Let's Talk About Dying 6: Opening The Red Box Featured

By Helena Dolny

Published by City Press 4 Augut 2013

Let's Talk About Dying 6: Opening The Red Box

My Check List for Checking Out (City Press 14th July) included NINE items of things it’s helpful to have made decisions about or information (pin codes and passwords) that will make things easier for your family in the event of your death.

I’ve now been sent a Check List: SO YOU THINK YOU ARE PREPARED? THINK AGAIN.  A widow whose husband died unexpectedly last year has impressively documented TWENTY EIGHT points.  She details all the stuff she had the misfortune to discover that she needed with specific instructions e.g. Make sure you get multiple certified copies of the ID before the words DECEASED get stamped on it. Make sure your deal with medical aid so you can get your own meds next month; what about the car license and your right to drive the vehicle etc.

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?

Dear Helena

Although I have often had thoughts about what I would/would not 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 e-mail, the writer was making ME think, and taking me back in time to 1995 when my husband Joe Slovo died and the “secrets” that I learnt after his death that caused me pain.

It was the limbo time, the in-between death and burial days. 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 he also doesn’t want to come in.” I must have appeared puzzled. They told me the name of the young man. I continued to be puzzled. Then the penny dropped for them, that 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 family history.

It’s horrible to discover such “secrets”. I asked myself what had I contributed to Joe’s not telling me?  Did he think I would think less of him? I felt heart-sore. I felt knocked sideways.  It was a bewildering discovery to take on board at a time when I already felt overwhelmed by the finality of my husband’s death – that ultimate knowing that there’s never ever going to be another conversation or another touch.

In my fifties I had the good fortune to fall in love again. We took things slowly but surely. I became certain that I’d say ‘yes’ if John were to ask “Will you marry me? ”

And then I thought about the red box that’s at the back of that cupboard on a high shelf that you need a step ladder to get to. If I were to die before John and he were to open that red box of mementos, what might he come across that might surprise him? What had I chosen not to share with him that he might he feel hurt about learning after my death?  Might he too ponder that perhaps he didn’t know me as well as he thought he knew me?

Dealing with all the practicalities when someone dies is hard enough. Dealing with the discovery of family secrets is harder. An administrator of a pension fund tells me stories of widows discovering that their husbands had a second life, a whole other family that they didn’t know about, a second family that has its own right to grieve and its own right to a share of any financial assets.

So what’s in your life that others might learn about when you’re dead and that might cause them pain?

What conversations could you consider having now before it’s too late?


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