Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Unspeakable Loss of Children~

What do we call Parents who have lost a Child?

Some of the great tragedies we encounter while researching genealogy are the deaths of children and infants – without a doubt, we all have them in our families.

2 brothers died in December 1904, during
a Diphtheria epidemic.
I’ve always been interested in documenting these sometimes ‘lost children’ – perhaps because my first foray into genealogy was when I found the headstone of a baby with my Mother’s maiden name – And sadly some of  these ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ children are just that... forgotten.

Remember when you spotted that previously unknown sibling of a grandparent on a census? 

Or the 1900 census which lists the number of children born to a mother and the number of living children… 

Often infant deaths did not make official records – They may not have been issued birth/death certificates (or happened prior to record keeping) – and burial may have been at home or in a cemetery and unmarked – perhaps a mention was made in a local paper – but years ago pregnancy was a very private time and hence the birth and/or death of a child could be as well – especially in the case of infant death and stillbirths.

Nellie, the little girl in this photo. died at age 12,
in a Diphtheria epidemic. This is the only known
photograph of her. She died in 1904. 
Young children and teenagers also died of childhood illnesses and in other epidemics. Though these older children often had a chance to make their mark in the record books… and perhaps even sat for a photographer!  These longer lives also gave the chance for people to remember them and tell stories.

The loss of children is an unimaginable pain and often I think the pain of this loss caused parents and family to not talk easily of the child… and before long people forgot….

I’ve always found it interesting that when you lose your parents you become an orphan – and when you lose a spouse you become a widow/widower – but when you lose a child – you are called nothing – it’s as if the idea is so inconceivable and unbearable, there is no word that could ever describe it.

So when I come across a child who died young, I go the extra research mile – to fill in the details of its brief life. From vital records to final resting place – to the most cherished, a photograph!

1890s newspaper article, mentioning
death of a small baby

One hundred or two hundred years ago, I can’t imagine the difficulties of daily life – especially for pioneer settlers traveling to uncharted territories – nor can I imagine the fear and helplessness when a baby or young child was struck with illness – or the heavy heart the parents would carry when the unthinkable happened.

What do you do with the lost children of your family? 
Do you do anything special to memorialize 
these sad tragedies?
What unique research tools have your used to fill in the missing details?


  1. Last year I discovered the graves of 5 children in a small cemetery in Wisconsin that I was certain were my husband's maternal grandmother's siblings. Four of those children died in approx. 2 weeks from Dec. 19, 1880 to Jan. 1, 1881. Their ages were from about 15 to under a year old. One of them died much earlier. What a horrible time for that family. By 1900 that family of 3 instead of 8 had moved to Faribault County, Minnesota. My husband and his only living sister knew that grandmother, but didn't know of any mention of her siblings. I spent a lot of time researching the best that I could to try and prove that relationship. With the help of the person who had created their Find A Grave memorials I was able to finally link the children to their parents on that site and of course I have them on my family history information and tell what I know of that story there. Sometime I would like to make the trip to Wisconsin and personally visit them.

    1. It can be tricky to connect/prove relationships to young children when records are so scarce. I know you put a lot of effort info confirming yours!
      A trip to Wisconsin would be a lovely way to honor their short lives.