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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 67    

                             November 2007

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.



Family Secrets: What happens when genealogy digs up the unexpected

By Maggi Stamp

In these days of high-speed communications we have such huge resources at our finger-tips. Like me, many of you will have had a look at the genealogy and friend-searching websites. For some, what they find there is an old friend or a clue to their origins that would otherwise have been lost to them.

Nina emailed me saying she had been doing an online search and found more than she expected. The essence of her long and complicated story is the discovery of lost family.

While exploring one of these websites she found two other people looking for relatives. They had a common thread. One was looking for her aunt – Nina’s mother. Nina had no idea her mum had sisters and was delighted to discover a cousin. But more was in store. The second person was looking for his birth mother and his story, his adoption papers etc, made it clear that Nina had a half-brother she had known nothing about.

Understandably these are big secrets to have in a family. Who knows? And who doesn’t? It was apparent that Nina’s mother had a rather complex past. Other than mum, who was not strong, there was no-one alive who knew the facts. And it is well known that fact, in family folklore, can be softened or enhanced around the edges.

There must be many families who have discovered surprising or even shocking secrets now that we have access to so much archive information. How Nina and her family handled things was with steady kindness, consideration and tact.

Although such discoveries might require an adjustment of someone’s perception of their relation – and this can take time - ultimately it can lead to a readiness to hear other information, especially if it fits into a jig-saw of memories that has pieces missing, once family members are gone or past remembering.

The feeling that her mother might be too shocked to find her secret had been discovered held Nina back for a while, but she finally talked with mum alone; about her life as a young woman, about pleasures, regrets and if she ever wonders what happened to people she cared about long ago?

Many older folk, at the end of their lives feel a need to put the records straight but are shy of upsetting the apple cart for their loved ones. My own mother told me of her long held traumas in the few weeks before she died. So many things fell into place that I had never understood about her until then and we had the closest time together since I was a child.

A parent sometimes finds it easier to confide in one particular family member, so repeating the offer occasionally might be appropriate, as things need to be pondered over. Make it clear you would be happy to listen, not offering on a daily basis of course, but just as it comes up in conversations about the past.

The past is where almost all of their life is and is where their mind will be for most of their waking day. Someone in their nineties knows there is little time ahead.

Considered honesty is the best approach. Nina wanted to help her brother see his mother before it's too late, but mum needed to know beforehand and be given a choice too. They are complicated sorts of strangers to each other.

Meeting a birth-mother for the first time is a very hard thing for an adult. It is possible to experience a rollercoaster of relief, distress, anger, joy and grief. Anyone in this position needs to be aware that these feelings can surface unexpectedly.

Our parents lived in times of harsh judgement on anyone who had an illegitimate child, indeed it still happened occasionally when I was a young woman. Many babies were quietly put up for adoption. The pain of separation would have been intolerable at times, yet all those years Nina’s mum maintained her silence while raising her ‘known’ family. The way she coped was to keep her own counsel and create a new life in order to close off the pain and trauma of her youth.

Any mother who has had to entrust her tiny baby to a stranger to care for them will grieve, feel guilty, worry and hope that their child has been properly and lovingly nurtured.

For the majority who find their child in later years there is a settling of some of the worries, a joy to see the man or woman before them, grown, healthy and hopefully willing to understand. For a minority, a parent is disturbed by the exposure. But if their family remain accepting and loving, it can be a cathartic experience to know that the secret no longer needs to be guarded.

Asking parents about the past;

  • Say you are doing some research into family trees, explaining, if they dismiss this, that it is the sort of thing many people in their middle years enjoy nowadays, thanks to computers etc and keep it light.

  • Ask gentle but direct questions to your elderly person, e.g. ‘Are there things we never knew about you ?’

  • The open invitation, ‘ you know if there is absolutely anything your would like to tell us we are old enough to hear it, very little could surprise us at our age…’

  • Is there a story of a similar late life revelation with good outcome that you could use as an example of how open you are to the possibility of it happening in your own family?

  • Reassuring them of your own strength and openness might help them.

This gentle approach certainly paid off for Nina. Now she has a broader family to share things and a mother who seems to have a new energy and enthusiasm for life.

Only you can know if this is possible in your family. Elderly frailty is often more physical than mental and it is easy to treat very old people as though they have never faced tricky situations – most elderly folk will have handled a few!

If they choose to say nothing then you must respect their privacy, however hard that may be – but my goodness, what strong and determined survivors those who have carried sad memories are.

Have any readers found surprising facts about their family through revisiting the past, either from family tree research or through an unexpected letter or visit? I should very much like to hear from you.

Email me at the usual address,

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