After death discoveries: The good, the bad, the ugly

This post is about the discoveries that are sometimes made after someone has died. The good discoveries are welcome, but unfortunately they’re not always the entire story. This aspect of grief doesn’t apply to everyone, but for those it does, I hope it’s helpful and that you might not feel so alone, or that you are the only one who has experienced this.


After my daughter Catherine died, a friend sent me some photos from a holiday they’d had together. I’d never seen these pictures and it lifted my spirit to receive them.

Something else that happened in the weeks after she died: I found out that during her last stay in hospital, she had sometimes attended the communion service that was offered. I had brought Catherine up as a Christian but she had chosen her own path as a young adult, so I was happily surprised to hear that she had made the effort out of her own choice to attend this service in the mental health unit where she stayed for some months.

Those were welcome discoveries. There were other things I learned after her death that were not so pleasant, and some I wished I could undiscover but that is not possible.

I suppose most of us have parts of our life that we hold close. When an adult or teenager dies – a child, a sibling, a partner, a parent, a friend – those hidden aspects of their lives can sometimes come to light.

A friend or colleague might tell us about our loved one’s acts of kindness or generosity. Family members might tell funny stories about them growing up. All of this brings us joy as we discover more to admire in our loved one.

And then we make our own discoveries, perhaps inadvertently. We sort through papers and boxes and are surprised by the contents. Or maybe we even go looking. We read through diaries and letters, we browse through their social media accounts. Hopefully what we discover is good and supports our positive memories of our loved one or friend.

But not all discoveries are good. We could be sorting through piles of papers and discover receipts for items that don’t seem to make sense. An old photo book might reveal a history of which we were unaware. Social media and emails and text messages might not be what we expected. (For a discussion on social media, see here.)

What we find may be unwelcome; it could represent betrayals of our trust. We may discover that our loved one had a hidden life; other aspects that we knew nothing about. Perhaps they had a gambling addiction. Perhaps there was a second mortgage or debts or drug use or secret relationships.

This can be particularly hurtful if he or she was our partner. To discover unfaithfulness can hurt us to our core, shattering our sense of security, battering our self-esteem and perhaps leading us to question everything about our shared history.

It can hurt so bad. We can find ourselves absolutely furious at this person who betrayed us, and utterly frustrated because there is now nothing we can do about it. They are dead; the conversations that we should have had are no longer possible. The questions we want to ask will remain unanswered. The reasons for their actions will remain unknown.

Do we regret finding out? Would it have been better not to have known?

Or maybe we wonder, how did we not realise what was going on at the time? Was it our fault?

And then: Do other people know? Did they know all along? Should we tell them?

Along with this, perhaps we question how to handle it when other people speak highly of him or her, when we now know that he or she had behaved terribly.

This type of after-death discovery can add so many difficult layers to our grief.

I have come across a few very sad examples of this, and each was heartbreaking in its own way. The person who is left can find it hard to trust others again and/or feel very ambivalent about themselves and their own life choices.

There is no single, simple answer or solution to any of this, but I think there are a few principles that can be helpful to bear in mind.

For starters, we should not blame ourselves. The decisions our loved one made were his or her decisions, not ours. “Each of us must give an account to God for what we do,” it says in the Bible (Romans 14:12), and that is a helpful thought whether we believe in God or not. The point is that we are each individually accountable for our own life choices.

Going further with this thought – if our loved one struggled with something and did not tell us about it, then we could not be expected to know or support them. Again, that was their choice, not our own. We should not beat ourselves up about what happened. If they had told us about it, we might have been able to help in some way, but they chose to hide it from us.

Another aspect to consider is that the “bad” or “ugly” that we have discovered does not completely take away the good things of that person’s life. Perhaps we had shared what seemed a happy life together. Now that we’ve made these discoveries, we might question absolutely everything. We might wonder about our wedding, about those holidays and special times we shared. Was it ALL bad? Probably not. Probably our shared life was a mixture – perhaps we didn’t realise how much of a complex mixture – but now we are seeing it. The bad does not completely take away the good, but it can be really really tough to acknowledge this, especially during our initial confusion and shock.

As we process the new information and the new way of looking at our life, chances are there will be material items that need to be dealt with. Do we empty the house of their clothes and everything that reminds us of them? Do we burn the pictures and the diaries? Perhaps our decisions are complicated by the other people from whom we have some responsibility. If we have children, grown or young, we will need to consider their feelings too.

The bad and ugly discoveries can lead us to rage, disbelief, bitterness, frustration, disappointment, self-recrimination, confusion and/or heartbreak. We might find it harder to trust people; we may become cynical. It’s not surprising we feel like this.

All of this can weigh heavily on us, and that leads me to the most important advice I would like to offer: It is vital for our own mental and emotional well-being to find someone we trust with whom we can talk. We need a safe, non-judgmental place to voice our thoughts and feelings, somewhere confidential. We need to be able to express ourselves without worrying about the impact on the person we are talking to.

It could be a friend or a family member, but often with this type of complicated, post-death discovery scenario, we will benefit from the support of a professional counsellor or a spiritual advisor. (You can find links to potential support on this page here.)

Expressing ourselves and facing our feelings doesn’t change the past, of course, but eventually it can help to take the sting out of what we have learnt. It can help us put the past in the past, and find our way going forward, and I believe that is what we need to aim for.

Read more (external links)

Some different points of view

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Grief can be multi-layered and knotty. That’s why we often need outside support to sort out the complexity of our feelings and thoughts.

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