Features, Writing Archive

Giving a Voice to the Grief and Tragedy Experienced by Our Ancestors

This past fall, I traveled to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to see where my great-grandfather and his siblings were raised. In this small historic town nestled along the Potomac River sixty miles outside of Washington, DC, my great-grandfather’s family were farmers and small-town grocers.

Descendants of my great-grandfather’s maternal cousins still farm there today. However, for my side of the family, all that remains other than the headstones of my ancestors are the stories that I am just starting to discover.

One of the stories revolves around the building now housing a bed and breakfast where my wife and I will stay during our visit. This historic home was once owned by my great-great-grandfather, Joseph P. Schilling, the first Schilling in my family to be born in the United States. Sadly, however, this home was only in my family for a decade. After my great-great-grandfather died from an unexpected illness when he was 39, our family sold the home as more than likely, they couldn’t afford to live there after his death. A year after his untimely death, my great-grandfather’s sister, Mary Catherine, died from typhoid fever in 1889 when she was 15. Historical documents and newspapers from that time show that many children died from typhoid fever that year, as the disease ravished small towns and communities. One newspaper reported an outbreak at a local schoolhouse of typhoid fever causing the death of several school-aged children.

For those of us who have a passion for genealogy, finding information related to the sudden deaths of our ancestors or stories of other tragedies can be heartbreaking to discover.

Additionally, discovering information related to broken relationships, financial ruin, or information that documented our ancestors being persecuted, enslaved, or experiencing profound trauma, can be emotionally triggering for us, even if we never knew them or have never before heard their stories.

In the case of the death of my great-grandfather’s sister who died at 15 from typhoid fever, I was never told about her death by my grandfather, largely because my great-grandfather never talked with my grandfather about the trauma of losing a sister in childhood.

Certainly, all of us know of some stories of tragedy, heartbreak, and trauma that our ancestors experienced. Some of these stories may have been told to us by our grandparents, great-aunts, or great-uncles in full detail. But other stories may have only been shared using sparse details due to unresolved pain, family shame, or perhaps they were never told to us at all.

When our grandparents or great-grandparents and their ancestors experienced the death of loved ones, were victims of violence, or faced trauma, societal norms were not to discuss it with others and simply to move on. But for our ancestors who tried to move on from their grief or trauma, often their unprocessed experiences manifested into unrecognized mental health struggles later in life such as toxic and abusive relationships or alcohol dependency issues.

“In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out,” writes novelist Joyce Carol Oates in her book We Were the Mulvaneys which deals with the heartbreak and tragedy of a family and how they processed it.

As more individuals and families are utilizing mental health support to process tragedy and grief, we also can finally give a voice to the trauma and grief our ancestors experienced, even if we never hear about it until centuries later.

For me, learning about the death of my great-grandfather’s sister, or other stories such as my great-grandmother losing three children in infancy, my great-grandfather’s loss of his Pittsburgh based grocery business in the Depression leaving him in financial ruin, and the PTSD other ancestors had stemming from World War I, is difficult. However, learning these things allows me to converse with my cousin and my sister about the pain of our ancestors. By sharing the painful stories our ancestors experienced with our children, we can help educate future generations about the need to acknowledge grief and tragedy before we can find healing.

Certainly, we want to share stories about our ancestors that reflect who we are and where we came from. But an important part of storytelling is also sharing what we and others endured, even if it was painful and tragic, as these experiences are part of the human story. To do this, however, we must be willing to share our vulnerabilities and to unlock family stories which at one point which may have been too shameful to share.

When we become willing to share the stories of how we and our ancestors overcame grief and tragedy, we also send a message to future generations that despite enduring horrific hardships and emotional pain, we can overcome.