Maegan Kasteler | Jul 22, 2019

When Family History is Painful

If you are one of the few with uncomplicated family history, this blog post is not for you.

If you have never experienced anxiety at the thought of filling in a family tree, this blog post is not for you.

If you have never encountered a branch in your tree that causes your heart to constrict, this blog post is not for you.

If you automatically knew how to fill in large portions of your family tree, this blog post is not for you.

If you have ever been pained by portions of your genealogy, this blog post is for you.

Not many family histories are picture perfect. Not many fill themselves in quickly and cleanly. If you are one of the many whose family does not fit the mold, know that you are in good company.

Family history can be painful for a number of reasons, and we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that many of our loyal blog readers are in that situation.

Some things you might encounter include:

  • Adoption and foster care

If it was you, a parent, or someone farther back in your family tree, the presence of an adoption or a child who never left the foster care system can bring up bad memories for some and create holes in their family trees that they don’t know how to fill.

Research Resources:
DNA genealogy and testing
FamilySearch Wiki
FindMyPast
How to Find Adoption Records if You Need Them
How to Handle Adoption in the Family Tree

  • Family estrangement

There are many reasons why a person could become estranged from their family. Whatever the reason, it is never pleasant. Because of estrangement in different areas of your family tree, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get additional information about your family.

  • Religion

Religion is an important part of many people’s lives, but it can lead to family turmoil.

  • Infidelity

A tough obstacle for anyone to get through when doing family history, infidelity can cause rifts in any family. These issues can cause genealogy to be a sore subject to all those affected.

  • Divorce

Similar to infidelity, divorce can rupture family links. No matter who is at fault or what caused the rift to form, divorce can cause feelings of animosity for any party involved. If divorce is followed by either party being re-married, then further complications can arise in relationships, and it can be difficult to know how best to approach this new branch in your family tree.

Research resources:
US Divorce records on FamilySearch
Ancestry Marriage and Divorce search

  • Early death

While early death won’t necessarily cause drama in your family tree, it can make it difficult to expand your family tree if you or someone else did not talk to that person prior to their death about their family history. Take it from someone who knows, every time you see that name in your tree, the wound opens a little bit.

  • Family secrets

Skeletons in the closet of any variety can rock your world. A little while back we posted a blog about all the eccentricities you might find in your tree, and we recognize that the fear of what you might find holds a lot of people back from researching their family tree. With the advent and popularization of genetic genealogy, and stories in the news every day, this fear is becoming more real for many people around the world.

  • Abuse or violence

Family history can be difficult for anyone, but for someone who was the victim of familial abuse or violence—emotional, sexual, or physical—family history can be next to impossible. This can be compounded if there is a family history of abuse. When a victim of violence or abuse does their genealogy, it can bring back painful memories and make it difficult to have a positive genealogy experience.

  • Crime

Crime is becoming a more serious topic in genealogy, especially in genetic genealogy, whether there is someone in your tree you already know committed a crime or you happen to stumble upon something during your research. Either way, having a criminal in your tree can make researching your family difficult and painful.

Research resources:
FamilyTree Magazine: A Guide to Genealogy Research in Courthouse Records
FamilySearch
Ancestry Court, Government, and Criminal Records search
Family History Daily: Could You Have Criminal Ancestors? 20 Captivating Genealogy Sites to Help You Find Out

  • War

War has torn through families for generations upon generations. War can decimate branches in your tree, tear through relationships and families, and, depending on how history falls at the end of the war, can cause lasting ramifications in your family tree. War has been an issue around the globe throughout history. Odds are you have many ancestors in your tree that have fought on all sides.

Research resources:
Ancestry search
National Archives
Portuguese Military records
Swedish Military records
US POW records

  • Slavery

After three bloody years of war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, freeing more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans. There are many reasons why slavery can make family history painful. If your ancestors were enslaved or slave owners, then this is a painful topic. It can also make finding records difficult, particularly if your ancestors were slaves. Many strides are being made to help those with slave ancestry better research their family trees. DNA research, the opening of centers such as the International African-American Museum (IAAM)—did you hear that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated 2 million dollars to the Museum at RootsTech 2019?—and the general rise in interest have all led to this topic being easier to approach for many.

Research resources:
RootsTech Blog here and here
FamilyTree Magazine
FamilySearch

  • Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous people, also known as aboriginal peoples, native peoples, or first peoples, can be found around the world in around 90 countries. These people have often been marginalized, and many have been driven from their native lands. In some places, these people can be branded with treason or terrorism if they try to maintain their cultural identity or control their traditional lands. Because of their dark and marginalized history, those with Indigenous peoples in their family tree can find it painful to research, and issues with finding records can make it difficult to research.

Research resources:
Australian Indigenous Peoples
Canadian Indigenous Peoples
American Indian here, here, and here
Philippines Indigenous Peoples
Tasmania Indigenous Peoples

So, what do you do when you come across these issues in your family tree? How do you approach these sensitive topics? Truthfully, there is no simple answer. And for some, there may never be an answer. It might always be painful. We cannot rewrite history. We cannot change the past. All we can do is move forward and be better.

When approaching a sensitive situation move slow, learn, and understand your ancestors and the situations in which they lived. As hard as it is, there are some things in history that we have to take at face value. You don't have to be okay with what happened, but when you recognize that it did, you might discover that you are who you are today because of the unfair things that happened to your ancestors. Your ancestors are bigger than their circumstances, and there is more to know about them, and you, than the bad and painful.

Family history is a mixed bag. No one has a “perfect” family tree. The good, the bad, the ugly, the painful—all of it—blended together makes us, and we make a family.


At RootsTech, we understand that there is no such thing as the perfect family. Each of us faces our own unique challenges and situations. What we do know, however, is that we can face these challenges better with the support of family and friends. After all, when we discover that we are all connected and we all belong, we treat each other differently.

In the words of Scott Hamilton during his keynote in 2018, “I am a product of all of that; it’s worth really celebrating.”