Is it better to gloss over the ‘terrible’ stories in family history?

Should reader share the bad with the good when she talks to her newfound cousin? Carolyn Hax says absolutely.

Dear Carolyn

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

DEAR CAROLYN: Many family stories were told about my dad’s poor aunt, his mother’s sister, who was married to an abusive man. The fact that this uncle by marriage was a wife-beater and a “violent man” is well-documented orally and in written recollections by my side of the family. My grandmother was distraught about her sister and even said he caused my great aunt’s death. Recently I took a DNA test and the results have connected me to the great-grandson of this unhappy couple. This new cousin never knew his great-grandparents, but he is interested in learning what I know about our shared family history. They have all been dead for many years, although my 95-year-old aunt is still around to corroborate.

When we talk, should I mention these terrible stories about his great-grandfather?

— Awkward Genealogy

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DEAR AWKWARD GENEALOGY: Absolutely. History is history. I don’t see the need to whitewash it.

Plus, owning what is in our own ancestry is an important way to improve on it. That includes the good as well as the bad: You find out your great-grands were unusually generous, for example, and that gives you a chance to see yourself through that lens and maybe cultivate your own way of giving. You find out your great-grand was a violent abuser, and you pay extra mind to your own tendencies — maybe even take on domestic-violence prevention as a cause. Sort of an “It stops here” frame of mind.

Or an Abraham Lincoln frame of mind. He’s credited with saying, “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

Even if you don’t see taking anything that far, I don’t see much value in an anti-information approach. Why do we have to believe everything is rosy?

One caveat: In my personal life and through this column, I have run across people who disagree about this, who prefer to shield others and to be shielded themselves from bad news.

I don’t think it’s important to do so in this case — since we’re talking about long-gone relatives the great-grandson never knew — but it can be a kindness in general to consider a person’s bad-news preferences before you make a delivery.

If possible, of course; otherwise, all you can…

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