Ever make peace with not knowing how someone died?
April 14, 2022 8:42 AM   Subscribe

A good friend suddenly died far away, and her parents released no details other than vague rumors of some kind of accident. I would like to respect their privacy but I still wish I knew what happened.

Can you recommend a way to A) make peace with never knowing why someone passed away? Or is it ever worth it to B) go to the county recorder's office and find out the answer, or did you ever do something like that and regret it? A month after finding out and going through that initial grief, I feel like i'm closer to A. But I wonder if anyone has ever tried B and what that process was like.
posted by johngoren to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you reach out to the parents? Parents generally like to know that their children were loved and missed and you can ask for details. It’s natural to want to know why someone died. I’m sorry for your loss.
posted by amanda at 8:49 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have two friends who became distant over the years who both died young. My gut tells me they were both suicides, but I will never know because the family never publicly named the cause of death.

I did wonder for a while out of curiosity, and with some guilt about not being a better friend if they were indeed suicides. But that's a dangerous road to go down. I would never impose on the families to ask as I was their friend, not the family's friend, and the families wouldn't even know who I was. Your situation might be different if you are close with the family.

Also consider there is a reason they are not providing specifics, and you are not required to like that, and they are not required to share the information. They might not even know specifics.

My husband asked me both times, why do you need to know? And what woud change if you did know? It might help to ask yourself those same questions because I couldn't provide a good answer for either question either time.
posted by archimago at 9:02 AM on April 14, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry for your loss. When this has happened to me, it has eventually come out that the cause of death was either suicide or a drug overdose. I would not ask the parents directly, but I would send them a card/letter sharing your favorite moments with your friend, why you'll miss them, how you plan to remember them, etc. They may or may not respond with the details you want, but they will appreciate the letter.
posted by coffeecat at 9:10 AM on April 14, 2022 [46 favorites]

I also lost a good friend suddenly last year.

Often, learning details just leaves you with more unanswered questions.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:11 AM on April 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so incredibly sorry about your dear friend. I have experienced something similar. More than once, unfortunately. In one case I never got the answers I was looking for. In the other, I did.

I will say that I feel the same way about both situations. In the first case, with time, the situation became clearer as the immediate shock and anguish wore off. I think my brain wanted to know what happened as a way to simply process the "how can this be real" feeling.

But here's the thing: that feeling remains even if/when you get details. An unexpected loss of a loved one is not something that your heart and mind are designed to accept with the unfolding of facts. The facts simply add more hurt and sorrow in some cases.

I think if you move towards A, trying to find some peace, with gentle compassion for yourself, that the confusion will fade, the resolution you are looking for will come clearer (though never totally), and you will heal in time.

I also think that being gentle and compassionate with yourself in this way will help you give the space to your friend's family that is warranted. Compassion for yourself and your friend's family is almost certainly a way to honor your friend. That too can bring you peace.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:15 AM on April 14, 2022 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed that it was probably either drugs or suicide. Families aren't embarrassed if their kid dies of cancer or in a car accident, but they don't want their loved one to be remembered as a junkie or a depressive.

Knowing that, what would option B do for you? I guess everyone is different, but if I found out a friend had committed suicide, I'd probably feel worse because I didn't do more to help them. I know that's problematic, but it's true. It would not help me get over the loss at all.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:52 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Yes, if no cause is given, it's drugs or suicide. A mistake, in my opinion, but do you really want to torture the family with shame over it?
posted by praemunire at 10:03 AM on April 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Over the past 10 years I've learned of several friends and work friends deaths where the details were not provided. A few times I've learned much later what happened, but not every time - I just know that they died, and that's all I know and probably will ever know.

The times I've learned what happened, it hasn't helped. Learning that someone died of natural causes doesn't feel any better - they were far too young and knowing that they had a heart attack hasn't given me any additional closure or made me feel any better about it.

Learning someone died by suicide didn't help, it just made me feel worse for all of the reasons you'd imagine.

It's 100% natural to want those details, of course. We feel like if we had more information, it'd make sense. But death is stupid. It doesn't make sense. Unless the details are something like "died heroically saving children from a burning house" there's no comfort to be had from the details. It doesn't balance the loss equation. A wonderful human being departed from the world and all the details and explanations don't balance that.

I think we also want to know "how did they die?" because part of our brain is thinking if we know how someone else died, we can stave it off longer for ourselves.

What might help: When I think about dying, I hope that I can do it peacefully and alone. Like, I'd like to be very old and be home alone reading a book or listening to music with a few cats in my lap, doze off and slip off into whatever's next. I don't want to have to deal with other people's reactions.

So - consider it private. It might give you more peace if you frame it as something private and that you are giving your deceased friend the gift of privacy (retroactively, as it were) in the last challenge they faced. It was their moment, and theirs alone, and you're keeping their trust and being respectful.
posted by jzb at 10:03 AM on April 14, 2022 [17 favorites]

Best answer: A close friend of mine died two years ago. He was found deceased in his home, of unknown cause.

At first, one of his brothers was in touch with the friend crowd, discussing what he knew and participating in Zoom calls. He said they were trying to get an autopsy, he'd update us, that there would be a memorial gathering.

The brother dropped off the map.

The lack of information is eerie. Sometimes it feels like my friend didn't die.

I chalk it up to being overwhelmed. The sudden death of a sibling, who went without a will or funeral plans, right as the world shut down, must have been awful.

I choose compassion over curiosity. I choose to live with the lack of knowledge.

I don't put my stuff on the bereaved family.

The open-ended nature of the loss is on my therapy to-do, I'll try to organize something on my own if I can, I root for our college team in sports stuff.
posted by champers at 10:30 AM on April 14, 2022 [8 favorites]

I'm dealing with this right now, and trying to choose compassion over curiosity, as champers phrased it.

There's a part of me, however, that figures that there isn't much harm in triangulating a person you know that is closer enough to the person's inner circle to know what happened, but not so close that they are likely to be devastated. If there is an in-between person like this, it could potentially be a matter-of-fact conversation that doesn't bother the close family.
posted by umbú at 10:52 AM on April 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Time will help. At the end of the day, this person is gone, whatever the circumstances.

Am very sorry for your loss.

I knew of someone who was killed by her husband. The obit stated: "died suddenly at home." So even the record doesn't always tell the story.
posted by rhonzo at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have had friends die mysteriously and I felt similarly - I was very curious and also didn't want to ask. I did eventually find out what happened because their family member eventually shared the info. I have lost people to the gamut of reasons - in one case a suicide, in another a drug overdose, and in another an unexpected heart attack at a young age, as well as standard reasons like accident or lengthy illness.

In all three of the "mysterious" cases, I thought I might feel relieved to know, but as it turned out, I didn't experience any closure or relief when I heard what happened. Instead, my questions just shifted further upstream in time: should we have known they were suicidal or using drugs? Were there medical warning signs? I still pored over their social media looking for "clues" that might have helped us predict & control the outcome and prevent their deaths, whether the cause was suicide, drugs, or medical... and I've done the same for people who died of non-mysterious causes, too, like cancer.

This tells me that my curiosity and seeking answers and wishing for prevention and control is just a normal part of grieving, and it's not actually about the answers I might get, it's just a thing my brain has to do. So answers don't really help me, personally. I still have almost the exact same questions, they just become a bit more focussed. "Was she suicidal?" turns into "Why was she suicidal and "Were there signs that she was suicidal?"

Sending the parents a kind card sharing memories about the person felt like a good thing to do, and I also set myself a calendar reminder to reach out to their loved ones on their birthday and deathday for the next few years, to share a warm word and memory. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:29 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think what you'll find, if you're anything like me, that all this detective work is very normal, but it's answering a question other than the one you really have, which is How can I make this not have happened? You think you want an explanation of what happened, but even if you get it, it will turn out not to be what you want, which is for them not to have died. While seconding what everyone else has said about not re-traumatizing the family with your questions, I would add that you should just know before you go down any rabbit-holes that whatever answers you turn up aren't likely to satisfy you.
posted by catesbie at 11:33 AM on April 14, 2022 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Yeah, I guess I really do wish I knew the answer to how to make it not have happened. :(
posted by johngoren at 11:50 AM on April 14, 2022 [14 favorites]

I hate to nth something so grim, but yeah, in these cases, it's usually drugs or suicide. Knowing that won't bring you any peace, I wouldn't imagine. I had two friends whose deaths were only noted publicly with vague mention of them being "gone too soon" or "lost tragically" or what have you. Upon investigation, one turned out to be a violent suicide, the other was a dad 15 years clean deciding to do heroin "one more time" while on vacation and ODing on what was actually fentanyl. Knowing these things did not help at all.

It's the sudden death of someone you cared about that is unsettling, not the lack of explanation.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:11 PM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

I agree that suicide or overdose are the most likely, but it could also be any other type of medical situation or accident that people may feel warrants further discussion ("I didn't even know she was a hiker", "When did she get diagnosed?", etc) that the family is in too much pain to want to invite at all.
posted by dusty potato at 1:34 PM on April 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

I want to add that one shouldn't assume an unreleased cause is suicide/drugs. Some people are very private and there are cultural differences with how death is handled and communicated.
In my family, I've had several relatives make it clear that their illness and cause of death was not to be shared outside of the immediate family. This included cancers, diabetic complications and kidney disease. We respected their wishes.
I will also add that when a close relative of ours died young unexpectedly from a sudden health complication we felt compelled to share it so people wouldn't assume drugs/suicide, although it was no one's business. That was frustrating. Please don't make assumptions.
posted by fies at 1:57 PM on April 14, 2022 [7 favorites]

Totally an aside, but I've noticed more and more obituaries around here saying things like "died after a long struggle with depression", or "passed away as a result of injuries from self-harm". I think it is great that there seems to be a lessening stigma. The memories of all the wonderful people who have died in these circumstances don't deserve to be tainted by any sense of stigma.

But yeah, don't ask the family if they've opted not to provide details.
posted by nixxon at 3:09 PM on April 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone who says, like champers, "choose compassion over curiosity."

My sister died of a drug overdose. It's common knowledge in our inner circle, but we never stated it publicly. The people who messaged me for no reason but to find out her cause of death made me feel terrible.

I understand the impulse, and I've been there. But don't do it.
posted by missrachael at 8:24 PM on April 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I sorta found out by accident. I was back home and went to the pool to visit my old coach and catch up on other teammates and friends who were either still around or came by to chat same as me, or just general scuttlebutt. Found out that one of my good friends had passed away in a jet ski accident out at the lake, and oh, there's her bestie (another good friend) down there watching her daughter's swimming lesson. I couldn't bring myself to go to talk to bestie, I'd have lost it. Went home and told my mom and she's all "oh, I remember that" and proceeded to provide me all of the gory accident details. Mom's an ICU nurse.

It was an accident, maybe a bit of alcohol involved but just an accident along the lines of hitting a submerged rock and getting thrown hard. It's just the details that wouldn't be widely known or talked about.

It's momentarily troubling when thinking about past good times to not only know that their gone, but to also know possibly a bit too much detail about how they went.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:32 PM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

I had an immediate family member who died in a way that we didn’t publicize. I was asked about it and was horrified by the questions. Please don’t do A or B. If the family wanted people to know details, they’d share them without being asked. Part of life unfortunately is learning to live without knowing all the answers.
posted by sunflower16 at 10:57 PM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Upon preview, my apologies, I realized your letter A was making peace without knowing (not asking the family). I don’t have a great answer to this, only that with the passage of time it will become easier to just grieve for the person / remember the good times with them and you will spend less time wondering how exactly they passed.
posted by sunflower16 at 11:09 PM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Also, just my two cents, but families keep overdose/suicide deaths a secret less out of shame and more out of protecting themselves, because once you reveal that information, you receive even more prying and hurtful questions and comments. People want to know which drugs or whether it was a gun etc. Inagine dealing with those questions while you’re already in unimaginable pain dealing with the loss. I made the mistake of telling a friend that my family member died of suicide and his response was that my family member was really selfish. That hurt so much that I haven’t spoken to that friend since. So, I would second choosing compassion over curiosity. Send a thoughtful heartfelt card expressing your sadness and how much you’ll miss your friend.
posted by sunflower16 at 12:05 AM on April 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. Yeah, to clarify, I feel like the "but" in my original post was poorly worded and may have made it sound to some readers here as if I were tempted (beyond having sent flowers and a card) to actually bother this person's 80-year-old grieving parents. I wouldn't do that. More interested in the purely knowledge-related aspects of whether knowing or not knowing has helped or hurt the grieving process. Sounds like it isn't gonna help.
posted by johngoren at 9:02 AM on April 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

My ex wife died. We had lost contact for a few years, and I found out when I was applying for a passport. I never did find out exactly how and never wanted to contact her family or her SO at the time. I was having a hard time processing and another ex, decided I should go to the cemetery and took me. It was very helpful and I recommend it it, if you can.
posted by evilDoug at 10:37 PM on April 15, 2022

I came here to say exactly what sunflower said - I had a close relative pass away and was the target of a lot of probing questions that I didn't exactly have the answers to, and I knew everything there was to know. It was awful. I get curiosity, I am very curious, often to my own detriment. But this is one case where often you will just not find out the information you want, or if you do, it will be at a time you can't choose.
posted by 41swans at 5:26 AM on April 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Not to get too academic, but it's really a natural urge to find out the manner of death as a way of identifying with the "survivor" group. Because really, what does it change for you to find out how they died? Would it be a tool to harm yourself with further regret? Do you want to know so you can be assured that you won't die that way? I have experience a wide range of grief and I have found it helpful to ask myself these questions.
posted by frecklefaerie at 2:41 PM on April 19, 2022

« Older Serotonin Wishes and Fluoxetine Dreams   |   Where have all the shells gone? Need plus size... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.