Finding Rituals

Ever read something quickly and then it still stays with you so vividly? This article Welcome to the Clan by Jodi Klugman-Rabb for Severance Magazine was just that for me.

As a therapist, Jodi works with some clients on parental identity events such as she personally experienced. She wisely points out the importance of rituals in processing any life-changing event. And, unfortunately, the lack of ritual examples for the genealogically bewildered community.

With open ears and an open heart, Jodi hears, “welcome to the clan” as a mini-ritual within her new family. And she’s also open enough to extend her Jewish-faith rituals back.

My own family stepped into some rituals that offer a bit of comfort as we make sense of my husband’s extended bio-family who we’ve met but not connected with yet. As luck would have it, we were hosting a soccer coach from Sweden at the time we discovered my father-in-law’s birth father was from a line of Finnish-Swedes! So now we celebrate all things Sweden on Coach’s birthday. (The custom of Fika is a good one to learn even if you don’t have Swedish roots!)

The thing about rituals is, you can’t fake them. They matter because they mean something. Over time I think we’ll start to see some common rituals evolve to accommodate families with unconventional branching of a tree. Indeed, the open adoption community already provides some inspiration such as with the concept of celebrating Arrival Day. But rituals, like families, are unique and that too is a reason they mean something. For those seeking to make sense of known family, new family, bio-family and family unit perhaps the pattern of a ritual, or its kismet means it may discover you.

Is ‘Genealogical Bewilderment’ really a thing?

It is. Psychologists Erich Wellisch and H.J. Sants named the phenomenon in 1964, while working with adoptees. The term refers to their observation that missing details about your own ancestry can lead to an experience of ‘genealogical bewilderment’.

I’ve been on a quest recently to find the biological family of my deceased father-in-law, who I never had the chance to meet. Every answer my husband and I celebrated created dozens of new questions and emotions. When I stumbled on the term genealogical bewilderment in a May, 2018, article by The Atlantic, the long and clumsy term made sense right away.

Ashley Fetters wrote about the concept in her article, Finding the Lost Generation of Sperm Donors:

There’s a name for that feeling—that curiosity, that sense of a missing piece, that anxiety that some dormant aspect of themselves might one day show up and have no traceable root. In 1964, the psychologists Erich Wellisch and H.J. Sants, who studied and treated troubled adoptees, understood the lack of knowledge of one’s genetic background to induce a state of what they called “genealogical bewilderment.”

Since then it seems only a niche group of psychologists have published anything further about the term.

I believe the term is due for a resurgence. I think it could be like the mighty at sign (@) or hashtag (#) symbols that might have faded into oblivion had technology not introduced the need for them in email addresses and social media respectively. The term genealogical bewilderment was originally used to describe the experience of adoptees. But as the popularity of ancestry DNA testing grows, I wonder if we’ll see a renewed use of this term that also seems to relate to people of other backgrounds. For example, beyond the donor-conceived that Fetters mentioned in her article, there are those getting “not parent expected” (NPE) results from ancestry tests, such as a child they never knew existed or that a parent who raised them is not actually biologically related. Not to mention all the half- or full- siblings, uncles and cousins who are discovering new family members as well.

Wellisch and Sants called the opposite of genealogical bewilderment, ‘ancestral closure’. I suspect ‘ancestral journey’ is a more accurate description. For now, I’m finding some comfort (while I wish for closure) just in that the bewilderment label exists. Something about the existence of the term, with the word ‘logical’ right in the middle reassured me that we’re going to be OK on this journey of learning my father-in-law’s story no matter how many more twists we decide to follow.