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  • Writer's pictureAllan Shedlin

Embrace the Gap in your Past: 5 Strategies to Seek Comfort, Encouragement, and Guidance from Family History

Guest post by Jane I. Honikman, MS

Post Partum Support and Emotional Health Educator


Childhood curiosity got me interested in exploring family history. I was intrigued that my father’s family has been in America since the late 1690s. It was exciting to learn I descend from survivors of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. My father proudly boasted about his lineage, and I pleased him by asking lots of questions. He had photo albums and family trees.


On the other hand, I irritated my mother by my fascination with her heritage. Her parents were immigrants to America in the 1890s. My grandmother came from Russia, and grandfather from Germany. There were few heirlooms or photos.

It was exciting to learn I descend from survivors of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. My father proudly boasted about his lineage, and I pleased him by asking lots of questions.

My eagerness to dig into the past was emotional. What happened to our family during the Holocaust? I discovered there were family mysteries and I wanted to solve them. I hope the strategies I used will help you too:


  1. Identify your family truths: What facts do you already know about your ancestors? There are clues that surround you. The color of your eyes and hair, your parents’ hobbies, the family photos on the walls or buried in boxes, birth and marriage certificates, and the stories you’ve heard from childhood. Take note of what is known, write it down and treat them as treasures.

  2. Uncover the mysterious gaps in family lore: Your last name sounds German yet you’ve been told that your grandparents came from Spain. Family history detectives are individuals who question the stories and seek facts. They look for more information rather than rely on assumptions or rumors. A misspelled name in a census record or an overlooked signature on the back of a photograph can change history.

  3. Ask challenging questions: Everyone has a paper trail. Researching your past is easy if you start with strategy number one. Use existing clues. Prior to computers, family fact searching was daunting. While information has always been around, there is now an avalanche of data available online. The facts can bring guidance to answering unsolved family questions and mysteries.

  4. Move beyond the computer: Genealogy is a popular and satisfying hobby. There is a psychological component why some individuals feel passionate and others don’t care. The gap in one’s past may be rooted in a trauma, an embarrassment or a curiosity. The opportunity to travel and visit a country of origin can be exciting, satisfying and life changing. The idea of walking into the past offers insight into family beliefs and behaviors. There is comfort in these discoveries.

  5. Seek out the experts: Encouragement from others is both validating and important in your family history search. Before I enrolled in genealogy courses, I hired professionals to do research. It was money well spent. The first skill I learned was to document family stories through interviews. Although my mother was reluctant, I captured her voice on audio tape. Now that she is no longer alive, it provides a comfort to hear her laughing as she describes her childhood home and experiences.


Our family mystery was derived from a set of six small, black and white photos with fancy German handwriting on the back. They puzzled and inspired me. One had the date 1938 and the word Palestine written on it. Another identified my grandfather’s brother as a cantor in Berlin. Who were these people and what happened to them? This gap in my knowledge of my past upset me. I embraced the challenge to find their fate. What emerged has been life affirming. I have discovered living relatives who now embrace me. My family history gap has been closed, and a wound healed.


 

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Jane I. Honikman is the mother of three adult children and grandmother to eight grandchildren. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA, with her supportive husband of more than 50 years. She experienced the joy of motherhood in the 1970s and also began to feel the paralyzing guilt of not being able to cope and function in her new role. Frustrated by the lack of community support, she co-founded Postpartum Education for Parents (PEP) to ensure support for herself and others. In 1980, she was awarded an AAUW Member Project/Research grant to conduct A Study of the Dynamics and Development of Postpartum Support Groups and published the results in June 1981. The study was designed to serve as a first step in the formation of a National Network of Postpartum Support Groups. In 1987, she founded Postpartum Support International (PSI) to represent self-help/support groups working to prevent the negative emotional reactions to childbearing. In 2015, she co-founded the Postpartum Action Institute (PAI) for individuals committed to confronting the stigma of mental illness and the mythology surrounding new parenthood. She is the co-author of Parental Mental Health: Factoring in Fathers with Daniel B. Singley, and has written many articles and educational materials on postpartum issues and how to start community support networks. She lectures and trains internationally on the role of social support and the emotional health of families. She earned a BA in sociology from Whittier College and MS in psychology from California Coast University.


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