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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I have spent a lifetime trying to kill myself. I’m ashamed of that. I was told years ago that survivors of my suicide if I did manage to finally do it might have a harder time than I was having. My suicide would be a way of telling my family that I believed there were some things God couldn’t handle. In the covenant that God spelled out to Moses, God described the results that would occur if we embraced life and the results of embracing death as a lifestyle. Suicide is a way to embrace death. It impacts others, teaching them that death is better than life. Should it be kept a secret? No, because secrets always come out. I have mixed feelings. Secrets are certainly harmful when kept hidden, but some truths should maybe not be shared with everyone or especially people who don’t have the strength to handle them. As a person who was in therapy since I was 14, I always had the feeling that there must be terrible things that were hidden by my family. When I got in and explored things though, the actual secrets were not as terrible as I had expected them to be. Sometimes when people are all broken up over something, they may not feel able to share some things. Secrets are not necessarily terrible. But they should be handled like dynamite, very deliberately.
My Uncle Charlie was murdered when I was 16. Our family lived in a small town where murder didn’t happen. My Mom and Dad were honest with us about his death, but I was unable to process my personal grief until I was an adult because murder was such an unbelievable reality to me.
So many relished the scandal of our Archbishop’s parentage when it came out. But his response, and forgiveness, were exemplary. As was the crystal gold of his declaration:-
” I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. ”
He who is Truth can handle truth. God bless all.
I learned after my parents’ deaths that my beloved saintly grandmother, the only grandparent I knew, was 4 months pregnant when she married my grandfather. She was 18, my grandfather 21. Early 1900’s.Their firstborn son born 5 months after their marriage tragically was killed at age 3. My mother told me that my grandmother had told her that this was the only thing in her long and very hard deprived life that she never could put behind her. I finally understood, at least I think so. It was good for me to know this about my grandmother, because I have guilt about sins and mistakes made in my youth, and I had been so upset with my own children for their sins and mistakes made in their youth. By seeing that my very devout grandmother also sinned and made mistakes when she was young, yet she still was a holy woman, I can better accept that I, and my children, are on a similar path as she. “We ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But praise be to God that He can make good even out of our mess-ups. And the good may be a few generations later when a grandchild learns that if even saintly Grandma can mess up royally, and still be a woman of grace and faith, so can I.
David & Philip,
Thank you for having this dialogue on the blog – it is so timely and important. The Opioid Epidemic is raging even stronger as Covid19 brings hardship to many marginalized communities. As David Such mentioned in his comment, the loss of our son pressed us into action. We knew that if we were ashamed of his death we would shame him instead of honoring his life and the struggle he had to be clean and sober. I turned our grief journal, kept daily for a year, into our memoir with the hope of bringing awareness to the opioid epidemic, to comfort the millions of other parents like us, and to help parents of the young people who are just growing up learn ways for their kids to avoid becoming addicted in the first place. The book shares our personal grief journey, our family background and genetics, societal pitfalls, resources and ends with Stories of Hope from three young friends who are clean and sober after many years. It is now available in eBook & paperback on all platforms & bookstores. Thank you again!
David and Philip – thank you for sharing this. We have friends who lost their 25-year-old son to a heroin overdose after battling drug addiction for a decade. True to their character, they chose the tell-all approach, and wrote their painful story in an award-winning book, “Opiate Nation – A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Acceptance” (https://opiatenation.com/) that has been helpful to those struggling as well as to those who have had losses. I will send Jude & John a link to this post. Thanks again.
We are all purchased for salvation, burdened and not in this world. In the next world there are no burdens.
I am writing a family history for my children and grandchildren. My youngest son is gay, but ended up dealing with it by marrying a woman, and they have three fine young sons. It’s hard to know how to deal with this in my family history. I sense he would prefer not to mention it, but it affected all of us. Before he decided to get married I had become an all-out supporter of LGBTs and still am. We are also supportive of his decision to get married. I feel it is important to casually mention it, in case someone else in the family has to deal with this someday.
Thank you, Phillip, for allowing David Bannon to be your guest blogger. I never knew my father and my mother was paranoid-schizophrenic:-( When I was 13 yr. and 10 mo. old, my mother was put into a mental institution. Then my aunt, my mother’s sister and her husband took my brother and me into their home. My aunt was also paranoid-schizophrenic:-( Then, unexplicably, I had to be treated for deep depression with electroconvulsive treatments as an outpatient from about 2007 to 2011. Once I stopped taking my depression medicine due to my family’s stigma, and I became zombie-like. Not all Christians “get me.” who were raised in a two-family, loving home!
After my mother passed away, I found out I was the by product of an affair. I can charts the many lies and coverups through the years. So many things have been swept under the rug.
Our family has had many generational secrets. Some have come to light. Some will never be allowed.
I do think another reason we don’t just “tell all” is because of some sense of justice. By Justice I mean that if we tell all of a person’s secrets upon their death or even some time later, they can’t defend themselves or at least give some explanation. It’s weird and doesn’t make a lot of sense but I don’t fault people for trying to respect the privacy of someone who cannot speak.
Thank you for sharing these stories of secrets held, of secrets shared. Secrets bind us; after losing my mother earlier this year, my brother asked how much of my grief was anticipatory, since my husband is considerably older than I am. He was right – I was grieving both. But then he said, “OK, now I know and you and Don both know, so it’s not a secret and you don’t have to try to hide it.” Just what you’re talking about here. Thank you so much. I am very sorry for the loss of your daughter, and for the pain you and your family have suffered. God be with you.
Thanks for much, Philip, for sharing this truth and being honest about your daughter’s death. I only found out about my aunt’s suicide as an adult – she lived in the same house as my family at that time and I later moved into her bedroom. Even as a 3-year-old child I wondered why a young lady in her best ages would die of a “heart attack”. She left a letter mentioning many people and asking for forgiveness, that was equally kept secret until most recently. You so nicely explained the impossibility to mourn the person and to forgive in such cases. Thanks again. I often read your articles on FB or books. Blessings from Germany, Marie
Very poignant, Marie. One clarification: this was a guest blog by David Bannon, and refers to his daughter, not mine. –Philip
“How our loved ones died is not nearly as important as who they were to us.” Oh how that rings true for my sister and brother-in-law. It’s been five months since their daughter drowned, and I don’t think any sugar coating of that awful day will erase the pain. It’s been a truly bizarre year on so many levels, and I’m trying to stay focused on God’s daily mercies while the world is being it’s usual tumultuous self. I enjoyed your comments about the George Floyd tragedy and especially your blog from a few years back about your chance encounter with the niece of Medgar Evers. I’m subscribed to this YouTube channel that reposts old news broadcasts and they have the cbs report the day after MLKs assassination. Hauntingly similar themes abound, and it’s a stark remainder how fresh the wounds of our nations “past” transgressions really are. (We all know they’re still with us, sadly). Thanks for the good words, Philip.
Your sister endured such a tragedy, and I know you were of comfort. Tracks of a Fellow Struggler by John Claypool may be helpful for her.
On racial justice, have you ever seen “Freedom Summer” about voter registration in Mississippi in 1964? It’s streaming free on the PBS wesite.
Some good advice about family secrets and the consequences of secrecy.
As a devoted follower of your writing, I am so grateful that you are writing a memoir! I completed my own memoir this year which chronicles the trauma I experienced as the daughter of a mentally ill, suicidal mother and how these experiences not only shaped my identity but also their profound effect on my perceptions of God. I am in the final editing process and hope to have it published in the next year. Telling our secrets is especially valuable in the context of how God heals and restores our wounds. Like you, it is my hope that my story will encourage others to deepen their understanding and relationship with our loving, merciful God who makes all things new.
Thank you for such an encouraging writing on TRUTH. Happy truth and Barr truth are never meant to hidden. The real life examples of secret carrying are profound.
My brother was gay, in his 40’s he became an alcoholic, seemed to overcome that and then became addicted to crystal meth. Eventually he started huffing, He ended up in jail for a year for selling crystal meth. On the day he was to be released, he went into a coma and 2 days later he passed away. I was heartbroken, but even now, I miss one of my best friends who left me when he started the alcohol.
I have a relative who lives with delusions of needing to protect his (white) family from the Klan. I wonder if this isn’t psychological symbolism for the years he was charged with keeping his mother’s severe depression— and the reasonable suspicious about her death — from the extended family. Protecting his bereaved father and siblings from possible judgment by the (Scottish) clan, as it were
This matter has certainly been an issue in my family. There were no answers while the people with knowledge were alive. Now that they are gone, the rest of us are left only with supposition.
As I wondered how much it really mattered….(I never knew this grandfather) and was coming into a place of resigned relinquishment, I was contacted by an older cousin who (I was grieved to find) is more deeply affected than I by the situation of our grandfather’s death.
He volunteered what he knew about it and then would only say, “Some day I will share with you how it affected me, personally, as a child at his funeral.”
I sense that day will never come. Perhaps it is enough for him to know he has a potentially trustworthy relative to share it with, if he ever comes to that point.
I know the Lord. I have peace. My cousin does not.
We are 62 and 71.
When will this end?
Great insight and I would venture that this approach is not just for the loss of someone who died but also for things we don’t talk of the living (current and past shame or embarrassment). “Family secrets” is not just about death and the impact can be just as severe.
If ever one needed an argument for truth telling, here it is!
Love your Christmas book!