A Question about Ancestor Work: Re. Unpleasant Discoveries
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Senneferet asked me a really potent question in the comments section of one of my ancestor posts: “How do you cope when finding out bad information about someone you had previously loved and respected? I know everyone has their flaws, but I feel a bit foolish. (I adored my grandfather and assumed he had a deep love for my grandmother. I recently found out how violent and cruel he was to her and their children. His photo has been relegated to a drawer in my shrine room for the time being.)”
This is such a good question, and I’ll bet that an awful lot of people are in this situation and don’t know what to do. I certainly know that for myself, it was so much, exactly like this, that tripped me up in learning to honor my ancestors when I started out. That’s why I decided to parse this question out and answer it in a separate post. Hopefully, it will be useful to many of you starting out in your ancestor work.
Firstly, I want to say that if this is the situation in which you find yourself, there’s no reason to feel foolish. People are complicated. The person (your grandfather) you may have dealt with either in life or during ancestor veneration is not the person your grandmother endured. Think about how parents can have very difficult and damaging relationships with their own parents, but those self-same parents will watch their own children having wonderful and loving relationships with those [grand]parents. It’s ok to love someone who was flawed, damaged, and even damaging. One can love without supporting the terrible behavior.
In fact, as another ancestor worker once told me: it is categorically impossible to have ancestors who were all wonderful people. Sooner or later, you’re going to encounter one that leaves you aghast. It’s likewise categorically impossible that they were all assholes. Your ancestral house is a mixed bag but they’re yours. I’m also going to say something that probably isn’t popular: just because an ancestor was a complete dick in life, doesn’t mean A) they can’t change and continue to grow when they’re dead and B) doesn’t mean they don’t have your back. That’s…uncomfortable but it is a reality of ancestor work.
I dealt with this situation with my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac H. He had a horrific childhood, which at least helps me understand his later behavior (though it doesn’t excuse it). He also tried to make amends later in life to his children. He was physically and emotionally abusive to my grandmother and his five kids. She divorced him in the fifties when, in the small town in which they lived, this was not common. I remember her telling me once (it’s odd the ancestral stories we carry – my brother, twelve years younger than I, doesn’t know any of this) that for a while after they divorced, he lived rough in the woods near her home and she was always afraid he’d come back. A police officer at the time, frustrated because in the 1950s in rural Maryland there were absolutely no laws on the books that protected domestic abuse survivors, told my grandmother, who herself was a crack shot with a rifle, that if he came back to go ahead and shoot him, but to make sure he was inside the house and facing her when she did. That was the best he could do. Fortunately for all concerned, it never came to that. There was a time, about ten years ago, when I started sensing my grandfather’s spirit strongly, along with the sense that he wanted to help and be an active part of my ancestral house. I also sensed my grandmother was still scared of him. Much divination later, I worked this out. It’s this experience that taught me, more than just knowing theory ever would have done, that it is possible for our dead to continue to heal and grow and that we can be part of that if we wish. So, what did I do?
As an ancestral spirit, Roland was always fine with me and supportive, so acknowledging his behavior to his family and making sure he understood the full weight of the damage he caused, I explained what I was doing and then moved his image to a separate and physically lower place on my ancestral shrine – as far away from my grandmother (his wife) as possible. I did a series of healing elevations for her. Knowing the situation within Roland’s life that contributed to his damage, I then did a series of elevations for him, and then started working doggedly with his mother. That took several years to begin to untangle. I also visited my grandmother’s grave and did venerative work there. I bought a gravestone for Roland, whom I discovered had none, visited his grave and also made offerings to heal and refresh his soul. I tried my best to find where my great grandmother (Roland’s mom) ashes were buried but was unsuccessful so I had memorial masses offered for her (she was Presbyterian but they are kind of low church so I had Catholics do it. Not the best solution probably, but she also wasn’t particularly religious). I visited Roland’s father’s grave and had it out with him too, but also made offerings. (to him and to his mother and father. I really like the way his mom’s spirit feels). I acknowledged them ALL as significant parts of my ancestral line.
Now I could do this because Roland wanted to make amends. If he had still been violent and abusive, I would have cut him off from any veneration, offerings, or acknowledgement. I would have called on my Disir, my ancestral guardians (there always seem to be a couple of female ancestors who step forward to order one’s ancestral house) to assist with this. I would also have called on the rest of my male ancestors to help here as well, because his behavior in life was not honorable as a man. A real man doesn’t work out his emotional damage by beating his wife and children.
No one is obligated to work with an ancestor that was abusive in life. When this comes up, it’s really very situational and I would definitely go to divination. I’d also, however, take one’s own feelings into account. Sometimes, they’re not relevant. We, as adults, often have to do things that are uncomfortable because they are the right things to do. This is called having character. There are many times I don’t feel like making the offering or prayer I said I would for whatever reason, but I gave my word and it is my obligation and privilege to get off my butt and do so, even my body may not be cooperating that day. I do the best I can. This isn’t necessarily one of those situations. The thing is, as long as this lies unaddressed and unacknowledged in one’s ancestral house, the damage keeps on happening. It doesn’t go away – there is no magical place called “away.” Sooner or later, ancestral damage needs to be dealt with and we as ancestor workers, have some small capacity to contribute to the healing of our lines. How that healing is accomplished (whether by prayer, elevation, and engagement or by cutting someone out of the line) really depends on the who, what, when, and why of the situation and on the potential for further harm to the living.
Some spirit workers will talk about ‘ancestral curses’ and yes, these are a thing. They can have many, many causes, but one of them is unresolved trauma and hurt. So, an ancestor worker’s willingness to engage via elevation can retroactively and proactively both, help the entire ancestral line. For most though, this is not an obligation. It is a choice and sometimes, for many reasons, the choice will be to not engage because more damage to the living family, or to their own hearts might ensue. Sometimes even in this case, an ancestor worker will choose to engage rather than allow that to pass on to their children. It’s complicated and messy. Wading into something like this can tear open pain for living family members. I’ve talked before about how really getting into proper ancestor veneration has the corollary that often one’s ancestors (whether one can hear/sense them or not – some develop that sensitivity, some don’t. it’s not a pre-req for ancestor honoring) will push one to deal with one’s living relatives, heal rifts, bring concord and healing there too. Multiply that a thousand-fold where something like abuse is involved. Make the best choice for you and your family living and dead and don’t let anyone make you feel badly about it. Each situation is different and needs to be handled carefully and respectfully by any spiritworker or diviner who becomes involved.
Also, know that no choice you make with regard to honoring or not honoring a particular ancestor is immutable. There may come a time where you change your mind and decide to engage. Perhaps the situation with living relatives has changed. Perhaps a living relative has died. Perhaps other ancestors are requesting it. Perhaps healing has occurred to a degree with the ancestors that were harmed and now thread of wyrd are open that will allow you to cleanly work with the abusive one for his or her healing. No decision you make no is necessarily impossible to change at a later date.
Ancestor work, healthy ancestor work is a balance. There are multiple sides to this process. You’re balancing the needs of the living and the needs of the dead as well as the needs of those who will eventually come into the line. You’re working with your values and ethics and familial loyalties through the lens of your own experience and sometimes deep hurts that have been caused as a direct result of a particular ancestor’s behavior and choices. That’s not easy. It’s never easy though it does become easier with more engagement (partly, I think, because other ancestors will eventually feel empowered enough to step forward and help).
I also wouldn’t assume that an abusive ancestor didn’t love the ancestor he or she abused. I would say instead that maybe that person loved to the best of their ability but were crippled by their own damage. Maybe they just had poor character and were in capable of loving properly. Maybe they were a dozen other things, but I wouldn’t assume that one facet of their nature, good or bad, was all they were. That too, is deeply uncomfortable, even as I sit here typing it. It’s true though. Whatever else they are, good, bad, or indifferent, people are complicated.
So, to finally answer this question, I would go to divination. We’re polytheists and our religions are religions of diviners. This is how it was in the ancient world. This is how it is with unbroken polytheistic traditions, and this is how it can be for us as well. I would seek out someone who understands this sacred art. I don’t think I would do the divination myself because in such a situation I would not be unbiased, and this could make it difficult to read accurately. Strong emotions and involvement skew our readings, and also confirmation bias is a real thing. I would pray to my Gods and healthy ancestors about this and ask for clarity and insight. I would probably (provided this person was also an ancestor rather than a living relative!) begin elevations for the ancestor who was hurt by the abuser. What happens next would depend on a number of factors outlined in this post. There isn’t any hard and fast rule.
For more about ancestor veneration, check out my book “Honoring the Ancestors: A Basic Guide” available here. This book was born out of an online class I taught several times, designed to teach people the basics of good, solid ancestor work. I’m also happy to answer any further questions here.