Finding unexpected information about your loved one

5 min read

Things to remember about discovering secrets

  • Secrets are a normal part of every person’s life. Nobody shares every aspect of themselves even with those closest to them.

  • It’s OK to feel overwhelmed or angry at a new revelation, but those are just feelings. They don't mean you didn't know the person.

  • This is just a new thing you now know about your loved one. It makes them more, not less.

  • Once you face your feelings, you will likely realize this wasn't really a surprise. It was always consistent with the person you knew.

Once someone you loved is gone, you might think there’s nothing left to learn about them. After all, you cannot create any new memories together. But sometimes you discover new information that casts everything you thought you knew about them into a whole new light. 

If you are one of the family or friends responsible for sorting through the contents of a home, a storage locker, or a safe-deposit box, you might expect to find familiar trinkets or long-hidden treasures. But there is always a chance you will find documents or mementos you never even suspected existed. 

Closing out the material aspects of a loved one’s life can often be overwhelming or even painful. When you remove their belongings from their physical space, it can seem like losing them all over again, and heightened emotions can leave you crushed by memories that flood back all at once. If in the midst of all that you also discover secrets you weren’t meant to see or facts that your loved one neglected to mention, it can feel too huge to manage. Even if they’re happy secrets, the revelation can be very unsettling.

Managing your emotions proactively 

When your feelings are still raw and volatile from your loss, it’s helpful to attend to details at your own pace. If you can hold off on making large decisions, consider giving yourself that additional time. Rushing through financial matters is stressful on its own, and by getting started too soon you may end up delaying your grieving process. 

The reality is, however, that some matters need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Often, cleaning out a house is something that must be done relatively quickly, particularly if you are selling it. 

If you haven’t already started the sorting process, it is incredibly helpful to ground yourself; go in already assuming that you will discover new aspects of your loved one’s life. Even if you don’t find anything you weren’t anticipating, this awareness helps to put the person’s life—and their death—into perspective. Nobody shares every aspect of themselves even with those closest to them; those parts that weren’t revealed are a completely normal part of everyone’s life. If you are still worried about what you might find, bring in others to help you. 

As you clear out belongings and review documents, it’s hard to say just what you might find upsetting. It could be the discovery itself, or the fact that they couldn’t tell you while they were alive, or that you wish you had known earlier. The best thing you can do when you are surprised by something is to take a moment to sit back and process it. As hard as might be, stay focused on the present and breathe.

Sorting out how you feel

Suppressing negative thoughts can be very stressful, especially when you are already in the midst of processing your grief. Avoiding your feelings can lead to uncomfortable physical symptoms, particularly headaches or stomach discomfort. 

Moreover, there is no reason to avoid facing these feelings. Your brain can handle surprising news better than you think. And even though what you found may seem negative in the moment, you probably won’t always see it that way. 

It doesn’t mean you didn’t know them; it just means they weren’t what you thought – they were more than you thought. 

You can feel heartbroken at first. You might feel numb. You might feel angry. Even if what you found makes the person more interesting, more exciting, or even just more nuanced, you might feel like you were left out. You might wonder why they felt they needed to hide it, but you can’t ask questions anymore. And you might feel additional loss that you didn’t know them the way you thought you did. But it’s important to remember that you did know them, and this discovery can’t change that. It doesn’t mean you didn’t know them; it just means they weren’t what you thought—they were more than you thought. 

Give yourself some space to process your regret and sadness. Take a break and come back when you’re ready. You don’t have to tell anyone what you found until you’re ready to talk about it, but sharing may help you put things in perspective.

Working through it

More than anything, as you move forward, it is vital to be kind to yourself. You don’t have to feel bad about having a reaction. That’s normal. You might feel guilty about having negative feelings about someone you are grieving, as though you are betraying their memory by thinking they betrayed you. You’re not, and they didn’t. To loosen the grip of these highly charged feelings, you may need to do some emotional work. 

After you’ve reflected on your discovery, you may still be stuck with negative emotions. Sometimes, reframing the way you think about the bad news can help you to view the situation from new angles and suspend your judgement. Challenge yourself to identify positive aspects of your discovery rather than only seeing the negatives.

You may want to write your thoughts in your journal or write a letter to the person. Articulating and writing down what you feel can release emotional stress. You can address the shock you felt at finding out, or put yourself in their shoes to think of reasons why they didn’t tell you. You may express your sadness at not having known, and then forgive them for keeping this secret from you. 

As you start to feel calmer, you might come to realize that what you found was not a surprise after all, given the person’s character; it’s just the facts that you didn’t know. After you get over any shock, you will probably find that not much about your opinion of the person has changed. Except now you have a more complete picture—of both of you. In the end, that unknown document may have been a hidden treasure after all.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.