldn’t control and it’s the only time that’s happened to me in front of a person I didn’t want to see me cry. Or at least not see me fall comPLETELY to pieces like I did as soon as they started naming the people who died when the enemy shot down the plane a minute before they could clear the area to safety.
    He had no idea I was going to cry (I certainly didn’t either); his idea was to show me the consequences of battle that everyone who wants to jump right into war either doesn’t see or doesn’t want to notice. I thought we had no choice but to go to war with that Assad maniac who was having children gassed and I was furious when we did nothing at all. So Richard decided to show me a 2-hour documentary he helped make and it was about the Boys of Company C who died in Bin Dinh Province, Vietnam in 1967 when a medic plane was shot down that was trying to take injured soldiers back to sick bay.
    After having been caught in a nail formation battle strategy by the enemy, which wounded several American soldiers and sitting out the US Air Force bombing the enemy all night long – while they waited almost in the middle of the bombings – the helicopter for the wounded came in the morning and picked up 9 guys who needed to be flown out of the area to the MASH hospital. On board the helicopter were 11 people including the pilot and co-pilot.
    Before they could get clear of the area the enemy threw something at the plane that hit the tail and caused the plane to spin around and crash to the ground, killing all 11 people on board. Nothing in this documentary of the battle scene went right, all of it was brutal and by the time they were at the end of the reenactment of the last scene, I was so stressed out I burst into tears. I didn’t know I was overwhelmed until it all poured forth like a torrential downpour of grief. For people I never met, but that’s how it goes. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut kept saying in his book that was partially about war. He was being sarcastic, maybe; I’m implying I don’t know why it happened, it just did.

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