Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Everything and Nothing

Genealogy: filling in the dates of death

I spend a lot of time researching my family tree, or rather my children’s family tree – just to double the challenge. Not one branch but all of them. For some I’ve gone back about 12 generations, others only three or four. (See my family tree database). I must admit it is not all my own work – I’ve swapped information with plenty of other people, but I always try to re-research it for myself.

I started doing this is 1997 and stopped in about 2001 – now I have started again – not because of any TV program, but because of the return of adequate free time and sheer curiosity. I just want to know who the generation before was – what they were called, where they lived, what they did…..it becomes addictive; the challenge…just one more and then maybe I’ll stop. But no, if one branch dries up there are others to persue… and round and round the branches I go … the next search will definitely reveal all …. and occassionally it does.

When I first started genealogical research the thing I noticed first was the death. It was disturbing trying to get to know someone who had lived many years before and then finding a grave stone that bore the names of all their children; died before them in infancy. It was too sad to contemplate. The thought of losing a child was the most painful thing I could imagine and despite the much higher rate of infant mortality in previous centuries, I doubt it made it easier for the parents and siblings. It haunted me and during my first spree into genealogy I think I subconsciously avoided death dates. I didn’t want to think about anyone dying early deaths, leaving loved ones behind with huge gaps in family life. If they disappeared from the record I might suspect they had died, but I never checked – there was always just that possibilty that my poor research missed them. I could therefore pretend (although I knew it not to be true) that everyone shuffled up the generations from birth to great grand parenthood and then quietly faded out at a ripe old age.

But now into my second spree it’s different. My husband died aged 46 after a long and debilitating illness. My younger daughter was 8 and the older one 12. We didn’t have any financial problems and we had known for several years that he was terminally ill, but the impact of his loss was still a shock. No amount of advance warning could prevent to chasm his loss left in our family. The early death I had hidden from in my genealogy was unavoidable. I wan’t researching it, I was living through it, suffering from it and surviving it. Maybe in 100 years time someone will be digging around in births, marriages and deaths, checking old census returns and discover this “fact” in our lives. What will they think? Will they feel a twinge of sympathy?

Now I am trying to find out about the deaths of my ancestors. It isn’t adding to my list of names or uncovering just that next one back in line, but I need to do it. The early death of a close family member is a life changing and significant event. It has an important influence on the future lives of the survivors. If I want to know about the lives of my ancestors, I need to know about their deaths, about the way they survived after suffering tragic bereavement and what they went on to achieve. It makes them into real people, not immortal fictional characters who just happened to donate a few genes to me.

I looked up the death record of my own husband. I stared at it. Maybe just words on the screen to everyone else but a whole life and experience to me.

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