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  • Genealogical Issues: Genealogy and Establishing a Personal Identity and Overcoming Losses

    Myra Vanderpool Gormley

    Published Date : June-July 1988
    “A common mental health problem is the task of satisfactorily establishing one’s personal identity in the world,” says Dr. Louis Lehmann, a Tacoma, Washington, therapist who works with families in conflict.

    Using some ideas of Murray Bowen, a renowned family-of-origin therapist, Lehmann helps clients recognize the transmission across generations of influences which tend to develop or inhibit one’s emotional maturity and capacities to cope with stress.

    “I have found that clients can be helped to recognize this process through the structure of family pedigree charts and family group sheets, which invite clients to identify or estimate important influences which may be passed across generations,” he said in a recent interview.

    “Genealogy helps especially in my work with mentally and physically abused children. It gives them a sense of their own strength by looking at their family history,” he explained. “I use it in getting kids to go home and talk to their relatives to get more information about the person that is gone from their life, whether it be their dad, mom or a grandfather. This enables kids to talk about [104] someone who is not there in their life…. to understand in what ways they are like and not like other family members,” Lehmann said. “Genealogy helps give us all a sense of personal identity,” Lehmann maintains. “So many of my patients feel worthless and are without identity. Genealogy can help reestablish contacts within a family.”

    Louis Lehmann deals with many depressed children. “And I wonder where their sense of family is going to come from. Some children I see are on their second or third adoptive try.

    “People want to belong - this is a basic human need,” he said, “but the dream of a family and belonging, as constantly presented through the media (television especially), is not like real life.

    “Many families with whom I work have suffered extreme losses in their lives - deaths of children or parents, divorce, out-of-home placement of children, loss of homes and material possessions, loss of relationships, and loss of health. I am using genealogy as a repair process also. It helps people memorialize their loved ones, enabling them to deal with different losses.”

    Lehmann stressed that “one’s immediate family is the most influential, but an appreciation that one’s parents and/or grandparents are also products of special influences from their families helps clients gain a broader perspective and step outside of some of the emotional entanglements in their own families.” By doing so, they are able to develop a healthier and more independent sense of self, he said.

    “I have found that for some clients, the sharing of genealogical trips to places in their family history provides a cohesive focus for relatives who otherwise may distance from one another - or who may be in conflict.”

    Geneograms - the diagramming of a family tree which includes three generations where important characteristics and/or events of family members are identified - help in understanding patterns of problems in families and how they were present in earlier generations. “A geneogram helps clients to see grief and family problems as multi-generational,” Lehmann said.

    Genealogy also functions as a loss-repair process that enables a grieving person to better come to terms with his/her loss, Lehmann noted. “A genealogical focus can provide appropriate memorialization as part of the grieving process,” he said.

    In fact, the compilation of family histories is a way that many people choose, often unknowingly, to work through personal grief losses. Genealogical efforts function as a way for the grieving person to complete unfinished business with people in his or her life who have died.

    “As a genealogist myself I am interested in the potential value of the more traditional genealogical approaches in helping clients recognize both strengths and weaknesses in their families - especially as influenced by earlier generations. I am more and more convinced that many people en-grossed in the study of their family history meet important needs in determining who they are in this world,” he said.

    People have been using genealogy for centuries to understand better their own identities in terms of relationships and heritage. Understanding helps them cope with the stresses of life, according to Lehmann.

    “The value of genealogy to mental health may be nothing new,” Lehmann said. “However, there is much unrealized potential for more use of such interests within current counseling approaches."

    “I am exploring such potential in my work with disturbed children and their families,” he said, “while at the same time I continue to enhance the understanding of myself through the history of my ancestors. Following the death of my mother, I took over the role as family historian and continued her extensive research into our ancestry. It gives me a better understanding of the influences which may have partly shaped the character and values of my family across generations.”

    Lehmann concluded, “This research into my families helps me understand family influences upon the development of my own identity. Genealogical research becomes more important to me in the role of father and grandfather, as the accumulation of family history enables me to pass to my children and grandchildren more continuity of valuable ancestral information.”

    Although genealogy provides only part of the many influences forming one’s identity, this perspective offers a workable framework from which one can develop greater understanding and appreciation of his or her place in the world, according to Louis Lehmann, family therapist.

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