Left-Behind Secrets

A common storyline for mysteries and thrillers is the secrets one finds after the death of one’s husband. Sometimes the husband is not really dead, but faked his demise for nefarious reasons. Sometimes the husband had a secret life, such as a second wife and family. Sometimes the husband was murdered, which eventually uncovers a whole slew of secrets, including whatever he did — sometimes innocently, sometimes with malice — to make someone want him dead.

All these left-behind secrets, of course, add to the grief of the widow because not only does she grieve for her husband, cad that he might have been, but she also grieves for the illusory life she’d taken to be real.

I’ve used this storyline myself for my novel Unfinished, though the secret didn’t really have that much of an impact on my character except for the awful realization that her husband had never trusted her enough to tell her about his past.

This is a popular storyline for a reason. Often, in real life, when clearing out a loved one’s effects, secrets do come to light. Sometimes it’s a stash of love letters, relics of an affair the husband had that the widow never knew about. Sometimes it’s a financial mess that was left behind, though in rare circumstances, it’s a trove of much-needed cash that the widow never knew about.

People are always shocked to find out these secrets because they were sure they knew everything there was to know about their spouse. In a way it makes sense that there are secrets — both the husband and wife generally lead separate lives for most of the day, he with his job, she with hers. Even more than that, though, our brains tend to fill in the gaps. For example, we all have blind spots — literally blind spots in our vision — but our brains fill in the missing information so most of us don’t realize we have a blind spot. It’s the same thing with knowledge. We can only know what we know, so our brains create some sort of boundary that excludes what we don’t know when forming a concept, so we assume that what we know is all there is to know, especially when it comes to a person we’ve lived with for many years and think we know well.

Chances are, we do know that loved one as well as anyone can know another person, but I don’t know how accurate that knowing is. For example, I lived with Jeff for more than three decades, most of which we spent in each other’s company. We worked together, lived together, watched movies together, and talked for hours on end. And yet, there’s no way I would ever assume that what I knew of him is all there was to know. Despite our almost mystical connection, he was his own person. I tend to think that in all the talking we did over the years, I learned most of his life, but there’s no way I could ever know if there were things I didn’t know.

At this point in my life, of course, it doesn’t matter. He was who was, and a big part of dealing with grief is understanding that despite all the love and experiences two people share in a lifetime, in the end, they are two separate people. He had to go his way (to death and beyond, assuming there is a beyond), and I had to go my way. If I were to find out now he had some sort of secret life (secret from me, that is), it wouldn’t seem the betrayal it would have been when he was alive or in the first years of my grief because grief did its work, and I let him go. I still miss him and I still talk to his picture, but that is in no way talking to him. I don’t expect him — the “him” that was once my life mate — to listen to my mutterings, nor do I expect a response. It’s just a way of ending my day, enumerating the highs and lows of the long hours spent mostly alone.

As you’ve probably guessed, the book I am currently reading is about a husband who was murdered and whatever he did to get someone angry enough to beat him to death. (I think it was something innocent, perhaps giving evidence of a crime, but I don’t know yet because I am only halfway through the story.)

One thing I do find interesting is that unlike most books of this ilk, the widow is still grieving a year later. Intensely grieving. Most books have the widow cry a few tears then shrug off their grief and go about their life as if nothing had happened, as if the death was merely a springboard for a change. But this author knows that grief is not simply an emotional upset but is a neurological condition that overloads the brain, changes the chemistry, and affects the neurological system in ways still not understood.

I was impressed with the author’s insight on grief if nothing else.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.