Saturday, May 12, 2012

Difficult Family History Issues

No family is perfect. At marriage most of us are young and naive enough to think that we have found happily ever after. As we mature and begin to explore our family history we may become aware of details that most people prefer to keep as unmentionables. In the past people were more guarded about difficult situations that come up in some degree in almost every family. These may include adoption, divorce, spousal infidelity, child abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, mental and/or general health issues, etc. Some of these hidden secrets may be found in newspaper articles, court records, old family documents and even personal letters.

Working with clients and others on their family histories we need to be prepared for these unexpected situations. Sometimes the other person is aware of problems within their family, but will not divulge it to us until we have stumbled across the information. Others will display a non-interest in family history because the memories of the past are too difficult to deal with. The key for genealogy researchers is to be sensitive to the memories lurking within the people we are working with. They may need time to come to terms with the past and be able to move on to the future. Some find peace in going beyond troubled family relationships to further generations who displayed less troublesome behaviors.

We often must evaluate how well we truly can know the people we are researching, especially within our own families. In today's world, where we have more open discussion of family problems, there will still be areas of unknown history that has never been shared. Some do not learn of their actual parentage until the death of a parent who now is really not the birth parent of the child. We may learn of incest and the ramifications for the family members involved. These may seem like ugly relationships that should never occur, but for the child involved they are a part of their lives.

We need to walk very carefully down the road of doing family research. Be sensitive to the realities of family situations. There is not a perfect family, but the best families support one another and help each other to overcome the difficult situations. Researchers can help clients and friends come to terms with these reserved memories by listening and encouraging them to confront them with the help of counseling. We should become team players, but not take on professional issues outside of our capabilities. Healing the broken spirits of individuals can become one of the most profound benefits of working with others in family history research. We must know our limitations, and yet realize the importance of encouraging others to come to terms with difficult life situations.

A huge part of working in genealogy and family history is a sense of compassion. When you come upon a challenging family situation, proceed with sensitivity and patience. For some people this may require a long process of moving slowly forward with information that is disturbing and hard to accept. Mentally accepting the families we are a part of can be much more difficult when we come to know the realities of the past. Take it slowly and allow the person to decide how to proceed. Every family is different; each research project will present different challenges. Know your limitations and be willing to accept that things may not be as they seem.


  1. well-spoken, thoughtful words Sue. I still remember years ago going to the Sellwood Family History Center and learning my birth mother had been deceased since I was a young girl. As you know, they couldn't have possibly understood the depth of pain in my heart from the "difficult family history issues" but it was how kind the volunteers were that left a lasting impression. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for the very nice compliment. I thought of you as I wrote this story. We have traveled an interesting road on your journey.