‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert Hired a Detective To Learn How Her Father Really Died

Melissa Gilbert’s father died when she was 11 years old. It was a huge event in the Little House on the Prairie star’s life that’s haunted her well into adulthood. When it happened, Gilbert, her brother Jonathan, and everyone else was told Paul Gilbert died of a stroke (he’d had one about a year before). But when she was 45, she learned he’d died by suicide. When Gilbert discovered the truth, she wanted answers. No one seemed willing to give them, so she hired a detective.

Melissa Gilbert in a fur shawl looking off to the right on the red carpet at the 10th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards
Melissa Gilbert | Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

When Melissa Gilbert learned how her father really died

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2014, Gilbert spoke about the real nature of her father’s death.

“There were only a couple people who knew the truth, that my father had, in fact, committed suicide,” said Gilbert.

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It was “a bad time” for Gilbert. And all she wanted was answers. But no one gave her any.

“I was not functioning at all for a few weeks,” she said. “I couldn’t get any answers. So I hired a detective. And basically what had happened was that he was under the care of the VA, he was a World War II veteran, and he was in uncontrolled, excruciating pain and had been threatening suicide. And he shot himself.”

Paul Gilbert was an entertainer through and through

Gilbert went on to tell Winfrey about her father’s history as a performer, and how heartbreaking she imagined it to be to not be able to do the things he loved anymore.

“He was an amazing entertainer,” she said. “He was an acrobat in the circus as a kid. He was a dancer. He was a singer and a musician. And a stand-up comic. And he was completely stilled. “

The former Little House on the Prairie actor said she “understand[s]” and even “honor[s]” the decision her father made, but that didn’t make the news any easier for her to digest.

“I still sometimes wonder why I wasn’t enough to stick around for,” she said.

“I ended up on antidepressants for a while, too,” she continued.” After finding out about my father. About six months. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. It was grief all over again. Trying to get to the acceptance is hard.”

Melissa Gilbert would never keep that kind of secret from her children

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Gilbert did an interview with CBS Sunday Morning in July 2020 where she was also asked about the “damaging” family secret that was kept from her. The interviewer asked the actor if she thought “it was a good thing” that she wasn’t told the truth about her father’s death.

“You know what? I think it’s my thing that it was hidden from me,” she replied. “It’s not my thing, like my fault. That’s what I’ve been dealt. Would I do something like that with my kids? No. But, because I know how damaging those kind of secrets can be. You know that expression, ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets,’ is absolutely true.”

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.