Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thoughts on Writing Tragic Events in Family History

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This has been a truly tragic week already. On Sunday evening, my husband and I rushed to our neighbor's home to find their small child had been accidentally hit by a truck, leading to his death. The hours that passed and the days that have followed will forever be engraved in our memories. It made me think and feel many things, some too personal to share in this public format. However, one particular thought keeps crossing my mind: How do you write about a tragic event in your family history?

The First Question

Maybe the first question should be: Should you write about a tragic event in your family history? Many of you may remember when I blogged about the death of my grandmother's child and the coal mining accident that took the life of my grandfather. One of the reasons I decided to include these tragic stories in my family history was that my uncle had tried many times throughout his life to write about it, but couldn't. I felt the stories needed to be told and recorded for future generations. I was far enough removed from the events to be able to write the story without significant distress.

Don't Wait Too Long

It is fine and even practical to wait a time before recording your story after the event has happened, but don't wait too long.

The uncle I spoke of, Uncle Willard, arrived after the slate fall...only in time to drag Grandpa's body out of the mine...only able to witness the very end. My other two uncles, Millard and James, were in the mine right beside Grandpa when it happened, but I had never asked them a thing about it. They both died years ago and now I will never have that part of the story. I didn't want Uncle Willard to pass on before I had a chance to hear his story at least.

Remember, though waiting is good, waiting too long may cause the story to be lost forever.

Does Telling the Story Help the Teller?

When I asked Uncle Willard to tell me the story some 50 years after the event, he had difficulty. Not difficultly remembering the details of the accident, but rather dealing with the emotions it still stirred up. Would it have helped him back then to speak of it, or to write the day's events down? Did it help him now knowing the story was being preserved to pass down to other generations?

When I interviewed my aunt and my mother about what they remembered the day their father died, they too struggled to get through the story without losing their composure. They had never talked about it in-depth either. I wondered, did they want it recorded like Uncle Willard did?

These are some great questions to ask yourself and the others involved in your tragic stories. Genealogists love a record made at the time of the actual event by someone with first-hand knowledge. But sometimes, writing about a horrible tragedy when it is fresh in the mind is far too difficult. Even still, talking or writing about the event and one's feelings can in some instances be therapeutic to the survivors. You will need to decide based on each instance and consider whether telling the story helps the teller or not.

Other decisions you might consider is the when to about the event and in what format to record the story (i.e. written, audio only, or video.)

Do tragic stories help our descendants?

I don't know. I think so. When it's quiet, I can still hear the crying of my neighbors when I arrived on the seen. I mentioned to my mother that it was the most heart breaking sound I could have imagined. She said she remembered her mother waking in the night, crying and screaming, "Why! Why did you have to leave?" as she carried Grandpa's clothes around the house. I think that hearing that story made me realize...the heart can recover, at least somewhat.

I reflected on Grandma's lost child and husband and yet, she pressed forward, raised her other children, and lived and loved her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her story gives me hope. Hope for my neighbors, hope for myself, and hope for others in the mist of horrific circumstances that life can go on.


I hope my thoughts on writing about tragic events in your family history have made you consider the idea of writing your stories. If you have a tragic event that is too difficult to write yourself, consider asking a trusted family member or friend to write the story for you. You never know how your story will help and sustain a descendant in the generations to come.