I’ve been writing a memoir and, like most memoirs, it deals with family secrets. Unplanned pregnancies, abortions, suicides, addictions, extramarital affairs, prison time—often families don’t speak of such events because of shame. However, as this guest blog by David Bannon shows, repressed secrets exert a dark power even if they never get exposed. Perhaps that’s one reason the Bible treats human failings with such unflinching honesty? —Philip
My daughter Jessica died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose in 2015. She was twenty-six years old. Shortly after Jessica’s death, a thoughtful aunt asked if I wanted to keep the details private. “Tell everyone the truth,” I said. “It doesn’t matter now.” But choosing to publicly acknowledge the manner of Jessica’s death did matter. In time we would learn just how much.
Family secrets about a death seem to be the hardest to keep and the most fiercely defended. They may take the form of evasions, half-truths, or outright lies. Our rationale often sounds reasonable at first, particularly when the loss is tied to suicide, addiction, or murder. Perhaps we want to protect the memory of the deceased, our family name, or the sensibilities of children. But deceit in any form exacts a heavy toll. Secrets empower guilt, shame, self-recrimination, and regret. They cheat us of the wisdom and compassion of others who know similar pain. They allow no room for forgiveness.
“Many adults have discovered that the narrative of a parent’s death was false or less than accurate,” wrote grief expert Harold Ivan Smith, adding that a collusion of silence can become more toxic than the concealed facts. We may begin to see ourselves and the deceased differently, warping our memories and our perceptions. Children often suspect that there is more to the story than they were told, and this “phantom truth” may haunt the child. Subtle clues, such as anxious or evasive answers, ultimately raise new questions. This may lead to a sense of betrayal and a dissonance that stays with the bereaved throughout their lives.
Oprah Winfrey lost her month-old son in 1969 when she was only fifteen. Her father insisted that they keep the life and death of the baby private. Oprah, still a child herself, was forced to be custodian of a secret that haunted her for years.
Today she advises others “to see a world beyond the front porch,” counseling those grieving to picture a life ahead that includes a newly honest relationship with their dead loved ones. “I often feel that when someone passes,” Oprah said in January of this year, “you now have an angel you can call by name.”
Frederick Buechner was ten years old when his father ended his own life in 1936. The family did not keep the details a secret; however, Buechner chose to do so. When asked how his father died, he spoke of it as heart trouble.
“The word suicide seemed somehow shameful and better left unsaid,” he wrote. Years later Buechner would admit that the grief did not fade, because he never allowed himself to experience it fully. His secret took its toll in the form of repressed emotions, anxiety, and guilt.
After a friend compassionately listened to the truth about his father, Buechner finally began to grasp the impact of the death. “Only in my middle age,” he wrote, “did it become real enough for me to weep real tears.”
Theodore and Edith Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, shot himself through the head with a .45 revolver while stationed in Alaska in June, 1943. The public was given a falsified account of his death: dysentery in the Middle East.
Edith, who knew her son was in Alaska, was told that Kermit died of a heart attack, his head resting on his pillow. She had already suffered loss: her son Quentin had died in 1918 followed by her husband, Theodore, in 1919. Afraid another blow would be too much for their mother, Kermit’s heartbroken siblings kept the truth from her.
Edith died in 1948 without ever learning the facts of Kermit’s suicide. Her children maintained the secret, a burden that for the eldest Roosevelt child, Alice, turned to bitterness and resentment. In later years she refused to speak of Kermit, and was known to respond with vitriol if a hapless interviewer dared to introduce the topic. The truth was not made public until after Alice’s death in 1980.
Jane Fonda, as a child of twelve in 1950, was told that her mother was under a doctor’s care. She was not informed, however, that her mother was a patient at a mental hospital. Her father thought it best to hide the facts.
On one of her mother’s brief visits home, Jane refused to see or speak with her. On that tragic visit, the mother smuggled out a straight razor, which she would soon use to end her life. Jane was told that her mother died of a heart attack, though she sensed the story was inaccurate. Later Jane learned the details from a gossip magazine, leading to a lifelong battle with depression. As an adult, she reviewed her mother’s medical records. Only then, in her forties, did she let go of her guilt and weep freely for her mother.
Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry and Bess Truman, learned at age twenty that her maternal grandfather had shot himself. She discussed it with Harry, who was busy with his 1944 campaign for the vice presidency.
“I have never seen him so angry or upset,” Margaret wrote of her usually patient and gentle father. “He seized my arm in a grip that he must have learned when he was wrestling calves and hogs around the farmyard. ‘Don’t you ever mention that to your mother,’ he said.”
Margaret did not violate the mandate, hoping that in time her mother might broach the subject. Margaret always sensed that Bess harbored unresolved anxiety about the death. Yet she avoided talking about the suicide for the next 48 years, until Bess’s death in 1982.
Now that we live in the Internet age, few things remain hidden for long. Our most intricate falsehoods may ultimately be uncovered. When the truth does eventually get out, the exposed secret may cause more turmoil than a repressed one. How, then, should we explain the details of a loss?
“Naturally and lovingly,” suggests Rabbi Earl Grollman, a pioneer in the field of emotional reactions to death. “There is no need to avoid the word die,” Grollman writes. “Proceed slowly and simply, step by step, with patience and kindness.”
When we acknowledged the facts of my daughter’s overdose, I had no idea how meaningful our decision would prove to be. Honesty gives our memories substance. Now we are free to mourn Jessica as she was rather than a false image of her, a façade behind which we might feel constrained to grieve in private. True, we detect a certain amount of public censure for a so-called “bad death,” but this response from strangers is insignificant. Our family has rallied round us. We have received support from Jessica’s friends and others who have also lost someone to overdose—a communion of grace and grief that secrets would have made impossible. After all, how our loved ones died is not nearly as important as who they were to us.
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