I found myself in the strange position today of grieving for children who died over 200 years ago.
I have been studying the family structure of St. Augustine, Florida, for over two years now. I have six file boxes of files on the people of St. Augustine during the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821). Actually, I have not got much beyond 1790 on most of these people, so I have only a fraction of what will be the total when I'm done. With all those dossiers on all those individuals, I feel like the J. Edgar Hoover of old St. Augustine!
And in studying these people, I have come to feel attached to them in some way, even to those whom I have a feeling I would not like were I to meet them! So in reading the burial entries in the church records of 1784-1809, I felt grief, and found myself shedding tears for these little babies and their parents. One couple lost two children in the space of a few months, and another couple lost two children in the same day!
It was a hard life, when diseases which today we have vaccines to prevent were routinely taking away these little lives. I felt particularly sad to learn that a little waif whose parents were unrecorded, an orphan who was taken in by a St. Augustine couple, did not live very long. I had hoped to find her in the records, married and with babies of her own, but that was not to be.
We historians can become involved in the periods we study, in the people whose lives we examine and analyze and try to make sense of. The danger, of course, is the loss of the necessary distance we should and must maintain between us and our subjects, in order that we dispassionately examine and order our facts and come to the most logical conclusions. I do not think that means we cannot at times put ourselves in their places, for in doing so, we may gain insights we would otherwise miss.
At the same time, we have to maintain that distance so that we can reach sound conclusions. There is a time to feel emotion at the impact of events on people in the past, whether in the general past population, or in our own family histories, and there is a time to put the emotions aside and focus on the facts at arm's length.
The trick is to know when to do each, and when not.