When Your Ancestors Let You Down

Today, I uncovered something positively tragic about one of my ancestors. I am writing this, stunned not only by the information, but also in slight disbelief that I did not learn of it sooner.

This is not the first time I have been saddened by what my genealogical research has uncovered. Other discoveries have stayed with me, creeping into my thoughts as I lie in bed at night. In each case, the primary individuals involved are people I have never met. So, I ask myself why it matters so much to me. Is it because I never knew them, I subconsciously romanticized about who they were, disappointed when they did not meet my expectations? Or is it because I can guess how their actions must have affected others in the family? Maybe it can simply be summarized by the phrase, “Family is family.” Whatever the case, the information I learned today hits close to home and is thus far, the most difficult to digest.

If you are reading this, you have probably fallen in love with genealogy the way I have. Or perhaps, you, like me, possess an insatiably curiosity about who your ancestors were and how they lived. More than likely, you have made or will make a similarly difficult discovery through your research. Desperate poverty, ignorance, crime, mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse, racism, discrimination, deadbeat parenting, infidelity, suicide, etc. are unfortunately not uncommon occurrences in family histories; but when they occur in YOUR family, these things can bring you to tears.

When you happen upon a family tragedy, chances are that besides sadness, you also feel guilt. Likely, the older generation, who was privy to the information, simply never talked about it. They wanted it to remain private, little knowing that someday their history-loving descendant would discover it. You feel like you have invaded that privacy and possibly opened old wounds for living family members. So what do you do? Do you give up your genealogy habit, leaving the past in the past? Maybe for someone, that is right decision . . . I don’t know. But I know for me, this endeavor’s merits far outweigh its risks. Therefore, I believe there are five things we must do when confronted with the tragic side of family history:

1. Look for the silver lining – In my case, I now have a new-found respect and awe for a person who remained strong in the face of unimaginable heartache, rising above the more-than-his-fair-share of suffering life threw at him. In another case, I can easily conclude that tragedy partly motivated my ancestor’s immigration to America. There IS a silver lining, if you look hard enough.

2. Believe in serendipity – Many genealogists can tell stories of serendipity, where circumstances uncannily aligned, leading them to find their ancestor. I don’t take this idea as far as some people do, but I do believe that whatever we find out, we were meant to find out. The events leading to my own recent discovery were ironic to say the least. It feels as if I wasn’t ready to hear this information before, but I was ready to hear it today. In any case, try not to feel guilty about your discovery; believe that for some reason, you were meant to know.

3. Be sensitive – Only you can decide whether to share the information you found, with whom and when. Out of sensitivity, I am keeping my situation private. Yet, at the same time, I wish that families were generally more open about these things. Have you read Annie’s Ghosts? I am grateful that author Steve Luxenberg’s chose to share his family’s secret with readers. So much good has come as a result of this book. Whatever your decision, make sure you have considered the feelings of those involved.

4. Forgive – We know that people aren’t perfect, so we shouldn’t expect perfection of our ancestors. The basic necessities of life were generally harder to come by for past generations. Help for those who truly needed it was even scarcer. It is normal to feel anger when others are hurt by someone’s actions, but ultimately peace will only be achieved through forgiveness.

5. Change the present– Whatever you do, don’t use the actions of your ancestors as an excuse for some self-fulfilling prophesy. We are not destined to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Rather, we are lucky enough to have the benefit of history on our side. Instead of holding their shortcomings against them (see previous bullet), let those shortcomings be motivation for us to do what we can to change our little corner of the world today.

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