This Woman's Controversial Obituary For Her Mom Caused Outrage — But We Need More Like It

"As American novelist Anne Lamott famously said, 'If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.'"
katleho Seisa via Getty Images

Many of us have been told, “don’t speak ill of the dead.” But what happens when someone who caused trauma dies?

The notion that the deceased should be exempt from criticism simply because they’ve passed on is tiresome and in desperate need of revision. For survivors of abuse, their abuser’s death might be their first opportunity to safely share their stories. Thankfully, our cultural mythologies about the everlasting love of families — and especially mothers — are finally beginning to be contested, as with Jennette McCurdy’s disturbing account of her mother’s lifelong abuse in her best-selling memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” But too often these honest recollections are denied or disbelieved.

Late last year, a viral obituary detailed the lifetime of extreme abuse that Gayle Harvey Heckman claimed to experience at her mother’s hands. A few days later, the publication pulled the obituary, citing the “disgraceful mistake” they made in not reading the submission more carefully before publishing it. The outlet had also described the obituary as a “spiteful hate piece against a beloved member of our community.”

My heart broke for Heckman when I read the newspaper’s response. It seemed that the audience’s discomfort with the possibility that someone made heinous choices while alive was far more important than validating a survivor’s truth.

The news media, and most people in general, seem to have highly specific expectations for how one is supposed to publicly perform grief: When someone dies, we’re supposed to attend their funeral; we’re supposed to cry; we’re supposed to miss the deceased and openly mourn; we’re supposed to write a flowery obituary fit for a king (or queen).

The unspoken rule is that we are to never, ever dare suggest that the dead may have behaved reprehensibly in life. Any mention that the legacy left behind was one of intense trauma for survivors is summarily dismissed, as was the case for Heckman.

I myself am no stranger to trying — and failing — to publish an honest obituary.

When my beloved grandfather, whom I called “Pop,” died a few years ago, I attempted to publish an honest paragraph about his life. I saw firsthand how he overcame a brutal marriage and happily lived his final years in Florida as far away from his ex-wife as his legs could carry him.

Sometime in the ’80s, my father picked up Pop from the side of a country road where he’d been walking barefoot, crying and trying to find shelter, after his then-wife kicked him out of their home without a cent. I was a child when Pop slept on our couch in Brooklyn with nowhere else to go, as he planned his next move. When I became an adult, we’d spend hours on the phone as he rehashed his regrets — including his marriage to my grandmother.

I am married, and therefore acutely aware that there are two sides to the story of every relationship. However, as a direct recipient of abuse by this same woman, my grandfather’s experiences deeply resonated with my own.

The author and her grandfather (circa 1980).
The author and her grandfather (circa 1980).
Courtesy of Christina Wyman

Pop’s ex-wife was my biological grandmother, and there is no generation in our family that was not touched by her emotional, physical and financial abuse. In 1980, she kicked my teenage parents and me out of her house when I was an infant. She’d decided on a whim that my underemployed father and postpartum mother were able to make it on their own, without a single resource to their names. Family lore tells that the motivation for this decision had something to do with an argument over an untidy bathroom.

Much later, years after the unthinkable position she put us in, my grandmother publicly and shamelessly took credit for what my parents were able to overcome in their early days as a young family. Her lack of self-awareness will never not be breathtaking to me.

When I was a young child — after my parents had reconnected with my grandmother (reconnection with abusers is often a feature of the dysfunctional family cycle) — my father felt it necessary to supervise my grandmother’s visits with my little sister and me, citing how physically and emotionally hostile she’d been with us when she thought no one was watching or listening.

Years later I turned to trauma-informed therapy to come to terms with my own upbringing, and it was only then that I began to understand just how far-reaching 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 life under her toxic thumb. Therefore, I can easily understand why casual friends, acquaintances, distant family or anyone else on the periphery of her life would find such nasty details hard — if not impossible — to believe.

This is precisely why society’s stance toward obituaries requires rethinking. Those who were not previously aware of a person’s traumatic experiences at the hands of a family member may gain some important insight into what actually took place, and survivors of abuse can lift the veil of silence under which they’d been living and hopefully move towards healing.

They say that the best revenge is a life well lived. Upon reflecting on my grandfather’s life, I considered how leaving his abusive marriage and finding happiness as an Elvis devotee in the Sunshine State was perhaps Pop’s biggest accomplishment — a detail I noted when I began drafting his obituary. He was also a veteran who found his post-service calling in restoring cars.

In writing about his life, I wanted to capture his triumphs and trials, but was shot down again and again. The newspapers wanted to hear nothing about the abuses he’d suffered and all that he had overcome on his path toward peace. My only option was to write something palatable and half-true — an easy-to-swallow fairy tale readers could easily and safely digest.

As much as I resented being silenced, the life Pop lived gave me plenty to work with. He was a truly beloved member of his community who unconditionally loved his family.

My grandmother died last fall. As far as I know, she remained abusive to her last breath. I don’t believe there is any way to honor her life as she chose to live it and, for this reason, no one in the family has written an obituary for her. Perhaps this essay is the closest I’ll ever get to telling what I know to be the truth about her and the pain she inflicted.

The author and her grandfather (circa 2003).
The author and her grandfather (circa 2003).
Courtesy of Christina Wyman

Writing honest obituaries, for some, can be healing. Invalidating and dismissing a survivor’s experiences for the sake of our own emotional comfort can be retraumatizing. And telling a person that their experiences no longer matter because their abuser passed on is ghoulish. That’s not how the lasting effects of abuse and trauma work. A newspaper editor is not in any moral position to decide whether an obituary is a “spiteful hate piece.”

While it’s true that the deceased cannot defend themselves against any claims made about how they lived their lives, they also can no longer be held accountable for doing harm. Death hands them a full exoneration. Because of this, an honest obituary may be a survivor’s only path toward closure. As American novelist Anne Lamott famously said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” These are wise words for the rest of us.

I do not know the intricacies and intimacies of Heckman’s life — or her mother’s — beyond what was originally published by her, but I believe her. And I believe that telling our stories, however bleak or agonizing they may be, can be crucial to moving forward, processing trauma, and finally healing. Writing honest obituaries — whether it’s for a family member or a world leader — isn’t about getting even or besmirching someone’s good name and it certainly isn’t fun. It’s about telling the truth, holding people accountable for what they did, 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 that her essays about intergenerational trauma contribute to destigmatizing the survivor stories that emerge from abusive and toxic family dynamics.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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