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.

Truth and Secrets

I came across an interesting quote today: The truth of a person is in her secrets. I know this is true of fiction, especially mysteries and suspense. You learn about a character from what they are willing to do to protect their secrets, and what you think they are willing to do. For example, a reader could think a particular character might be willing to kill to protect that secret, but the character would not take a life under any circumstances.

But is this true in real life? Oh, not the killing part, but the bit about the truth of a person being in her secrets. If so, I have no truth because I have no secrets. I have habits I would prefer people didn’t know about, such as an unconscious tendency to bite off hangnails, and while that might tell you more about me than I would like you to know, it’s not exactly a secret except perhaps from me. If I knew I were doing it, I wouldn’t.

I paused here to look up the definition of secret to see if there is a secret to “secret” I didn’t know that would further explain the quote, but no . . . it’s as I thought. A secret is something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others.

Although I might prefer the people I see regularly to know less about me than I disclose here (though surprisingly, it isn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be, and in fact, it’s rather nice not having to talk about the minutiae of my life since they already know it from reading my blog), nothing I write about is a secret. When I was writing about my grief, people offline did not see the same sort of grief in me that I wrote about online, but that’s just the way things were. Even if I was hurting, I generally didn’t show it when I was around people. Like every other griever, I soon learned to hide was I was feeling to protect others from having to deal with my pain as well as to protect myself from their well-meaning (and sometimes not well-meaning) platitudes, such as “You have to move on,” and “You need to get over it.”

But as for secrets? Nope. None.

Some people have accused me of being secretive, confusing secretive with reticent, but the truth is that not everyone deserves to know everything about anyone. There needs to be boundaries, and people who try to look beyond the boundaries aren’t necessarily looking for the truth but are simply being nosy.

I do generally answer direct questions, mostly because I am not as devious as I should be and so don’t lie, nor have I ever learned to graciously deflect questions, but I tend to resent probing questions, and it shows. I don’t ask such questions, either, which becomes a problem when I am talking with someone who thinks that probing questions is how one converses. These people generally don’t want to wait until I volunteer information, which I will when it come up naturally in a conversation without the resentment I feel in an “interrogation.” And they feel belittled because they think I don’t care enough about them to ask them questions.

(Jeff and I were both of the “ask no personal questions” school, and yet over the years, we learned almost everything there was to know about each other, the information coming out in myriad conversations.}

This essay has devolved into a discussion of various means of conversing rather than the topic of the truth being in the secrets, but I suppose the two are opposites sides of the same coin. If you don’t divulge personal information, the other person sees secrets rather than reticence.

But it still doesn’t answer the question about the validity of the quote: the truth of a person in is her secrets. I don’t think it can be true except in the case of someone who is nosy enough to want to invade a person’s privacy. The truth of us might be in our most secret self, but that self is for us to know, not for general consumption.

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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.