Nautilus

Secrets That Won’t Rest

As someone who has studied and practiced family therapy for 37 years, I am repeatedly struck by a secret’s impact on a family. With the best intentions, parents often strive to protect a child from a shameful or painful event that happened in the past. But keeping a secret usually has the opposite effect. It can take a toll on bearers and their families for years, even generations.

One way a secret surfaces is via an “anniversary reaction,” a physical or emotional response to a calendar date. A study of Hurricane Katrina survivors shows a rise in depression, headaches, and stomachaches every August, the month of the 2005 tragedy. When recognized in a supportive social context of family and community, these symptoms tend to be of short duration. But anniversary reactions stirred by private events last longer. Their origins are harder to uncover and explain, and portend long-held family secrets the keeper finds too traumatic to reveal.

We each

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