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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

Uncovering the Truth: Dealing with the Emotional Turmoil of Family Secrets

Several years ago, I attended a conference on suicide. Having lost my brother Doug to suicide in 2002, I have been interested in the topic and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can. It continues to be a large part of my work to meet, counsel and provide therapy to individuals, couples and families who have lost a loved one to suicide.


But at the morning session on the first day of the conference, it wasn’t the speaker I was interested as much as the woman who was sitting next to me. She was in her mid 50's, an attractive woman who was smartly dressed and yet the lines on her face indicated a hard life and through the entire morning session, as the speaker droned on about statistics, she was quietly crying to herself. And I became curious.


When the speaker had finished and it was time to take a break, I quietly turned to her and asked… if everything was all right. Others that were sitting near us got up to refill their coffee cups or nibble on the last bits of fruit and donuts that hadn’t been scavenged before the conference began.


She looked me in the eye and I wondered if she might be assessing me, trying to determine a level of safety with what she was about to say. She shook her head back and forth indicating that everything was not all right. I looked back down at the small pad of paper and pen that was emblazoned with the name of the hotel hosting the conference.

“Is there anything I can do?” I inquired. Again she shook her head from side to side and then blurted out with a pressured speech akin to someone about to enter the manic phase of a bi-polar episode.


“Twenty-five years ago my brother killed himself,” she said. “And an hour after his funeral, we weren’t allowed to mention how he died or even his name ever again in my family.” She looked back down at the Styrofoam coffee cup in her hand.


“In fact,” she said, “In the last twenty-five years, you’re the third person that I’ve told.”

I sat there stunned, not sure how to even make sense of the words she had just spoken to me. Twenty-five years of holding in the devastation and trauma. I thought of my own process and how the “telling” had become a large part of my healing and I was shocked and saddened that she had not been able to have a process for her grief.


We all take our cues for how we grieve from our families. How our parents and grandparents expressed sadness and emotion will be a guide for how we express sadness and emotion. I wondered what it was about her father’s experience that kept him from NOT wanting to talk about the grief, sadness, guilt and pain of losing a son in such a tragic, public and possibly shame-filled way?


We talked for quite awhile. She talked about her two failed marriages and her struggle with substance abuse and dependence and she said she thought that maybe if she could find a way to help others, it might be a way for her to help herself.


I shared with her a little bit of my story… how my brother had completed suicide and his long battle with drug and alcohol addiction and how I had a similar thought… that maybe by helping others, I might also be able to find some healing and peace myself. She asked for my name and phone number and asked if we might be able to keep in touch. I agreed. I could see some kind of relief cross her face at making a connection and at the thought that if another had lived through the death of a sibling and survived it, maybe she could too.

I never heard from her again. Her long blond hair disappeared into the crowd of the conference and I released her with a blessing of hope and healing. It was all I could do but for that day, in that moment, I knew, somehow, it was enough.


by Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC, Grief Therapist

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