Originally published on genealogyatheart.blogspot.com on 27 Aug 2015.
A few weeks ago I blogged about the decision of one of my clients to pull the plug on further research because of adverse pressure she was receiving from her children (see An Update on Becoming a Certified Genealogist 30 Jul 2015). I had uncovered preliminary information that had unsettled the family and the client requested that no further research be done. I offered to meet with the family members who were upset but she refused. I then informed the client she could contact me whenever she was ready to move forward. Next, I began searching for another client to fulfill one of the portfolio requirements to become a Certified Genealogist.
Surprise, surprise! Former client and I passed each other last week and we said hello. After a little small talk (we’re in the deep south, it’s how we do things here!) client stated she had really thought about the kernel of information I had provided her and was ready to learn more.
I was greatly surprised. One part of me wanted specifically to ask what made her and her family members change their minds but I didn’t. Although as a genealogist we work in the past, my query wasn’t pertinent to moving forward. Maybe I’ll get that answer later.
Before she changed her mind again, I obtained her signature on death certificate forms that I just happened to serendipitously have with me and the following day, I submitted the paperwork. Those documents are needed to obtain the medical records we will ultimately be securing.
After watching Sunday’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) episode with Bryan Cranston I began to think that my client and her family must have been processing information similarly. If you didn’t see the show, Mr. Cranston was first informed that his grandfather had deserted his wife and child to enlist in World War I and then claimed to be single, probably so he didn’t have to share his earned income. Initially, Cranston scoffed at the divorce documents that the soon to be ex of his grandfather submitted to court. Cranston tried to defend the man’s action and then remarked he knew he was doing so even though he hadn’t met him. That’s interesting since his father had also left the family and this looked like the beginning of a family pattern. It’s also pertinent that Cranston felt the need to defend a relative he didn’t know. Reminds me of the stink about Ben Afflek’s difficulty in dealing with the idea he had slave owning relatives so that information was not disclosed on his Finding Your Roots episode.
What I believe both Cranston, possibly Affleck, and my client were experiencing was a grief reaction outlined by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. Kubler-Ross identified the following process that one experiences after a loss:
Initially, Kubler-Ross’ work was in regards to only death but was later expanded to include losses of any kind, such as job, divorce, health or incarceration. There’s no studies on the grief process as it relates to genealogy but I believe it’s applicable.
If you’ve been actively researching your family tree for years think back to how you felt when you identified your first Black Sheep relative. EVERYONE has one, most have more than that. I have many. Some are more benign than others; such as their poor choices hurt themselves and their close loved ones while others negatively impacted a larger number in their community.
My first Black Sheep was a great grand uncle on my paternal side that was imprisoned in Indiana for performing an illegal abortion in 1905. He was also a notorious alcoholic and abusive which resulted in his first wife divorcing him. His relationship with his second wife wasn’t much better.
I remember discovering this information and being in disbelief. The newspaper articles of the day were sickening. I didn’t want to be related to him. My father had proudly mentioned that he had a great uncle who was a physician but he never told me the rest of the story. Here’s what my thinking was at the time I discovered the newspaper articles and how I processed the info:
- Denial-There’s got to be a mistake here. There’s two sides to every story. I bet the “victim” wasn’t telling the whole truth. (Much like Cranston, I felt the need to defend the relative I’d never met and discount the victim’s statements.) When I learned about the alcoholism and abuse, though, it became impossible to defend the man (Think Bill Cosby and Jared Fogle).
- Anger-Why didn’t my dad tell me about this? He spoke fondly of the man’s accomplishment of being a physician. How could dad have been proud of this man’s character? My anger was displaced from the man I didn’t know to the person I did.
- Bargaining/Compromise-Maybe dad didn’t know about what happened since his great uncle would have been imprisoned before he was born. Perhaps the sordid details were withheld from him as a child.
- Depression-I stopped looking for new information about the man. I “withdrew” from searching. I wasn’t ready to deal with more bad news.
- Acceptance-After discovering that my 2nd great grandfather, the grand uncle’s brother, also made some poor choices I realized I wasn’t the one who had made those decisions and I certainly wasn’t accountable for their actions. No big deal that we shared a similar gene pool! Coming to the realization that I am not responsible for someone else’s choices, especially someone who died long before I was born, allowed me to move forward in this line. It was interesting to discover there were quite a few “bad boys” who had difficulty following norms of the times in which they lived and experienced problems with alcoholism. Discovering family secrets is part of the fun of genealogy, right? The more I discovered, the easier it was to see the family pattern and accept what I was finding.
There are some counseling researchers who dispute that those experiencing a loss go through the grief stages outlined above. I would agree that over time, a resiliency develops. Practice does make perfect! In genealogy, I think resiliency occurs after you stumble upon subsequent Black Sheeps. The celebrities on WDYTYA and my client haven’t had the time to work through the loss. Most were probably thinking that their ancestors were salt of the earth wholesome people who strived to make their part of the world a better place. Give them some time to process the negative information and the celebrities are able to move forward to learn more about their history.
Although I caution clients initially that some information may be difficult to accept I don’t think that’s enough. Since everyone processes unexpected news differently, I’m thinking of discussing these stages are our initial meeting. That may be beneficial and help a client who doesn’t have the grief resiliency developed better work through the newly received information.
Want to help a Ph.D researcher from the University of Sheffield, England who is studying Black Sheeps? Complete the following anonymous survey at http://acriminalrecord.org/surveys/ It doesn’t take long and you’ll be contributing to an interesting research project.