Lets’ talk about Dying: Dealing with family secrets

Helena Dolny Lets talk about Dying: Dealing with family secrets

‘Achecklist for checking out’ (City Press, July 21 2013) included nine items of helpful things to have and information (pin codes and passwords) that will make things easier for your family when you die.

I have now been sent a check list.

A widow whose husband died unexpectedly last year has documented 28 points.

She details all the things she had the misfortune to discover that she needed.

For example, make sure you get multiple certifiedID copies before the word deceasedgets stamped on it.

Make sure you deal with the medical aid so you can still get your own medicine the following month; and also, what about the car licence and your right to drive the vehicle?

Another reader, however, made a contribution of a completely different order.

What, if anything, are you leaving behind that others might discover that may cause them pain?

It read: “Dear Helena, although I have often had thoughts about what I would/wouldn’t like to leave around after my death, I somehow never get around to taking the actions I need to.

Do I really want someone else to find a diary filled with my darkest thoughts after I die, when I am unable to tell them that it was just a way of venting and working through stuff?

“Cleaning up after someone’s death is a tough job. Would I really want to burden anyone with trying to sort through all of it?

“I will start by getting rid of anything that might cause anyone else pain if they found it after my death knowing that I would be unable to place it in context for them. Thank you for making me think.”

When I read this email, the writer was making me think and taking me back in time to when my husband Joe Slovo died and the “secrets” that I learnt.

It was the limbo time, the period between the death and the burial.

There was a constant stream of visitors.

Someone approached me and said: “There is a young man on the street outside. He wants to come in, but also doesn’t want to come in.”

They told me his name but I continued to be puzzled.

Then the penny dropped for them – I was not in the know.

The young man was Joe’s son, born out of wedlock.

I had known Joe just short of 20 years and been his partner, then wife, for more than a decade.

But I had never lived in London where this parentage was common knowledge in the ANC exile community.

Thus, 36 hours after his death, I was astounded to learn that he had a child that he had never spoken to me about.

A year later, Gillian Slovo would publish a family memoir, Every Secret Thing, which includes this bit of family history.

It’s horrible to discover such “secrets”.

I asked myself what had I contributed to Slovo not telling me?

Did he think I would think less of him? I felt heartsore.

I felt knocked sideways. It was a bewildering discovery at a time when I was already overwhelmed by the finality of my husband’s death – that ultimate knowing that there is never going to be another conversation or another touch.

In my 50s, I had the good fortune to fall in love again. We took things slowly, but I was certain that I’d say “yes” if John were to pop the question.

And then I thought about the red box at the back of that cupboard.

If I were to die before John and he were to open that box of mementos, what might he come across that might surprise him?

What had I chosen not to share with him that he might feel hurt about? Might he also ponder that perhaps he didn’t know me as he had thought?

Dealing with all the practicalities when someone dies is difficult enough, but having to deal with the discovery of familysecrets is even more difficult.

A pension fund administrator tells me stories of widows discovering that their husbands had second lives – second families that have their own right to grieve and inherit.

What is in your life that others might learn of when you are gone, which might cause them pain?


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