Saturday, April 2, 2011

Open Discussion Weekend: Does Family History Research Make You Sad?

There seemed to be a common thread among the Twitter comments regarding last night's episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. Many of the tweets expressed sadness over the deaths of the young children and the adversity in the lives of her family members.

As genealogists, we spend the majority of our time researching the lives of people who have long since passed. Whenever I add a new branch to the family tree, I get a sudden rush as I discover the new names, the spouses, their children, their children's spouses, their grandchildren and so on.

During my initial online research on these new branches, I am jumping between resources on Ancestry, FamilySearch, NewspaperArchive, GenealogyBank, Google News Archive - putting together a basic picture of their lives. And quite often, within a few minutes to an hour, I have discovered this new family, lived through their marriage, their children and grandchildren and then I discover an obituary or death record. Of course, I knew that information would be waiting there, but I always feel a little sad when I find it.

With my direct line ancestors, I usually try to construct a more in-depth timeline of the events of their lives. As with Gwyneth's discovery, I also found a rather sad chain of events. In the timeline of my grandmother, Sina Bellinger Kelly, I learn that she was pregnant with her second child when her first child died. Three months after the loss of her first baby, her mother died. A month after her mother died, her next child was born. The suicide of her brother and the death of her father were just four months apart.

These discoveries often take me from the euphoria of discovering a new family line to tremendous empathy and sadness once I see the timeline of events in their lives.

My question for this week's Open Discussion Weekend: do you ever find yourself getting sad or depressed as you discover information about the families and ancestors you research? Do you take this all in stride and accept death as a natural progression of the life cycle? Do you ever find the empathy for people overwhelming? If so, how do you deal with the feelings? Please share your experiences and comment below.


  1. Hi, Susan.
    Not long ago I found a newspaper article concerning the fire that took the life of my grandfather's brother and severely injured him. As I read of the horror that my grandfather and his brother experienced, I strained to maintain my composure but the story and the suffering were so present, as if I were hearing it for the first time, as if my grandfather were alive and with me. So, yes, that saddened me, since I had a close relationship with my grandfather. But what really struck me was that the woman who pulled them from the fire, Miss Moore, was now just two words in a few paragraphs of prose, she was the only thing that stood between my grandfather and the generations that beckoned. That gave me an entirely different perspective on the event. It filled me with wonder.
    I subscribe to the theory that we are all as one in our joys and sufferings. Sometimes I'm saddened, sometimes I feel joy, but I am never without wonder.
    Thought provoking question.
    Charles R. Hale

  2. Susan,

    Interesting Question. It's almost too early in the morning for it, but the 2nd cup of coffee is kicking in.

    I have found a number of these sad events in my research. The biggest example, is my maternal great-grandfather. He was killed, trying to learn how to ride a bicycle, by a run away horse and carriage.

    But, I also try to look for "so what happened next" and hope to find some good news. When my grandmother's father was killed, she was young, but the driver of the horse carriage took care of my grandmother's education and helped form who she was.

    This weeks Who Do You Think You Are? had a number of Sad Moments in this episode, but I think we, family researchers, see them a lot. So, it was a good reminder that our ancestors are real people, not just a name on a piece of paper. We may have to find many pieces of paper to help find their story, but it keeps my looking for those pieces of information to help me understand who that were, and how that may have helped define who I am.

    Great Question.

    Thank you,


  3. I find myself drawn into the sad moments of all of their lives - even the collateral relatives. I've blogged about several of them, and one thing I've noticed is that bloggers rarely ever come up with the (ridiculous, to me) notion that the death of children did not affect our ancestors in the same way it affects us. I've noticed this concept on message boards.

    If our ancestors viewed death of children (and other family members, too) as stoically as some people would like to think, then how do we account for the remembrances of other relatives that g-grandma seemed a little "off" after burying several children in the typhoid epidemic, or Aunt Susie didn't seem able to have any fun?

    My family photos are full of the stark realities of living in 19th century Arkansas, and all of the poverty that came with it. At the same time, those photos are also full of little children dressed in the finery made by their mothers and grandmothers, complete with those huge, honking hair bows the girls wore.

    The family reunion photos show scads of relatives long dead and buried (and unfortunately for me, quite a few unidentified), gathered together to share food and companionship.

    So when I find that the little child or the uncle that was in last year's reunion photo died and wasn't present for the next, I am sad, as I know they were also.

  4. We are blessed to live in an era of health care where most babies are born alive. Our food supply is abundant. Pre-natal care and vitamins are everyday occurances. Unfortunately, some of us take this for granted. Our ancestors didn't.

    The stories passed down to me when I was a child helped me learn quickly that the way I grew up in the sixties in a blue collar small town lifestyle was not the experience of my grandparents. So I understand it can be hard to learn our ancestors lived otherwise.

    Yet, I still tear up when I see how Gwyneth's loss of her father hits her emotions. Or, how it would be a joy to share everything she has learned with him. I connect deeply with her on that level.

    Joy and sadness are a part of everyone's life past and present. My paternal grandmother lost five or six babies...some at or before birth, others before they turned three years old. It hurt her deeply. When her husband wanted to immigrate from Russia to the United States and she was pregnant, she begged for him to delay the trip. She knew she would lose the baby on such a journey, and she was right. She lost the child while on board ship across the Atlantic. Then she was quarantined upon arrival at Ellis Island. She said it was one of the most embarrassing experiences of her life. The Statue of Liberty brought back horrible memories of men and women standing naked for hours in line waiting for a doctor's examination. She did not see it as the land of opportunity and freedom. Did she have time to properly grieve? No, she had to "buckle up" and learn how to live in a new country. When you understand the sorrows, their behavior later on does make more sense.

    When she gave birth to my father years later, the midwife said he was a "blue" baby who would only live a few days. He proved them wrong and lived 76 years.

    Yes, my heart aches for the sorrow of my ancestors. Yet, I am consoled that their decisions have given us life and I in turn have passed these stories on to my children.

  5. Charles - Russ - Dee - Anna: your words of insight have made quite an impact on me today. As I read through the comments that each of you have left, the tears fill my eyes. All of our families have experienced difficult and trying times. That is very evident by the stories you have all shared. I want to thank you for taking the time to share and comment on this question.

  6. I found out that my paternal great grandfather (Grandpa Sandy) was orphaned along with his younger brother before the age of 3. Thankfully, their mother's sister (Auntie Margaret) took both the boys on and must have passed up the opportunity to marry in order to care for them. The younger brother died at the age of 18, but Sandy and Margaret lived together even after his marriage, and she died in his home. We unexpectedly stumbled across a large obelisk in a graveyard in Perthshire and I was so surprised to see it was a grateful and loving memorial to Auntie Margaret erected by Grandpa Sandy that I burst into tears on the spot. I always make sure I have a tissue in my pocket when reading through old newspapers as well. The joy and the sadness :-) Jo

  7. I feel similar to Anna's statement about how lucky we are to be living in this era. Researching my family history has really shown me with real examples, how rough life used to be.

    However records and death certificates do not have the same emotional impact on me, compared to seeing something concrete such as items I have found such as hand written note stating "Baby Pearl died," and seeing the grave stone for "Baby Hughey" in the family plot.