Grief is complicated enough — the death of a loved one can turn your world upside-down as you try to move forward and make sense of a new life without that person. But what if, once some time has passed and the world starts to make sense again, the wound is reopened by some startling new information?
It could be something as simple as finding your late father’s financial documents as you’re sorting through his stuff: What do you do with these things now? Then again, maybe you find out something even more secretive, so contrary to the person you knew that it changes your impression of them. What then? No matter what it is, it probably won’t be easy, so we’ve reached out to a few people to help guide you through this process.
First off, if you find something that looks important — a will no one knew about; property deeds; mountains of debt collection notices — there’s a system in place for what to do with them. “Give it to the executor of the will,” says George Kontogiannis, an estate attorney from Westchester County in New York.
“The image you see in movies where someone goes to a reading of the will, and they hand out the checks at the end is complete fiction,” says Kontogiannis. Instead, after someone dies and an executor is named, there’s a waiting period of seven months to get that person’s affairs in order. This includes debts, possessions, finances and any other legal issues that may arise, all of which would be handled by the executor or someone assisting them. Debt would be handled before anyone is paid out from an estate after the seven-month period. If you find something of value, that would be added to their estate and distributed out with the rest. As for a will, if it’s found for someone who didn’t have one, or if it’s newer than the one on record, that will now take effect, assuming it had been properly drafted by an attorney.
If it’s after those seven months of waiting that you find something, the executor is still your go-to guy. They may have to appeal to a judge to reinstate their role as executor, but Kontogiannis explains that this is a fairly easy process because the court would get a cut of the newly found asset anyway, so “everyone wins.”
This can get complicated in the case of a will because, if you don’t have a will originally, “the state will impose one on you,” says Kontogiannis. If this newly discovered will contradicts what was imposed, much of what happened previously can be undone, even years later; the specifics, however, would have to be sorted out by a judge, and if it’s a case where the executor is no longer around, Kontogiannis says that a will generally has a line of succession.
In less tangible instances — say, instead of paperwork, you uncover a dark secret that the deceased probably never wanted you to find — things can be much more complex. For Julie Metz, author of Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, the secret she discovered about her late husband made her feel “like my marriage had been a complete lie. I didn’t know who I was anymore. It was a true existential crisis.”
“It was a Wednesday afternoon in early January 2003,” says Metz. “My husband, 44, collapsed from a pulmonary embolism and died on our kitchen floor. In the space of a few minutes I went from exurban wife and mother to a widow and single mother. Six months after he died, I was briefly involved in a relationship with a man who had been a friend during my marriage. During the course of an emotional conversation, he felt the time had come to let me know what had really happened. My husband had been leading a secret life. He’d been involved for over two years with a woman in our town, who was in fact the mother of my daughter’s best friend. And there were others, some near, some far away.”
Following the discovery, Metz says she was, “driven by a desire to understand who my husband was, and who I could be in the aftermath.” She contacted the five different women and tried to make sense of things. In time, she says, “I had to accept that I’d been lied to.” In addition to digging, Metz shares, “Within months after the news of my husband’s affairs, I began making plans to move back to the city where I hoped I could start over. I knew I had to change my life.”
“I never wanted to be a prying partner, and I still don’t want to be,” says Metz, when explaining what she learned from the experience. “I want to be with someone I can trust.” When entering into new relationships, she found her priorities had changed to honesty and kindness, while shunning the charm and grand gestures that reminded her of her late husband. “The learning continues. You just learn to adapt as best you can and make your way forward. I was angry with my husband for a long time. As the years passed, I was able to find compassion and even sorrow, a kind of belated grieving. He lost his life and the chance to raise his daughter. I’m grateful for the new life I have now.”
For others, the hardest discoveries were about parents. “I grew up in an environment where my mother would say things like, ‘You don’t want to know that,’” says psychologist Karen McClintock, referring to the times she’d ask a question about a face in a photo album, or had other, perfectly normal questions about her family. Later, she discovered that her father was gay, a story that she details in the memoir My Father’s Closet, published by Ohio State University Press.
“Throughout my life, there were these clues, and it was only when they all added up that I learned the truth,” says McClintock. “While he was alive, there were some seemingly stereotypical signs of my father’s sexuality, because he was an artist, a dancer and a gardener — he would even travel to New York every year with a single friend of his that, in those days, one would refer to as a ‘confirmed bachelor.’ But it wasn’t until after his death that it was confirmed: I had a box of things I’d received from my mother after he died, but I moved frequently and it wasn’t until years later that I opened that box and I found my father’s journal from 1939, [in] which [he] describes a gay male encounter while he was dating my mother.”
When thinking back on the secrets kept from her by both of her parents (as her mother was aware of her father’s sexuality), McClintock says the biggest damage is “a sense of detachment from the one you love. Because when someone is keeping that large of a secret, they have a hard time being fully present. I grew up knowing the straight father, but I longed to know the gay father that I had.”
Ultimately, McClintock learned to cope by digging deeper and deeper, eventually writing this memoir with the help of the university where her father worked. “Children have a right to know,” she says, having found that the best way to make sense of things was to find out everything she could. Knowing the truth, she says, helped her gain an understanding about her mother, and a gay father living in a time where his sexuality wasn’t accepted.
Like Metz and McClintock, Australian columnist Bram Presser also found comfort through digging. “My grandparents never spoke about their wartime experiences,” says Presser. “A couple of years after they died, a newspaper article was published claiming that my grandfather had been hand picked by the Nazis to become the literary curator of Hitler’s Museum of the Extinct Race. Soon after, a bushel of letters was found that my grandmother had sent to her mother, which were full of allusions to smuggling of supplies into concentration camps. So began my eight-year quest to try to find out what had really happened.”
He would eventually find that his grandfather was “a member of the secret Talmudkommando, a group of scholars given the task of sorting stolen books, for which he was given a number of special privileges that essentially saved his life. He also discovered that my grandmother and her mother (both converts to Judaism) were involved in smuggling food and medical supplies into concentration camps.” This, along with other details, would make their way into his memoir Book of Dirt, where he recounted his discoveries.
Being that Presser was close to his grandfather, he was disappointed that this was never shared with him, but he understood the difficulty of having to “relive extreme trauma.” He also found that, while he was prepared to discover uncomfortable truths, he instead discovered things that were overwhelmingly positive, and actually deepened his appreciation for his grandfather as a man in a difficult time and place, and who carried tremendous guilt for the deaths of Presser’s grandmother and great-grandmother, who died during the war. “It’s important to confront it head on,” says Presser. “Embrace it, even. It’s part of your inheritance, but remember that you aren’t responsible for it. Learn from it, grow from it. But don’t let it weigh you down.”
But while digging brought a sense of relief to the authors above, grief counselor Amy Olshever says that this may not be the case for everyone. She advises that you may want to “assess what the benefit is of finding out if it’s true. If not knowing is going to make you anxious and you’re going to obsess over it, you might need to do some work on it.” But if you get information that doesn’t sound right to you, she continues, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to believe it’s not true and continuing on with your life, believing that person was still the same person you knew.
Olshever describes this as “functional denial,” elaborating that, “while the word ‘denial’ gets a bad wrap, it’s simply a defense mechanism for the psyche.” In certain situations, she argues, it may be useful and even helpful to move forward and live your life this way. “As long as it isn’t affecting your functioning,” Olshever explains.
The unearthing of family secrets, Olshever continues, falls under the umbrella of “unfinished business.” In addition to talking about it in therapy and exploring the feelings surrounding it, she shares that some successful exercises that can be utilized in this situation are drafting an unsent letter to the deceased person expressing your feelings, as well as an exercise referred to as “the empty chair” (where you have a one-sided conversation with someone, or even act out both parts, to hopefully gain an understanding of the thinking of the deceased).
Olshever says that in both of these exercises, not only does it help the person to identify what they’re feeling, but oftentimes, “even though you can’t have that conversation or express those feelings to that person, your brain kind of understands that you did anyway.” She also notes that if you hear something from someone, “I’d be very careful about vetting the source of it and not automatically believing it to be true, because all you have to go on is that person’s perception.” This perception, she argues, can vary wildly from person to person, even in members of the same family.
Regardless of what you discover, or how you may decide to deal with it, Olshever tries to offer some comfort by saying, “It happens way more than you think.” By talking about it in therapy or with someone you trust, you may find that your story doesn’t need to make you feel so alone.