Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Family secret: One of my dearest friends died suddenly several years ago. He and his wife were like family and while he was more than 20 years older than me, I considered him to be a close confidant. He was in his late 70s when he died, and several months before his death, he confided in me that he had been questioning his sexual orientation and had sex a few times with a friend of his adult son. I was very surprised, not so much that he was questioning his orientation, but that he pursued it and had sex outside of his marriage.
Don’t get me wrong: I am gay and I realize that in the excitement and throes of exploring this newfound side of himself, part of the journey is testing the waters. And I think that exploring it with this friend felt safe. If he had been someone who had even the most rudimentary understanding of computers and the internet, he might have discovered Grindr or online support groups to help in this situation. But he also asked me to help him find other possible sexual partners or at least point him in the right direction. I only felt comfortable giving him phone numbers of local support groups.
Then he died suddenly, and I was left to help his widow through that difficult time while bearing this big secret. I don’t think he and his wife were sexually active anymore, so I feel pretty confident that the possibility of passing on any STDs to her is pretty low. But I just don’t know. I also don’t want to needlessly sully her view of her late husband. I hate carrying this secret especially because she and I are close friends. I thought that over time it would be easier to bury, but it’s weighing me down. Any suggestions?
A: I think you should find an outlet for talking about this that doesn’t involve your friend’s widow. There’s nothing she could do with this information aside from feel hurt and betrayed, and she hasn’t mentioned anything to you about her health in the last few years that would give you reason to believe she should be tested for STIs.
I’m so sorry for the situation your friend placed you in before he died, and it’s so hard to be angry with a dead friend when they’re no longer around to listen or apologize. The fact that he slept with a friend of his son’s must make things especially fraught because I imagine you must wonder sometimes if his son knows, or if anyone else in your respective social circles was let in on the secret before he died. You might want to call the number of one of those support groups you recommended to your friend, so that you can talk about something complicated and confidential without worrying that it’s going to make the rounds through your social circle.
I’d also recommend seeing a therapist or even just writing your late friend a letter where you can communicate your love, frustration, and resentment, or all of the above. And if you occasionally need to limit the time you spend with your friend’s widow, or excuse yourself for a few minutes if she starts reminiscing about their marriage, that’s understandable and I think possible to do without totally disappearing from her life. But find other people to help you bear the weight of this information who aren’t your friend’s widow—she won’t be able to help you carry it.