On Healing Ancestral Trauma

I wanted to write some about healing ancestral and collective trauma. And the way I know how to do that is by showing by example, so I’m gonna talk very personally about some stuff I’ve had going on lately. We are our ancestors, and we are impacted by their historical trauma. The coping strategies they created to deal with the hard stuff they had to manage in their lifetimes are what get passed down to us and inform how we handle our own hard stuff. Sometimes that collective ancestral wisdom is wise and helpful and productive. Sometimes it’s horrible, harmful to us and others, ineffective, or impactful in ways that make our lives and the lives of others harder. And the harder our own individual lives get, the more those inherited coping strategies come into play. So how do we filter and sort? How do we pull out the parts that are helpful and wise and get rid of the parts that aren’t benefiting us or others? While modern psychology has lots of thoughts about this and very effective strategies for addressing some of this, religion and spirituality have some powerful tools as well.

I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I’m exhausted. I’ve been really struggling with… how to hold my own center in the midst of all of the “State of the World” stuff happening right now, watching the eroding freedoms and protections I thought we could rest into here in the US, actively currently scared for my more vulnerable friends, feeling protective and scared for my family and myself (my currently very very pregnant self). Tangled up in all the current reality is my personal and family history – I’m the grandchild of holocaust survivors; my grandmother was separated from her family at a young age and that was a big trauma for her and her sister; after years in concentration camps, my family were in refugee camps for another 5 years before being begrugdingly approved for US visas… and there are some specific ways the trauma my grandparents lived through as genocide survivors and refugees was passed down through my family and passed trauma through my generation, informed how we were treated and how we treated one another, all kinds of stuff.  It would be an understatement to say that… my personal and ancestral shit has been up lately.

One of the traditions I actively practice is Espiritismo, as informed by Cuban Santeria, as I was taught by my elders in that tradition. Some of the core tenets of Espiritismo includes this idea that the dead continue to walk with us, that some dead folks need extra help and support from the living and from other beings in order to be able to transition into whatever it is that dead folks do once they’ve died. That sometimes the dead get “stuck” here, tangled in trauma or grief or the concerns of the lives they led but are no longer leading, and are unable to “elevate” and move on. Some of them may not be able to disconnect from this world and go on to rest into being ancestors or doing whatever else dead folks might do on the other side of death. And when those un-elevated, still traumatized, still entangled dead linger here in this world, there is the risk of them getting tangled up with those of us who are still living, because they’re attracted to the places where our trauma or concerns match theirs, or because they love us, or are angry, or a whole host of other reasons. When they do that, they can cause trouble for the living, or they’re simply stuck and miserable, which compassion and decency says isn’t a good place to leave someone.

Much of the “ritual technologies” of Espiritismo are designed to help support those dead folks in being able to transition. We may sing, pray, cleanse, light candles, burn incense, or do other kinds of ritual work to help elevate those dead. Some of this is for them and some of this is for us – sometimes we may find ourselves in a bad way in part because, since the dead may be attracted to the places where we are traumatized, angry, grieving, or struggling, their unresolved feelings may exacerbate and magnify our own. This is one of the places where we may get tangled in collective and ancestral grief and trauma. We *are* our ancestors, and not just our blood ancestors either. We are part of lineages, we are the living faces of those who have come before. We are the descendants of many different lines of dead folks – those who we understand as family (in all the ways, blood, adoption, choosing and being chosen), those who shared aspects of our identity (like our gender or sexual identities, our hobbies and passions, our professions), those who came before in our religions or who carried similar initiations or oaths as we carry, those who taught us or inspired us, and many others. When any of those places of identity are where we’re being currently oppressed, targeted, or harmed, especially when there is a history of oppression against that whole lineage, identity, or community, the lineage itself may collectively cry out, and that cry reverberates through us, exacerbating and magnifying individual feelings of anger, fear, frustration or trauma.

Last weekend I had a misa for my spirits. A misa is basically a seance – groups of practitioners sit down together in a cleansed and contained space and enter into dialogue with the dead. We “dialogue” both with our prayers and songs and with our focused attention. Each misa is different, as we have a structured way of entering into a fluid dialogue and allow whatever is real in that moment for both the living and the dead to be what shapes the space. And there is both space for helping un-elevated dead to find their peace and resolution so they can move on, and space for those dead who have already done that elevation and disconnect and healing work to come back and give us advice and guidance if they so choose. The elevated ones are vital to the process of helping the un-elevated find their elevation and healing as well, so they are called on and fed in very specific ways to partner in the work.

I’ve been in a pretty spun out way emotionally lately, and it wasn’t til the misa this weekend that I finally got the message that a chunk of my current massive trigger/spin out stuff is because of my own recent traumatized ancestors – in my case, those who died in the Holocaust as well as the ones who made it to the US and died here, the ones who are screaming because it was supposed to be better in this country than where we came here from. Even though it never truly was,  was it? Not for enslaved African folks, not for those indigenous to these lands, not for a whole host of others, not even for my people when we started immigrating here. Their collective, ancestral grief and rage has been making it hard for me to have clarity about accurately assessing and acting on much of anything in my life right now.

During the misa it became really clear to me that some of my rage and frustration and paralysis has been exacerbated by how closely the traumatized recent dead have been standing. The feelings themselves have been mine, but the overwhelming volume of the feelings has been impacted by their/our collective and historic grief and rage and trauma. During the misa, I sat with the feelings, allowing them to rise up so I could see and acknowledge what was happening inside me. I gave all the anger and fear and pessimism and paralysis a voice in that space. And I found that by just sitting with their/our feelings, letting the dead themselves voice those feelings through me as our shared feelings (because I am my ancestors, I am part of the lineage, I am the lineage), we could all get some clarity on what was going on. We/I spoke of the terror we’re struggling with, the disappointment that this is happening here and now, in this country that we came to in the hopes that things would be better here. We spoke of the shame of being a “defeated” people, the shame of having “lost”, of having been victimized. We spoke of the shame and humiliation of victimhood, and named the survivors guilt that lingered in those who survived. We’ve already been victimized; so many of us have already died, how can we help support and protect those who are in the cross-hairs in this country today when we couldn’t do that for our own people not that many years ago?

The other participants in the room and I said a whole pile of prayers, including the Jewish prayers that my own ancestors recognize as how we venerate our dead, which helped to calm and soothe my ancestral dead. We called on psychopomps to help elevate and lift and hold and heal those who were in the space with us. I even sang a modern Hebrew folk song that is all about remembering how to hold hope, that things get better, that there’s beauty in the world that is always with us (http://www.ahbjewishcenter.org/shabbat046.htm – it’s a song written by a Jewish woman of my grandparents’ generation, and it’s a bit of an anthem for my people). And at some point, I could feel the elevated ancestors, ancient voices, those who came before the more recent traumas, those who had actually worked through their trauma, show up and hold all of us.

And then the healed and elevated ones began speaking through me. And they said despite all of it, we have survived. We keep surviving. We are not a conquered people and we are not to blame for the things done to us by others. There are still Jewish folks in the world. There are still queer folks and revolutionary folks and all the different ethnicities and identities and lineages of folks who live here… we are still here. If we can still name ourselves, if we can still recognize one another, if we can still draw breath, we haven’t been defeated. There is still a chance. I have a baby inside me right now; there is still hope. There is always hope, if we know where to look for it.

After that, things got… quieter in my head and in the room. The heaviness in the air dispersed and my heart felt lighter.

I don’t think there’s one single right way to do ancestral trauma healing work, or helping to hold space for the traumatized dead. But I do think sometimes the dead stand so close to us that they ricochet off our matching pain and exacerbate whatever it is that’s already present for us personally. So sometimes I think the best way to do that kind of healing work for ourselves and for our dead is by stepping into the collective pain, all in, and then calling on ancestors and other healing beings (gods, elevated dead, whomever makes sense to you in your own practice) to support our collective movement through the grief and pain and anger in real-time. Letting it be real, letting it be messy, letting it emerge and unfold in the moment, and letting it unfold inside of us, personally and intimately.

Because by stepping into collective trauma, we individually become the locus of healing that trauma if we can stay on top of it and keep it moving through, instead of just drowning underneath it. This is a very vulnerable and intimate way to do collective trauma healing work, and really is best done in community when possible. But is one of the most effective ways I personally know to actually be successful in the work. There is a lot to be angry about these days, and a lot of work to do to try and keep one another safe, hold those in power accountable, turn the tides of violence and fear and separation and oppression. And we will have more resilience to do the work if we can tap into collective ancestral wisdom and strategy without succumbing to the crushing weight of ancestral fear and pain. Ancestral trauma healing work is so important right now. We are the current faces of those who have come before. By standing strong in our places of ancestral wisdom and resilience, we are more able to bring clarity and effectiveness to our resistance work. But if we are drowning in our own ancestral trauma, it is much harder to fight and support and protect and care for ourselves and our communities.

Hail to the ancestors, those strong and wise ones who have come before. Teach us, support us, dance with us, guide us, it is your shoulders on which we now stand. May we benefit from your healthy influence, be guided by your wisdom and experience. May we learn from your mistakes, so we do not repeat them. May we have the strength and clarity we need to heal the harm you did in your lifetimes and the compassion and resources we need to heal the harm done to you in your lifetimes. May your strength shine through us, and our collective pain be transformed. May it be so now.


One thought on “On Healing Ancestral Trauma”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. (And congratulations to your incoming motherhood and child-to-come!) I remember your presentation at the Many Gods West in 2015, and your posts on Ancestral work and deep devotions to the Gods has been very instructive for me.

    While my path is not as in depth as yours, I recognize how heavy the work is that you do. Thank you for showing me and others who read your work, what modern polytheism and devotion could be like. May the Gods’ blessings be upon you! May your Ancestors be enlivened through your living and actions. Shalamu!


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