Ancestors: Sometimes the healing is in the not knowing

“There’s a lot of focus put on ‘moving on’… I’m not sure it’s something that’s terribly useful,” Dad said. “Perhaps a better way to look on it is, take a step. And if it feels okay, take another. Eventually you’ll look around and see you have moved. In whatever direction is intended and feels right. Take care of yourself and go slowly, love.”

I was sitting on my bedroom floor. Bereft. Holding the phone up to my ear, looking out the window on the view that I loved so much. The same view I had sat and gazed at while I dreamed my daughter into creation, while I had cradled my belly in my hands, while she had danced playfully inside me.

Now, a month after her death, here I was receiving timely advice from my wise father. I remember focusing hard on the ground outside as I tried desperately to push down the rising thought: “But you don’t know, Dad. You knew everything before. But I know you don’t know this. Not this.”

That was the beginning of feeling SO alone in the world. I had not yet realised the importance and strength in reaching out for a virtual hand to hold, an experienced hand. The hand of a mother who had also lost a child. That would come, but it would take me almost an entire year to accept any words from those who had gone before me – mostly, I couldn’t bear to acknowledge anyone had gone through the pain I had. It seemed too much to cope with on top of my own.


I used to think looking back was unproductive. That it was devolutionary and devoid of hope.

But as I wrote the book of my path to healing as one half of an infertile couple who, despite the odds stacked against us, would conceive fourteen babies (and lose thirteen of them), I discovered that looking back – way back – was not only invaluable, it was vital.

Let me introduce you to an ancestor of mine I discovered last year. His name is Spencer Benham. He is my 4x great-grandfather (that is, my great-great-great-great-grandfather). Phew! In his lifetime (he lived for 66 years, from 1800-1866) he fathered 14 children to three wives. He outlived seven of his kids. All bar one were lost before reaching adulthood. They were:

With Mary (wife #1), from whom I am descended, two of their five children:
Sarah – aged 42
George – aged 4

With Frances (wife #2), four of their five children died before her death in 1852:
Frances – aged 7
James – aged 12
Sophia – less than 12 months
Frances - less than 12 months

With Annette (wife #3), the only largely “successful” union in terms of vital children who lived to old age (their other three survived into their 70′s-80′s):
James – 6 months

The last baby, James, died barely half a year before Spencer.

Spencer so consumed my thoughts that I went on a search for him. I eventually found the unmarked grave where he is buried with his last born son, James. I stood at the site in the old goldfields cemetery, marvelling at the largely untouched surroundings that would have looked very much as they did on the day his wife, Annette, buried her husband in the grave she had stood beside with him to bury their baby boy.


The fascinating thing about Spencer, to me, was learning from him (in his own words) a little about how he dealt with the deaths of his children. Below are a couple of excerpts I have taken from the many letters he sent home to England during his arduous voyage and settlement in the goldfields north of Melbourne, Australia, in 1857. By all accounts, he was determined to leave behind the loss, the devastation, the messy relationships (it’s a long story!) and start anew. He came out here first in order to build a life for his third wife and their children – at that time there were only two, they would go on to have two more when she joined him out here in 1859.

Spencer writes beautifully over several letters and touches on losing his son, James, who was only 12, after already losing George (4) and Frances (7), not to mention his two baby girls, Frances and Sophia. Here are some extracts:

Near Mr. Brice’s Dairy
Golden Gully
Red Hill
Forest Creek, Castlemaine
Colony of Victoria.Sunday, August 2, 1857
“I received as you know, a letter from Spencer and Charlotte, announcing the death of my poor boy. It came upon me like a thunder clap. I had nearly sunk under it. I expect more deaths yet, for the heathenish signs of such events are of pretty frequent occurrence to me.”

“My nerves are so much shook at the loss of my poor dear boy that I can hardly think what to write. I hope my other little dears are well, Esther, Freddy and Frances. I am quite bewildered. I can believe that all their afflictions shall work for good, but my feelings do not yield to reason. Alas, I am too much chained to earth. I have longed after you all with too much impatience. Our God is the all sufficient good, yet I am too prone to cleave creature happiness. My affections are not yet weaned from creatures. I have no Christian communion here, none to open my soul to. O that the Lord would open the way for you to come speedily to me.”

Thursday, October 22, 1857
“When you see any of my settled children give my love to them and to my brother, George. Since the death of my dear boy, writing is a bitter exercise to me, and I shall not practise it much. I have bespoke many friends here for you, who will hail your coming with a hearty welcome.”
Sunday Afternoon, November 22, 1857
“When I feed my dog and cats, I think of my dear children and yourself and wish you had plenty of that I often throw to them.Be sure to get Spencer to send me my poor dear boy’s photograph. That was the bitterest pill I ever swallowed and my heart will never get over the shock of it.”


There is something very comforting deep within me to discover the words of an ancestor who has ACTUALLY gone through this. Different circumstances, different times. Different beliefs and faiths, to be sure. But it still remains for me an invaluable, important exercise to have connected in this way with a part of my DNA’s history, if you like, that has set me on the path for further healing in my lifetime.

In an age where “we” have all the answers and rush to profess them, it’s a comfort to see, some 150-200 years hence, that simple expressions are the most honest.

How is this relevant or helpful to my journey? I don’t know. I just know that it is.


And sometimes, I think that’s all we need to know.



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