Many of us have been told, “don’t speak ill of the dead.” But what happens if someone who caused the trauma dies?
The idea that dead people should be exempt from criticism simply because they have died is tiresome and badly in need of revision. For survivors of abuse, the death of their abuser may be their first opportunity to safely share their story. Thankfully, our cultural mythology about the eternal love of families – and especially mothers – is finally starting to be contested, as with Jennette McCurdy’s disturbing account of a lifetime of abuse her mother endured in her best-selling memoir, “I’m Glad My Mother Is Dead. ” But often these honest memories are rejected or disbelieved.
Late last year, a viral obituary detailed a lifetime of extreme abuse Gayle Harvey Heckman endured at the hands of her mother. Days later, the publication withdrew the obituary, citing a “despicable mistake” they made in not reading the post more carefully before publishing it. The outlet also described the obituary as “a vile hatred of a beloved member of our community.”
My heart broke for Heckman when I read the newspaper’s response. It seems that the audience’s discomfort with the possibility of someone making such a heinous choice while alive is far more important than validating the survivor’s veracity.
The news media, and most people in general, seem to have very specific expectations regarding how one should express one’s grief in public: When someone dies, we should attend the funeral; we should cry; we should miss the deceased and mourn openly; we should write a flowery obituary fit for a king (or queen).
The unspoken rule is that we should never dare suggest that a dead person might have behaved reprehensibly in life. Any mention that the legacy left behind is one of great trauma for the survivors is immediately dismissed, as was the case with Heckman.
I myself am no stranger to trying – and failing – to publish honest obituaries.
When my beloved grandfather, whom I called “Pop,” died several years ago, I attempted to publish honest paragraphs about his life. I saw firsthand how he overcame a brutal marriage and happily lived out his final years in Florida, as far away from his ex-wife as possible.
Sometime in the 80s, my father picked Pop up from the side of a country road where he had been walking barefoot, crying and trying to find shelter, after his wife kicked him out of their house penniless. I was a kid when Pop slept on our couch in Brooklyn with nowhere else to go, as he planned his next move. When I was an adult, we spent hours on the phone as he repeated his regrets — including his marriage to my grandmother.
I am married, and therefore I am very aware that there are two sides to the story of every relationship. However, as a direct recipient of abuse perpetrated by the same woman, my grandfather’s experience closely paralleled mine.
Courtesy of Christina Wyman
The author and his grandfather (circa 1980).
Pop’s ex-wife is my biological grandmother, and no generation of our family has been untouched by the emotional, physical, and financial abuse she endured. In 1980, he kicked my teenage parents and me out of his house when I was just a baby. She decided suddenly that her underemployed father and postpartum mother could live on their own, without a single resource to their name. Family lore suggests that the motivation for this decision had to do with an argument over an untidy bathroom.
Much later, years after the unthinkable position she had put us in, my grandmother would openly and unabashedly praise what my parents were able to overcome in their early days as a young family. Her lack of self-awareness will never amaze me.
When I was little – after my parents reconnected with my grandmother (reconnection with an abuser is often a hallmark of a dysfunctional family cycle) – my father felt the need to supervise my grandmother’s visits with my sister and me, citing how physically and emotionally hostile he was with us when he thought no one was looking or listening.
Years later I turned to trauma-informed therapy to receive my own education, and it was only then that I began to understand how pervasive and insidious my grandmother’s influence was.
This woman’s most morally corrupt (and sometimes criminal) behavior was often carried out in private – reserved only for those who lived their lives under her watch. Therefore, I can easily understand why casual friends, acquaintances, distant family, or anyone on the fringes of his life would find such ugly details difficult — even impossible — to believe.
This is why society’s attitude towards news of death needs to be rethought. Those who were previously unaware of the traumatic experiences a person endures at the hands of a family member may gain important insight into what really happened, and survivors of abuse can lift the veil of silence they have lived with and hopefully move in a better direction. healing.
They say that the best revenge is to live a good life. After reflecting on my grandfather’s life, I thought about how leaving his abusive marriage and finding happiness as an Elvis devotee in the Sunshine State might have been Pop’s greatest accomplishment — a detail I noted when I began compiling his obituary. He is also a veteran who found his post-service calling in restoring cars.
When writing about his life, I wanted to immortalize his triumphs and trials, but was rejected again and again. The newspapers didn’t want to hear anything about the abuses he suffered and all he had overcome on his journey to peace. My only option was to write something palatable and half-truthful – an easy-to-digest tale that readers could digest easily and safely.
As much as I hated being silenced, the life Pop led gave me a lot to do. He was a truly beloved member of the community and loved his family unconditionally.
My grandmother died last fall. As far as I know, he remained violent until his last breath. I do not believe there is any way to honor his life as he chose to live it and, for this reason, no one in the family wrote an obituary for him. Perhaps this essay is the closest I can come to telling what I know to be the truth about him and the pain he caused.
Courtesy of Christina Wyman
The author and his grandfather (circa 2003).
Writing an honest obituary can, for some people, be healing. Ignoring and dismissing a survivor’s experience for our own emotional comfort can be retraumatizing. And telling someone that their experiences no longer matter because their abuser is dead is a terrible act. That’s not the long-term impact of abuse and trauma. A newspaper editor is in no moral position to decide whether an obituary is “hateful hate mail.”
While it is true that a deceased person cannot defend themselves against any claims made about the way they lived their life, they can also no longer be held liable for any detrimental actions. Death gave them complete exoneration. Therefore, an honest obituary may be the only path to closure for survivors. As American novelist Anne Lamott once said, “You are responsible for everything that happens to you. Tell your story. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should behave better.” These are words of wisdom for all of us.
I don’t know the intricacies and intimacies of Heckman’s life — or her mother’s — beyond what she originally published, but I believe her. And I believe that telling our stories, no matter how dark or painful they may be, can be crucial to moving forward, processing trauma, and ultimately healing. Writing an honest obituary—whether for a family member or a world leader—isn’t about seeking revenge or defaming someone and it’s certainly not fun. It’s about telling the truth, holding people accountable for what they do, and hopefully, in doing so, finding a way to become whole again.
Christina Wyman is a writer and teacher living in Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, ELLE Magazine, Marie Claire, The Guardian, and other outlets. She hopes her essay on intergenerational trauma contributes to destigmatizing survivor stories that emerge from abusive and toxic family dynamics.
Help and support:
If you, or someone you know, is in danger, call 999 and contact the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
Free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247In Scotland, call the 24-hour Domestic Violence and Forced Marriage Helpline in Scotland: 0800 027 1234In Northern Ireland, call the 24-hour Domestic Violence & Sexual Violence Helpline : 0808 802 1414In Wales, call the 24-hour Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800. National LGBT+ Domestic Violence Helpline: 0800 999 5428Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327Respect helpline (for anyone concerned about their own behaviour) : 0808 802 0321