Q: Going through my dad’s closet after his death, I found a box of love letters from another woman--and a photo of a child. Do I tell Mom that Dad had an affair?
Well, the first thing is to get prepared for a long night! If you weren’t an investigative reporter before, you are now, and that’s because you need to stop yourself from jumping to conclusions.
What you have here is some damning evidence without a reliable narrative, so your instinct is to make up that narrative yourself. And I admit, that narrative looks pretty shocking.
You could just throw away that box and try to pretend it never happened, but I’m pretty sure you know that won’t work. You can’t unsee what you’ve already seen, and that’s a heavy burden to carry alone. Also, “might not be” is just as potent as “might.” In other words, people can cope with reality much better than battling an endless barrage of imagined possibilities.
Coming at your family with an alarm siren like “Dad had an affair” is never appropriate unless someone is in immediate danger. Otherwise it’s just spreading gossip. Sharing your shock isn’t helpful, but sharing facts can be.
That’s where the reporting work comes in. Let’s look at the facts here.
First, just because the letters and photos are together doesn’t mean they are related to each other. Sure, they are connected by being private mementos your dad protected in a hidden place, but that’s all you know. What else is in the box? Snoop around and gather as much information as you can.
Second, are you sure that child in the photo isn’t you? Or another child your mother may know about? You can’t be certain at this point.
Third, have you read the letters? I give you permission to dig in. Read all of them. Then take some time to process and read them again. Is there any information that brings up your own memories? Any dots that you can connect?
I still have a lot of animosity towards my father. Should I go to his funeral? And finally, try a little outside digging. If the letters include names, dates, locations or other details, look those up online and see what you can find. You may even ask a few open-ended questions of people connected to them, like “Hey Aunt Lynne, I found an old letter where Dad mentioned a business trip to Hawaii with Uncle Dan, do you remember that?”
You’re gathering facts here, but this research will also help you process the information so it’s less damaging to you. When you feel like you are ready to share the facts without alarm, then it’s time to think about who to tell.
How is Mom doing? How is her mental and physical health? If she’s not prepared to hear that potentially your dad had an affair, then I discourage you from sharing it with others in the family, because the one thing you don’t want is for everyone to know but Mom. I understand if you feel the need to share this burden with a trusted advisor or family member, but don’t widen that circle.
If Mom is pretty sturdy, then I recommend sharing, but that’s only because I personally prefer a painful truth than a comfortable lie. Follow your own instincts based on what you feel about the situation and know about your family. A gut instinct is a powerful guide – listen to yours.
If you decide to share, lead with the facts. Not, “Mom, I found out Dad had an affair!” Instead, “Mom, I found this box in the closet with some letters and a photo, do you recognize this child?” Try those open-ended questions again, like, “Mom, have you ever heard Dad mention someone named Donna?” Don’t editorialize, don’t impose your own opinion, just share facts.
Be prepared for the possibility that Mom already knows Dad had an affair and they reconciled years ago. Or she knows more facts and it’s not what you assumed at all. Or she doesn’t know, and this will shock her as it shocked you. If so, be there for Mom, and work through it together.
I’d be a total slacker if I didn’t recommend counseling. This is a quintessential example of what therapy is for – something that you can’t share because you feel fear and shame. Taking that to an objective source helps you emotionally bomb it out and organize it, without hurting people close to you. And I can tell just by your question that hurting Mom is your main concern.