Monday, 28 March 2016

Understanding personal loss

How did our ancestors do it?
Without the Internet.
Without "cheerful" memes or tweets from sympathetic friends?
Without advice from numerous websites about overcoming grief and "getting on with your life" ?

How did our ancestors cope with the loss of loved ones? A parent, a child, a grandchild?

Did they have the means to erect a tombstone - of stone, to withstand the weather for generations?
Or was the memorial, of necessity, a few initials scratched on a rudimentary wooden cross?

Most certainly there were private memorials, etched in the heart.

To this I can relate.

Were there annual trips to the family cemetery with flowers lovingly placed?

We do this as a matter of course each Memorial Day. On Veterans Day, we decorate our servicemen and women's graves honoring their service.

Having experienced the loss of a child years ago, my parents in 2006 and 2007, and then this year the passing of a grandson and a month later a grandfather in our extended family - I know it is TOUGH. And I have all the modern conveniences, all the access to modern tutorials on grief management.

As a mother, I didn't lose three to typhoid or one to scarlet fever. We have modern medicine to thank for this. But how did our ancestors handle the grief?

One thing I share with my ancestors is the remembrance of simple times shared with beloved family members now gone. I understand the grief.

Of times not shared.

Of voices no longer heard.

No more hugs, silly storytelling or trips to Orcas Island.

Taking the younger generation to the old haunts is bittersweet.

We think of the things that might have been.

We think of things we wish we'd said.

Image: Licensed by Adobe Stock.

Were my ancestors comforted by family and friends?

Did the minister come to call?

My father could hardly speak of his beloved mother, without choking back tears. How they loved playing checkers...

IMAGE: Siblings Jack Player, Glen S. Player and Beverly (Player) Muir
at the graves of their parents Shirl Player and Myrtle (Weiser) Player Severinson,
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle, Washington, June 2007,
from the author's private collection.

In the case of the death of my maternal grandmother's father, I know nothing more than what I gleaned from on site research in Emporia, Kansas. We followed directions to the Ivy Cemetery in Admire, Kansas, along a paved 2-lane road, to a gravel road, and finally to a deeply rutted dirt road. Wish I'd had a ladder and some black paint to freshen up the sign at the entrance.

IMAGE: The Ivy Cemetery, Admire, Kansas, 2012,
from the author's private collection.
There was no church or cemetery office offering a map of graves, so Mr. Myrt and I walked the cemetery. He went to the left, I went to the right, and very shortly reached my goal. 

IMAGE: Charles H. Goering tombstone, Ivy Cemetery,
Admire, Kansas, 2012, from the author's personal collection.
It was hot, so I sat down in the parched grass, and gently traced the letters of Charles H[enry] Goering's stone. His known birth and death dates were clearly visible. I looked across and saw the stone of his second wife, Elizabeth Shafer Goering. Shafer was her maiden name, and many other Shafers were buried there. This was her family's cemetery. This is why she didn't bury him in the cemeteries in Emporia, Kansas where they lived. She buried him where she planned to be buried, though even now, the road isn't paved. (Her tombstone didn't reflect her first marriage.

I mentioned I sat down near Charles' grave stone, about where the red box is in this photo: 

IMAGE: Elizabeth Shafer Goering and Charles H. Goering tombstones,
Ivy Cemetery, Admire, Kansas, from the author's personal collection.

My feet noticed a lump in the grass, and when I straightened it up, and removed some weeds, I found a broken stone with the letters "FATHER" still visible. Apparently this foot stone is my grandmother's expression of personal loss at the death of her father. (Although the stone seems off center, it wasn't when sitting there.)

That reminded me that my grandmother, an only child, said she loved her father dearly, particularly after the loss of her mother Estelle Mae Phillips. There was resentment when Charles later married again, and it was said my grandmother never got along with her step-mother Elizabeth.

Sitting, I wondered how my grandmother managed to pay for this stone. I know her daughter, my mother, was a mere toddler of about 3 years of age at the time Charles passed away. My grandmother and her husband and child are found up in Washington state in the 1930 US federal population schedule the year before.

I remember how hard it was for me when my father passed away. The memorial service was very difficult.

Was my grandmother financially able to attend her father's funeral?

Did she travel by train with a cranky, inquisitive, bouncy 3-year old in tow, while her husband held down the fort at home? The concept of "family leave" wasn't around until late in the 20th century.

Or was my grandmother only able to order the "FATHER" stone, now the tangible evidence of her feelings for her beloved Poppa?

With two close family funerals within a month of each other, I've found life is in sort of a muddle.

We leave the grave site, thankful for the life, perhaps cut all too short. We are thankful the elderly are no longer suffering. And then we pick up the little strands that make up our life.

Initially just going through the motions.

First we do what needs to be done with travel and laundry.

Though we have a calendar, we seem to move from each "must do" appointment to the next, almost thoughtlessly.

Was this how my grandmother felt when her mother died? Was this how she felt when her father died?

Or was she comforted by the cute things my mother as a young child might say and do each day? Was my grandmother going through the motions, caring for my mother then, until the pain subsided? Until she could almost get through a sentence without choking up, like my father? Like me?

Earlier today, I found myself looking out the window at the spring snow's lacy pattern in the blossoms of my apricot tree. I was lost in thought recalling my grandmother's admonition - "This is apricot preserves, not apricot jam." I think of traditions handed down.

I think of questions I never thought to ask.

I remember the good times.

It's the circle of life, but it's sometimes hard to understand personal loss.


  1. Dear Pat, You stated it very well. I think we have reached the age of maturity and are on the almost outside looking in. I suspect in early years 1700's=1800's that family and community held each other up. Today I fear we have learned to rely on modern so called communication and we do not get the hugs from the neighbors over the hill or down by the creek. HUGS are so key t o total well being. Medically known. For myself, I attempt to remember the good and
    be grateful for what we did share. Without God I know I would not be where I am now and He carries me when the load is to heavy. Yes it was Apricot preserves not Jam in their time. I love Apricot Preserves or Cherry Perserves. May God help you and I will add more thoughts and prayers to you and yours. Your friend always Susi and cousin too.

  2. Dear Pat, a thought provoking post. I don't believe we ever recover from our loses, we find a way to navigate the road ahead. It's a little over 2 years since I lost my Mum. I don't think I will ever recover from the loss.

    1. Dear Julie, I've thought of you all afternoon after publishing this post. I know you are the coordinator of the Worldwide Genealogy Blog and would surely see this post. I hope this didn't cause you pain. I hope this only served to let you know I understand. <3

  3. Dear Pat thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking post . I lost my mother on St Patrick's day last year and my stepfather on Christmas Day. The funerals were difficult especially the recent butial when i was saddened by the burial which was together. I still can't somehow believe my mother has passed and talk to her daily rembering things i hadn't said. Thank you again for your post

  4. Dear Pat - You ask the same questions I have often asked myself when I research my family history and see all the babies that have died or the poor mothers/wives that died in childbirth. The poor children that ended up in did they deal with their grief and a new way of living? Grief is tough. Someone said the other day that it's the price you pay for love, which I guess is true. Grief catches me by surprise mostly - it sneaks up on me when I least expect it, so that my voice breaks like your grandfather's.


Hello, thanks for leaving a comment on the World Wide Genealogy Blog. All comments are moderated because of pesky spammers!

Best wishes
World Wide Genealogy Team