Many of us do it naturally without thinking about it. We have a natural interest in where we come from. Relatives would call us the family historians, the keepers of the past. "No need to do my family history, Aunt Mary has already done it". However it may not be as simple as that. I have been busy taking Horticultural Therapy courses through the Toronto Botanical Gardens as well as taking the Garden Design Courses from George Brown College. It has taken me years to realize what my high school guidance counsellor had discovered on the career aptitude test that I wrote. Apparently I liked the arts and the outdoors; I also knew I liked sciences and history. The problem with that was I had no real direction as to what career path I should take. I truly wanted to be an artist but how could I fit that into a sustainable lifestyle. Sustainable being the optimal word. If that aptitude test had been more detailed it would have shown me that the creativity I possess from a long line of ancestors need not be delegated to one discipline, which I am now learning in my 50s.
While researching my family history I always felt a sense of complete wellbeing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. All these components of my life strengthened the more I delved into my past. I suffer from Fibromyalgia which can cause all sorts of physical, mental and emotional challenges and becoming involved in genealogy was one of the best therapies I could have ever embraced. When I first started looking for my ancestors, I did not think of it as a therapy but rather a curiosity itching to be scratched and boy did I scratch that itch all the way to becoming a professional genealogist. One thing I suffered through was sciatica down my left leg. I could not function for over half a year. What helped me through the pain was the deep concentration I put into searching for my ancestors online; the Internet was a genealogy gift for me at that time. Physically I was able to stretch my leg out while on the computer and mentally I was able to forget the pain as I searched through census records, birth, marriage and death registrations as well as church records and other family history records I could locate at the click of the keyboard. Anxiety and depression are other fallouts from Fibromyalgia that I intermittently suffer from and I find that researching for myself or others helps me battle these mentally debilitating challenges in my life.
I am sharing these intimate details of myself with my readers because I want you to understand that there is a serious therapeutic importance in doing genealogy. I always knew that doing one's own research put you in closer contact with your ancestors. After spending a full year searching for my great grandfather's baptismal record, and finding out that he had been baptized twice in the Catholic Church, once as a baby by his Catholic mother and once before he married my Catholic great grandmother, as he was raised by his father who was Presbyterian, I certainly feel much closer to this mysterious and mischievous chap. Ah, but that is another story for another time. The point is that as I worked my way through my ancestors personal and not so personal records I began to understand myself, my parents and my grandparents better and for that matter my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. As I began my professional work in the field of genealogy; really starting as a non-member volunteer with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the mid 1990s, I started to see the benefits of genealogy as a therapeutic tool for others. This included individuals looking for their aboriginal ancestors who thought they were only looking for proof so they could have membership with First Nations or Metis; many wanting hunting and fishing rights. I mention this because some genealogists would get frustrated with these individuals thinking they had the wrong intentions when it came to searching for one's ancestors. I looked at it and still look at it differently. I believe it does not matter the motivation for searching out one's ancestors as long as one is not doing so to harm someone else. Could the ancestors be trying to reach out and be found by their descendants, one cannot be sure, however if one is not motivated to do family history research for the sake of doing it, then some other kind of motivation could be just what is needed to grab the attention of those who may need to do their genealogy the most and not realize it; I am talking about the need for genealogy therapy here.
As more and more clients came to me for consultations, I realized that what most wanted was to be listened to and heard. Yes they wanted to gain information from me on how to trace their line, but more importantly they needed to share their stories, be it about adoption, losses, separation or frustrations, they were all trying to learn more about themselves through their past. I can honestly say that of all the clients I have had home consultations with, all have left satisfied, uplifted and ready to face the challenges of continuing the quest for their past knowing that they may find unexpected events or nothing at all. It was the process that seemed to help them the most.
It was not until I began my Horticultural Therapy journey this past year that I realized the significance of genealogy as a therapy for others in a more serious fashion. I began doing some investigative research online for scientific research that indicated the benefits of doing genealogy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there had been many different types of research on the benefits of tracing the past. Some studies referred to this type of genealogical therapy, as I like to call it, as narrative therapy, lineage therapy, reflective therapy, life review, life story work or reminiscence. A wide range of studies concentrated on different benefits including cognitive benefits, emotional benefits, spiritual benefits and physical benefits.
Some studies find that psychotherapists are advising patients to rebuild family histories to help reconnect dislocated family and to develop cultural identity. Further, Dr. Murray Bowen from the 1950/60s suggested that in order for family therapist to better help their clients that they should understand their own family dynamics. Life Review studies have shown that some difficulties within a family and marriage may come from original families; we carry into a relationship what we have learnt from our past relationships. Life Review has helped individuals recognize and take into account family conflicts from the past, while reminiscing re-enforces concentrating on positive memories in a group setting. Life Review and reminiscing has helped residents in nursing homes improve behaviour, elevate mood, increase self-esteem as well as decreasing depressive symptoms, the feelings of hopelessness and increasing life satisfaction better then when a comparable group concentrated on current event interventions. On the spiritual side of things, some studies have shown that some individuals have strengthened their connections of faith their ancestors followed. I have seen these types of improvements myself when working with clients of even younger ages.
To say that genealogy is just a hobby is an understatement. Over the 20 plus years I have conducted genealogy for myself, others, in consultations, workshops and lectures I have seen the overwhelming benefits of it as a therapy for everyone that ventures down their historical family path. I continue to work in this field because of all those benefits mentioned not only for myself, but my family, friends and others that surround me. To understand where you are headed, you must understand where you have been and that includes your ancestors. Some serious therapy indeed.
Tammy Tipler-Priolo BASc, PLCGS
The Ancestor Investigator