On Tragedy, Compassion, and What I Want to Be Remembered For

by | Dec 16, 2016 | Extended Family, Family, Life | 7 comments

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My grandfather lived to be 95 years old.

When he died, unlike most senior citizens, most of the people at his funeral were actually quite young. That’s because his neighbours all loved him. For decades he had been looking after their yards and fixing their roofs and taking care of pets when they went on vacation. He had been the neighbourhood watch when the kids walked home from school, and had been the first to know if someone was in the hospital.

When he grew too old to make himself dinner, the neighbours all took turns having him over for a meal.

He was a happy–albeit anxious–man whom people just fell in love with. He was kind, humble, and truly caring.

A spiritual heritage: Girls with their great-grandfather

My grandfather, Frank, with my daughters Rebecca and Katie in 2001.

Yet his life was marked with tragedy. Each tragedy, though, always brought with it a corresponding blessing.

When he was just six years old, his mother Kate died of a brain aneurysm. His step-mother, however, was a wonderful woman whom he loved dearly.

When he was 12, a combination of scarlet fever and a near-drowning left him mostly deaf. That meant his education was limited, and he couldn’t go to war.

But at the age of 30, he got his first hearing aid. And promptly entered the dating scene, capturing my grandmother’s eye not too much later.

My grandfather Frank and my grandmother Lilian--just after they started dating.

My grandfather Frank and my grandmother Lilian–just after they started dating.

My grandmother died of cancer after 25 years of marriage. My “Nana”, Frank’s next wife, was wonderful to me, and her death when I was 8 (after 17 years of marriage to my Poppa) was one of the biggest tragedies of my young life. His next wife, Dorothy, would be at his side at my wedding.

Three women, all different, whom he all loved dearly. And he outlived them all.

I knew all of that about my grandfather.

Yesterday, though, I was telling you about how I joined Ancestry.com to trace my family tree.

I shared about my grandmother’s side yesterday. I’d like to tell you today what I discovered about my grandfather Frank’s side–it’s a story both of loss and of great faith, and it’s humbled me.

Kate Byerley (Frank’s mother, my great-grandmother) was the oldest child of Clement and Sarah. As I waded through census records and birth and marriage records, a picture of their family emerged.


Sarah Byerley, around 1890

Clement Byerley, around 1890

Clement Byerley, around 1890

Clement and Sarah had seven children: Kate, Margaret, Thomas, Ethel, Fabian, Carrie, and Dorothy. Thomas died early; Ethel died when she was a young teenager, leaving the family with four girls and one boy.

Now Clement came from quite a large and prosperous family of shipowners in Portsea Island, near Plymouth, in England. I found the wills of his father and grandfather and uncle, and when they passed away, Clement became a property owner and quite a wealthy coal merchant in his own right. Interestingly, though, someone else who is ALSO tracing the same tree on Ancestry.com, and who is descended from a different one of Clement’s daughters, provided some personal anecdotes about him I never knew.

She said that even though Clement owned quite a few businesses, his real passion was the church where he was deacon, and he spent far too much time trying to help the church, and not enough time on his businesses! So his father’s and grandfather’s business sense did not carry on to Clement. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the family decided to move to Canada.

Fabian, the only surviving son, went first. I actually found the record of his ship crossing in 1906, at the age of 18, showing up in the port of Halifax (Ancestry.com has a ton of ship records, and I’ve found almost all my ancestors going back and forth. Keith even found one ancestor arriving from France in 1680!) . He moved to Winnipeg, and a year later, in 1907, most of the family followed–Clement and Sarah, along with three of their daughters (Kate, Carrie, and Dorothy).  The fourth, Margaret, stayed in England because she was already married.


Now, here’s where the sad part comes in.

Somewhere along the line, likely on the ship, the family caught tuberculosis.

Caroline dies first, in 1908. Six months later, Kate (my great-grandmother) marries Henry. Six months after that, Fabian passes away.

Here’s the family’s census record for 1911, that I found on Ancestry.com:


About a month after that census was taken, in the fall of 1911, Dorothy marries. Less than a month later, Sarah, her mother, dies.

That leaves Clement still alive, with two daughters, now married. Clement moves in with Kate and Henry and their baby boy, Frank (my grandfather). Dorothy and her husband move to Ontario, and later to Iowa.

In 1915, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, Kate dies suddenly of an aneurysm. Clement signs the death certificate, likely because Henry was too upset to do so. He’s now a single dad with two young children. Clement stays living with them, though, even though he’s “only” an in-law.

Henry Wray with his children Frank and Elise, after his wife dies. Circa 1915

In 1920, Dorothy passes away in Iowa.

Margaret, who remained in England, passed away in 1934, at the age of only 52.

Clement would live for another ten years, surviving all of his children and his wife.

When he dies, my grandfather signs the death certificate.

Interestingly, it’s from Margaret’s granddaughter that I got so many of these pictures and so much information! She’s on Ancestry, too, and I found her (though she’s in Australia, I believe!). And she’s provided character stories of my great-great grandmother I never knew! So much fun. In writing the Byerley family story, though, she wrote that ALL of the relatives died upon moving to Canada. She didn’t know that some of us lived! So I was able to inform her that she does, in fact, have a Canadian branch of her family.

My great-great-grandfather Clement loved God his whole life. He dedicated his life wholeheartedly towards serving God, even at great monetary expense. And yet God did not spare him from grief.

Yet my grandfather never talked of him as a particularly bitter man. He quite enjoyed him.

And I think, as I went further back with Ancestry, I figured out why.

As I said, I read many family wills, and one of the people who seemed most interesting was Clement’s aunt Caroline. She never had any children herself (she married a twice-widower when she was beyond child bearing age), but from everything I can see, the woman was a saint.

In the 1891 census, she was 70 years old, yet living with her were two great-neices and a great-nephew, just so that they could go to school.


Her will is filled with bequests to all sorts of family members just starting out, to give them a helping hand.

She was close to Clement, and mentioned him quite a bit in various documents.

But the happiest thing I found, in all of my research on genealogy, was her obituary from 1892.


Her death will be mourned by a large circle of immediate friends, and it is impossible to estimate how many poor in the surrounding neighbourhood will have cause to deplore the loss of one whose many years of generosity and benevolence was only known to themselves.

Isn’t that beautiful?

This woman was one of the wealthiest in the town. She had no children herself. And yet she went out of her way to be generous and to befriend those who needed her help.

My grandfather Frank’s sister also had no children.

Yet she lived a bitter life, and in the end, no one mourned her (she specifically asked her lawyer not to notify us of her death, and actually disposed of the family heirlooms I had given her after my grandfather passed away. She also disposed of all the family photographs, too). No one was there to bury her (though we would visit her every few months) because no one knew she had died.

Caroline sounds remarkably like my grandfather, who loved people and surrounded himself with community. His funeral was packed.

What I have concluded about my family heritage

As I’ve had this adventure with Ancestry.com over the last two months, I’ve made a few conclusions.

From my paternal grandmother’s side, I got the ability to speak in public, to tell jokes, to be humorous and capture the audience’s attention. My con man of a great-great grandfather used these skills for ill; I hope that I use them for good.

And from my paternal grandfather’s side I got a legacy of faith and generosity that saw my family through incredible grief and hardship and loss, and still had people who were full of life and full of grace.

That’s a wonderful heritage. And even though Caroline is “only” my great-great-great-great-aunt, and not a direct ancestor, I think she’s one of the ones I’m most looking forward to meeting in heaven. She took a great interest in Clement’s children, and in all of her great-nieces and great-nephews. And I’m looking forward to hearing her stories.

Thank you for humouring me and listening to my stories!

When you’re a blogger, it seems like everything that’s big that happens to you has to be blogged about. It isn’t “real” if it’s not written down. And so since genealogy is a big hobby my husband and I have adopted lately, I just wanted to write down these stories. They mean a lot to me. It’s interesting to see where I came from. And I just never realized how much loss there was on my grandfather’s side of the family. God does not promise us easy lives. He only promises that He will carry us through them.

If you want to get started tracing your family tree, you can do that with Ancestry.com.

Maybe you’ll find some long lost relatives like I did! And maybe you’ll discover part of your legacy, whether it’s good or bad. I think knowing where we came from is so interesting. It’s neat to pass on to your children. And it’s neat to see how many prayers may have already been made for you from generations gone by!

The Perfect Obituary: Leaving a legacy of faith and generosity

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. DragonLady

    How neat! I used to do a lot of genealogy research, but got to the point I didn’t have the time to justify the Ancestry.com membership. So I am somewhat content to let cousins do all the work. But it was so cool to read your experience! After my mom passed away in May, I was gathering up and cleaning out her effects, and I came across a bunch of genealogy paperwork that not only I had given her, but also some of my cousins (both sides). Now I grew up in Arkansas, and both sides of my family have been in the same area of Arkansas since the late 19th century. Through the course of a couple of military tours, I ended up in North Carolina. Turns out that some of my ancestors lived in North Carolina and at least 2 of them are buried in the county I happen to live in. What are the odds of that?! 🙂

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That IS neat! I’m really having fun with it. I have a few more birth certificates to order so I can go a little further back, but it really is fun!

  2. Janyre Tromp

    How fun is that?! My mom put together a book of photos and snippets of stories for us. It goes back to my great-great-great grandparents. And right now, I’m going through boxes of my Grandparent’s papers from around WWII.

    I love learning the stories from the past. They have so much to teach us, if we’ll only listen.

  3. Summertime

    Such a beautiful story of your ancestors, Sheila! It is quite fascinating to learn more about one’s ancestors. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed the post! God bless your family!
    Also, what a sweet picture of your grandfather Frank and your daughters 🙂 So super cute!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know! He passed away not too long after that, but Rebecca still remembers him!

  4. Lisa

    That truly is a beautiful obituary.

  5. Rebecca

    This was much earlier, but in the mid-1800s many counties in England cleared their welfare rolls by shipping the poorer families off to Canada. It was cheaper to pay for one-way fares than to keep them in the community. Some of my ancestors ended up in Canada that way. Several years ago we stopped by a town in the UK where some of them were born. Quite by chance, the town had an amateur historian, who knew absolutely everything about the town. I told him where my ancestors had lived and he informed me that street was factory housing for a textile factory. When the factory closed, the county suddenly had a massive welfare roll, so they shipped them off overseas to balance the books.

    A few years ago we went back to the UK with my inlaws to see what we could find out about my FIL’s family. Totally different experience. The TIC had no interest in us. When we asked the town vicar she shut the door on us, but only after berating us for wasting her time (What a fine example of Christian love!) I share this because some people get it in their heads to go overseas to see what they can find out about their ancestors. Mt first experience is incredibly rare; you are far more likely to have my second experience. So save your money, unless you just want the holiday; you can almost always find out a lot more by perusing records. (My background: Two parents who are obsessed with family history and a lifetime of being dragged along to cemeteries, court houses, and family history libraries. I could load a microfilm before I learned to read.)


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