Photo by Nico De Pasquale Photography/Getty Images
My father died fairly suddenly the day after Thanksgiving and I spent much of the holiday season sorting through his belongings. It’s intimate and unsettling going through a deceased loved one’s effects—especially when you come across a surprise.
In my dad’s case, it was his collection of porn.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew he had a sex life. (He had me after all.) And I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if I’d found a Playboy or two. But as my husband and I went through his apartment, we found hundreds of DVDs, videotapes and magazines dating back as far as the ’70s…all featuring lesbians. This was a peek into his private life I never expected.
VIDEO: Daughter’s Letter to Heaven Gets a Reply
I was initially a bit taken aback, not to mention overwhelmed trying to find somewhere to donate his collection. (Yes, there are places that take porn besides frat houses.) But as I spoke with other friends who had lost their mom or dad, it became clear that every child unearths a postmortem shocker or two. From the innocuous (old love letters from a never-mentioned teenage romance) to the startling (homemade mom and dad sex tapes!) to the earth shattering (extramarital affairs, hidden sexual orientation, secret children), everyone had a story of a discovery to share.
“Parents aren’t fully transparent about every aspect of their lives, especially with their own children,” says Rebecca Soffer, cofounder and CEO of the online publication Modern Loss about grieving and life after loss. “If you find something that goes against the foundation of your relationship, that can really throw you off your axis and make you wonder, did I really know this person? Who was he? What was his deal? It’s important to remember to be kind. We’re all complex individuals with multifaceted parts of our lives.”
STORY: 7 Things I Wish My Dad Knew About Me Before His Death
“When you’re already in the throes of loss, coming across anything unexpected can feel like a secondary loss,” adds Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents, a book about how the death of our mothers and fathers impacts the way we raise our children. “You feel like you’re losing a piece of your reality. It’s really important to understand that your relationship with your deceased parent hasn’t shifted. You can grow from something shocking if you choose to adjust to the new information and process it. That takes some work, but it’s a valuable component of healing, which is acceptance. “
The most jaw-dropping tale I heard came from Kathryn in Arizona, who discovered she had long-lost half-siblings while rooting around her late father’s belongings in a closet. “I found a whole bunch of old photos of this very blond little kid with my aunt and other family I recognized,” she remembers. “There was also a letter… I brought it all down to my mother and was like, ‘What is this?’ Turns out my dad was married twice before her and had three other kids!” Although Kathryn admits she doesn’t have any secrets that big buried in her closet, that experience has made her mindful of what her kids will find after she’s gone. “I have this journal I kept in college when I was a very dark person buried in my nightstand,” she says. “I keep thinking, I have to burn that because, eventually, I will die and somebody will find it and I’ll be totally mortified.”
Revelations, whether large or small, inspire survivors to start what Gilbert calls “curating” their lives, especially if they have kids of their own. “Parentless parents ask themselves, what are my children going to see and comb through when I’m gone? It really does inform the way we curate our own lives and even the lives of our children, because we are so very sensitive about what happens after. Even something as simple as how many report cards and schoolwork do we keep—how much do we want to saddle our children with after we’re gone? Since we have gone through the experience, we wonder, will these things be a burden? That’s not an easy way to go through life raising kids.”
But it’s not always about throwing things away; sometimes it’s about what we’re sure to save. Soffer, who lost both her parents before she became one herself, is purposefully leaving things for her young son to discover. “I write lots of little notes for him and seal them up because I want these memories to surprise him for the better,” she says. “I’m creating a little time capsule because I want him to always know how much I love him. Losing my parents definitely caused me to become a creator of materials I want my child to find from me. It made me more mindful of the fact that someday, hopefully in the very distant future, he will be going through my stuff and, in addition to the boring minutiae of which of my coats go to Good Will, I want him to find really nice surprises. Because of losing my own parents, I think about what I want my child to get out of our relationship even after I’m no longer here.”