No one wants to hear bad news. Unfortunately, there are times when we need to receive it. When Kimberly Williams-Paisley and her family receive the bad news of her mother’s primary progressive aphasia diagnosis, they all bury their heads in the sand like ostriches to give themselves time to process the information.

Keeping family secrets is the topic of this latest installment of our online book club speaking about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s book, Where the Light Gets In. She writes about her mother’s experience with primary progressive aphasia.

Secrets From Others

Williams-Paisley is asked to keep the secret inside the family. Her mother isn’t ready to share the information with the rest of the world; not even friends or neighbours. After all, she originally even kept the diagnosis from her children. Her father states on page 71,

She asked me to keep it private until she was ready. So that’s why we’re just telling you now. It’s really important to her that you guard her privacy and not talk about this with people outside the family. She doesn’t want sympathy. She doesn’t want you to treat her any differently. She wants you to laugh with her about this as much as possible. And anything you need to say to one of us, you can say to both of us.

Williams-Paisley respects her mother’s wishes, but her insistence that it be kept a secret cuts Williams-Paisley off from support she may need. She’s asked to pretend that nothing has changed when everything has changed, and not process it the way she wants to process it.

Secrets From Yourself

And that is exactly what she does, refusing to cry since she sees expressing that emotion as a sign of acceptance. On page 71 she admits, “I felt that if I gave in to their sorrow I would be accepting that this was real, and I wasn’t willing to do that yet.”
Crying makes it real, and she isn’t willing to believe it yet.

Her parents also refuse to mourn or consider difficult questions. After the diagnosis, her sister, Ashley, joins online support groups and researches what to expect from PPA. She speaks with an end-of-life specialist on what to expect from the final stages of dementia. She’s able to arrange a call between her parents and the specialist, but it doesn’t quite go as planned. On page 73, Williams-Paisley writes about the phone call:

The talk felt like a sermon from someone who thought she knew everything, and my parents didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t want to discuss end-of-life decisions. They had a different focus: taking the advice that Dr. Nealon had given them just before they left her office on the day of the diagnosis. “Enjoy each other while you can,” she’d said. It wasn’t enough, Ashley knew, but again she had to back off.

The specialist’s advice is sound, but their parents aren’t ready to hear it. The specialist’s goal is to help the mother make difficult, end-of-life decisions so she can have some say for how things will unfold. This is important to do before she loses the ability to express herself. But her mother isn’t ready to consider the possibility.

Do you also keep difficult information close or do you find it more helpful to tell others?

Image: Watari via Unsplash