To Read or Not To Read: Your deceased loved one’s diaries and personal letters

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.old letters

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.”

To Read:

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.

3. History:

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.

March 28, 2017

29 responses on "To Read or Not To Read: Your deceased loved one's diaries and personal letters"

  1. What do I do with my diaries after I die? I have been keeping a diary for over 50 years – never missing a day of writing! Who gets them after I die? What if they don’t want them?

  2. I have a box of my mother and grandmother’s old letters as well as letters from a great great uncle written during his time as a soldier in the Civil War. I definitely plan to read them when I am emotionally stronger. As my mother was dying from cancer, our large family kept vigil for weeks. I left one day only to rush back because I’d left one of my own journals in the sick room. I swept back into the room, scooped it up, saying, “don’t want to leave this laying around..” and as I was leaving I overheard one of my young adult daughters say to my slightly confused brother in law, “Mom writes shit about everyone in her journals when she’s mad…” Don’t take angry journal entries too personally and kudos to all of you who don’t snoop while your mom is still alive! 😂😂

  3. My wife passed away a few months ago and I read parts of her diary until I read that I was not a very good husband, I do regret reading that, now I just cry

  4. My wife recently passed and I made the error of reading all of her diaries and emails. I couldn’t believe how permiscous she was before we met. She also lied about many things from her past. I shouldn’t have read them, now I wish I hadn’t met her.

  5. Thank you for addressing this issue. My partner told me before he died, when we knew it was very possible he would die soon, that he wanted me to burn all the notebooks, letters, and photographs he had stored in the attic. Without reading them. It’s been 15 months and I haven’t done anything with them yet. He was a writer and led an unconventional, emotionally uninhibited, life–several marriages before we met. I loved him for those and many other reasons. Your article and the comments touch on the core dilemma: on the one hand, I would give anything to have access to more of his consciousness–what he thought, saw, did, felt–and to learn more about him. Learn things I might have learned had we had time for more conversations, more communing. On the other hand, we always respected each other’s privacy. His papers weren’t hidden, but I never touched them. (I did used to ask him if I could read things he’d written in the past, his screenplay, etc, but he always said no.) And he was absolutely sure that he wanted me to burn without reading. And I’m not sure I could handle what I would find. He didn’t cause me pain when he was alive and didn’t want to cause me pain after his death. And his wishes are still his wishes. I can leave his papers in the attic for as long as I want to–they’re a part of him. When I reach the point of being able to dispose of them, I hope there will be joy mixed in with the sadness, the joy of being able to honor him and preserve his integrity.

  6. I’m go glad to have come across this website and this article. Thank you! I have a follow-up question. I have kept my father’s journals in a box since his passing nearly 9 years ago. After deliberation (and reading this article), I have decided in our case to respect his privacy and not to read them. So…what, then to *do* with them? My grandmother has a saying – “You can’t live with the dead.” I’m torn between wanting to be unburdened of my dear deceased relatives’ earthly possessions, and not wanting to lug them in boxes from home to home for the rest of my life, but I can’t bear the thought of just throwing the journals away. Ideas/comments/thoughts are welcome and appreciated.

  7. This is a very thoughtful question regarding our loved ones and their privacy. I find it strange that no one seems to consider the same question when it comes to the death of a celebrity.

  8. My father wrote in a journal ever day for 40 years. He wanted to publish them as his memoirs. After he passed and we were reading them, we were shocked to discover negative hurtful things he had written about family members. Most of his writings were mundane, but it is the critical things that stand out. Feelings were definitely hurt, I wish he had only written nice things because he always acted nicely to everyone, so we had no idea how he really felt about some of us!

  9. When a relative of mine passed away many years ago, I was horrified to see personal things of hers in a yard sale. I knew she wouldn’t have wanted them there. Since that day, I vowed to get rid of things I was hanging on to that would be an embarrassment to me or anyone else. Before my husband passed away last year, together we went through love notes written to each other and cards for occasions. I have to admit I was touched that he saved the love notes from me. We both laughed at some of the things we said to each other. If my adult children found them, they would snicker, as they knew us very well and we never hid the love and affection we shared, so to them it would be, ya, that was mom and dad. After he passed away, I kept some of those love notes. I pull them out now and again, run my fingers over his hand writing and sometimes weep for what I have lost. But I treasure them and would not be ashamed for my children to read them.
    The question for me is, would I read my parents or siblings personal writings if I came across them? No I would not, for I don’t believe they were for my eyes to see.
    But that’s why I say, get rid of things you never want brought out in the open. It may be time, for a lot of people to clean out their closets, so to speak. Just a thought.

  10. I admit, I read my mom’s from cover to cover after her brutal death from brain cancer. There was so much in there that linked me to her forever. She felt a lot about life the way I did, and now I realize as her only daughter, we really were kindred spirits, even if I always felt the opposite while she was alive. We were great friends, but now I know we were also a lot alike.

    • Lana,

      I don’t blame you. I know many people say they wouldn’t read the journal, but I am so eager for a connection with my mother that I think I would. I’m glad that you were able to find these connections with her, these sorts of connections truly help us to maintain a strong relationship with our deceased loved ones forever.

      Eleanor

  11. Very interesting post. Definitely depends on personal views as well as considerations about the person who has passed. When my brother died at 21 of a drug overdose practically the first thing my father and I did was read his journals. Writing was a big part of who he was. He was hugely outgoing and willing to talk about his struggles. He always wanted his story to be heard to help others. After reading I felt no guilt about going into his private mind because I came away with a much greater understanding of his struggles. He was always fighting himself. He was a beautiful poet. I shared some of his writing at the funeral to help people understand the kind of person he was beyond an “addict”. He was truly fighting for his life for so many year and I take comfort in knowing that his suffering is over. I also know how much he loved and appreciated us (his family) for everything we did to help him despite the number of times he hurt us.

    Reading his words was and is a beautiful experience and an important part of my grieving process. I still read them often. It feels like there is something new to discover every time I open one of his notebooks.

    Despite what I found to be a highly emotional, yet fulfilling part of the grieving process, it’s been two years since he died and my sister and mother have yet to look at his writing. I feel like they are missing out but perhaps their interpretation of his words would be different than mine. Maybe the time will come for them. Maybe it won’t.

    A good example of “to each their own”.

  12. Hello Eleanor , thank you for this insightful post. My mother in law died in 2002. She wrote diaries from the time she was a teenager (1919 or so) until about 2000. Each year is in a separate little volume. She went to college (rare in her era) earning Phi Beta Kappa honors from Radcliffe College. She worked as a secretary in a law office (about all a bright woman could do in those days) for several years before marrying. She was an amazing observer of her time, her surroundings, and of city, state and world affairs. Living through both world wars and the Depression, she commented on what she did, heard, and read, all in the numerous volumes. Also in these she told of her home and family, and of times of angst and anguish. Her daughter donated the diaries to the local historical society, as they would provide a very unique outlook and a long life with its ups and downs. My husband and I had Mom in our care for the last 6 years of her life. We had to clean out her home of nearly 60 years. Mom moved to be near us, and she asked for her diaries. We told her about them being donated and where. She wanted them back, so we wrote and got them back for her. Now, nearly 13 years after her death, we still have the diaries. My husband and I are academics (history) and his sister was a history teacher. We three feel the diaries are a valuable source for historians, and want to send them back to the historical society. All of us agree that the diaries also contain angsty personal parts, which are the reason for our dilemma. We do recall that Mom wanted them back, but she never said what to do with them, as she was in her early 90’s when she stopped writing in them. What do you think we should do with them? I would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you and God bless.

    • Nina,

      Oh my, I do see your dilemma. I guess my question is, did she initially say why she wanted them back? Was it because she felt sentimental about them or was it out of concern for them having been shared with other eyes? If you knew that, it seems like that would speak to her thoughts about having them shared. Was she a very private person? Do you think her sense of privacy would extend to after death?

      Unfortunately, there is really no correct answer. All you can do is reflect on what you think her wishes would have been. It does sound like there is a greater good involved with having them shared, which I suppose always needs to be considered. What would our view of history look like without letters, journals, and diaries donated after a person’s death? How would she value that greater good? Lastly, how does the family want her to be remembered? One way of looking at it might be to see these journals as a part of her legacy that lives on in the world. Of course, I’m not telling you anything new. Just throwing out additional thoughts to confuse the issue 🙂

      I’m so sorry there’s no black or white answer. Good luck with your decision.

      Eleanor

  13. This has come up for me twice.

    My uncle died of a terminal illness. After the funeral the family went through some personal effects to divide them up to remember him and among the effects were his journals and creative writing. I took them at the urging of several other people, and while trying to decide what to do, someone pointed out that he knew he was dying and that if he didn’t want anyone to read them then he would have gotten rid of them. That made a lot of sense to me. I did read them and I’m glad I did.

    My husband committed suicide in November. It was his journals that I wanted the most and they mean so much to me. I read them without hesitation. I was surprised that I was the only person who wanted them (he has 3 daughters and a brother who he was very close to). He very clearly wrote to me over and over in them and I know that he meant for me to have them.

    • Lea,

      I’m really glad you’ve had these journals as a comfort in your grief. I really think it comes down to thinking about who the person was and whether they would have wanted you to read them, in both these instances it seems to make sense to. What a treasure and what a wonderful way to stay connected to the person. The few letters I have of my mothers are so special to me, even seeing her handwriting makes me feel closer.

      Thank you for sharing.

      Eleanor

  14. What a terrific article. When my parents died, I found all the letters they sent to me while in was in the Navy over 24 years, and all of the letters other people sent, and the letters I had sent them. While it was something I had already read, I had forgotten about most of them. What a great way to remember what was going on in my life and theirs for 24 years. As I go back and reread these letters, I can feel all the emotion packed in those letters over family events, or just us missing each other. My Mom would even send me the newspaper clippings of what was happening on my favorite soap opera. I treasure all of these items and have placed them in large three ring binders in chronological order. Now that they are gone, it is like having a little conversation with them all over again when I read them. 🙂

  15. I feel strongly about preserving personal writing of any kind, even if you choose never to read it. I have letters and journals I would prefer those close to me never see, but I still want them preserved for the sake of family history – or in some cases general history that may be of mild interest to non-relatives as well. A glimpse into the life and thoughts of an “ordinary” person living in our current times 🙂

    On the subject of letters though, whatever you may decide about privacy vs. curiosity on behalf of your dead loved one, please take the other person’s privacy in to account as well. If they are still living, reading words that they meant only for the eyes of a specific friend is ethically questionable – and may also make them very uncomfortable around you, depending on how much they shared in their letters. If you are willing to part with the letters without reading them, you could offer to return them to the writer – they may have letters they received from your loved one, and could then store the complete correspondence together as keepsakes. Also, if they have saved your loved one’s letters over the years, this would open the possibility of asking if they would make you copies of a few of them “If there’s any that aren’t too private” and you are probably more interested in what your family member was saying to their friend than the other way around.

    I think we can all make this decision much easier for our own families by planning ahead. I have my letters and journals stored in large manila envelopes clearly labeled “Not private: enjoy the read!” “This envelope NOT to be opened by anyone who knew me – save for future family history only!” “Letters from ________ please return to him/her in the event of my death.” “Somewhat private: please wait at least six years after my death before opening.” and so forth. My family may or may not follow my wishes, but at least they will know what I wanted – meaning they can read what isn’t private without apprehension, and have some warning that they may find things they didn’t want to in what was meant to remain private! I am interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this – would it have made things easier on you? Would it have made you feel better about reading something if your loved one had left a note explicitly stating that it was okay?

  16. My feelings are quite clear on the issue. I would never rad someone’s private papers unless I had explicit permission to do so. I see it as a violation. My journals and poetry are for me. I write there what I can’t or don’t dare say out loud. Journaling is therapeutic, it’s a tool. I use it! Anyone reading them after my death will be hurt, dismayed, perhaps ashamed (of me). If they must pursue their nosiness to this extreme then any perceived pain is on them, not me. My personal business does not become public because I have left the scene. Have a little respect, burn the stuff but don’t open it.
    d

  17. Great post! I’m afraid I always err on the side of nosy — I can’t help myself.

    When I came across Mom’s treatment journal, tucked in a purse in a box in the basement, I worried about what it contained. When she was ill, I felt so defeated. I didn’t know how to help her, so I just stood back, watching everything unfold. She was Mom and I was Me — I didn’t know how to adjust our relationship to the realities of terminal cancer. I felt like I had nothing to offer — no answers, no hope, no words do comfort. Like you, I felt disconnected.

    I don’t remember exactly what Mom said about me in her journal — something about me being a comforting presence, in my quiet way — but I do know it made me feel better. Just being her daughter was enough, as it always had been.

  18. This is such an interesting post, being rather a nosy interested person I would probably always risk reading. When my 7 yr old daughter died, there were no journals etc, just little notebooks, one of which contained one poem among pages of little drawings and ‘My name is Lily poo poo’ and similar 7 yr old phrases. We found it months after her death, on her birthday and the poem was like a gift from beyond the grave. She never wrote poems, to my knowledge this was the only one, and it contained images that suggested that somehow, subconsciously, some part of her knew what was going to happen. To find something in her handwriting and touch the paper that she touched, and read the strange ethereal words….we were so grateful..

  19. Jolene Thibedeau BoydMay 24, 2014 at 4:24 pmReply

    After my dad died this past winter, I went through a box like you described above. It had been sitting in the living room of the house for years (my mom died 12 years ago), so I could have looked any time, and I don’t think he really cared. In fact, I wish I HAD looked then, because maybe I could have asked him some questions the contents inspired while he was still in good health. Interestingly–or oddly–I came across quite a few letters from my mom to him before they were married, kind of fun to glimpse into their past, and then I cae across a letter where my mom basically broke up with him (he was stationed in Wash DC in the Navy, she had moved home to small-town MN to help care for her ill mother and her younger sibs), and then told him she was engaged to some other guy, whose name I have never even heard! Obviously something changed sometime after that because they were married within a couple of years of that. But I sure wish I could have asked about it! I don’t find any of this upsetting, I long for and love to hear about what their lives were really like…there were some really tough times that my parents just never really shared with us. Anyway, that’s my long way of saying, although I can appreciate someone not wanting to have people read about their innermost thoughts and feelings after they’re gone, for me, it is just one more way of knowing them better, and loving them more for their struggles and joys, many of which they just never had/took the chance to share. And that’s how I justify doing it myself, without guilt but with the utmost respect. Thanks for the great topic! 🙂

  20. Thank you, Eleanor, for this wonderful, thoughtful piece! Right after my mother died, I found letters that my parents wrote to each other during WW II. I read one right away, and I haven’t looked at the rest for seven years. Based on this piece, I am going to rethink, and I will definitely share this!

  21. Once again, Eleanor, just a terrific piece ~ and some excellent food for thought! I am happy to share this one! Thank you! ?

  22. I found old love letters my father had written to my mother when he was at sea (Navy man). There was certainly a cringe factor, and I felt like I was violating their privacy, but ultimately I was glad to know that I came from love.

  23. Eleanor, I love, love, love what you are doing with this website. I have wept over many of the things you have written, treasured the pictures you have posted. I am so very, very, very proud of you as I know your mother would be. You are blessing many with this website, including me – your aunt and mother’s twin sister – and my daughters. Thank you our special Eleanor.

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