Ancestor Work with Problematic Families: Honoring Yourself in the Light of the Past

When Autumn arrives and Halloween is in sight, we start to hear about ancestor work. Whether it be traditional, cultural, or religious practices, connecting with and honoring our ancestors seems to be timely work during this season.

But, what about ancestors we do not want to connect with or honor? Whether it be abuse, neglect, disconnect, or absence, those who we hold biological ties to may not always be the healthiest or safest people for us to have in our lives.

Ancestor work does not have to fall along the line of biology to be pure and potent. Taking time and making space for those who have left this world and made an impact on us is a ritual and rite we all can engage with.

What is Ancestor Work?

In it’s most basic form, ancestor work is intentionally connecting to the energy and memory of relatives who are now deceased. Most often, we connect with out ancestor for support, guidance, or comfort when needed.

For some, ancestor work can be a healing practice. Looking back through generations can shed new light on perspective and behaviors thus giving them life to be changed, released, or realigned. For example, someone who may find themselves having a difficult time throwing away broken items, through reflection, may find an ancestral pattern. Perhaps their grandparent lived in poverty, never being able to replace broken items. The next generation internalizes the fear of going without and thus repairs what can be repaired, still avoiding throwing away objects and items beyond repair. Today, that grandchild now struggles with releasing broken items even though they are financially able to replace what needs replacing. This internalized and passed down fear of scarcity may look different through the generations, but it becomes an unfounded fear that could perhaps be healed or released. Identifying the innate scarcity mindset today can not only put past behavior into perspective, but can aid in moving forward without the hereditary scarcity fear.

If we take this example a step further, we could discover the ingenuity of our ancestors and self-taught skills that gave them independence and resilience. Instead of rolling our eyes at Grandpa who tinkered with every broken kitchen appliance, we might see him now as learning as needed to keep those close safe and happy. While it still may be aggravating when you could just go buy a new toaster, knowing Grandpa didn’t have that option but chose to do what he could to still provide may foster an understanding and appreciation.

Complicated Families

It is common to have both blended families as well as individuals devoid of a formal biological family system.

While it may be healing for some to connect with those departed and explore relationships in a new light, this is not the expectation. If, for example, a now deceased parent was abusive, you have no obligation to accept or excuse that abuse in the name of spirituality.

What if I Don’t Want to Celebrate my Ancestors?

For many people, family can be complicated, painful, or just plain absent. Understably, some of us may not want to connect to or celebrate our direct biological ancestors and that is okay. You are not obligated to connect with your biological ancestors.

Chosen Ancestors

For many of us, the people that we surround ourselves with and call our family, we have no blood relation to. This can be the friends we share our lives with, the surrogate parent who comes into our life, or even our spouse and partners.

Being that all humans are connected at some level, we could say that all those who have come before us are our ancestors.

  • Who inspires you?
  • Who motivates you?
  • Who was there when you needed them?

You may chose an activist who fought for inclusivity, a teacher who made you feel seen and validated, a peer who walked life lessons alongside you, a pet who gave unconditional love and companionship.

The Forgiveness Trend

Many will tell you that to have a whole, fulfilling spiritual practice that you need to forgive those who did you wrong.

I do not subscribe to this perspective.

You owe no one your forgiveness.

While it can be useful to examine root causes and uncover what may have triggered an individual’s behavior, it is not our responsibility or obligation to forgive anyone for pain, hurt, and damage they have caused us. What may be more impactful is, rather, fostering a deep understanding that you did not deserve to be abused or neglected and that you did not cause your abuse or neglect.

Creating a Meaningful Practice

What matters most in any personal practice, ritual, or rite is that it is meaningful to the person engaging in that process. Ancestor work is deeply emotional and may bring memories and feelings to the surface you are not aware of or prepared for.

Some ancestor work practices may include:

  • Visiting places such as previous homes, special places, or burial sites.
  • Cooking a meal with a passed down recipe or special ingredient.
  • Wearing a piece of gifted clothing or jewelry.
  • Speaking aloud to ancestors, in conversation or asking for support.
  • Planting flowers or trees of significance.
  • Listening to shared music or watching a beloved movie or TV show.
  • Lighting candles on significant dates; birthdays, wedding anniversaries, dates of passing.
  • Decorating with, including on an altar, or gazing at photos.
  • Using tools or objects previously used by ancestors.

The practices you engage in, the ancestors you honor, and the connections you establish should always be for your highest possible good and on your terms.

Continuing Ancestor Work

Over time you may find you have regular practices that are inherently ancestor work that you just were not aware of.

Thinking about a specific person when you hear their song on the radio; that’s ancestor work.
Looking at a picture of a loved one when their birthday is near each year; that’s ancestor work.
Holding loving space for yourself while in anger because of a situation that was forced on you; that’s ancestor work.

Like all practices of reflection and discovery, be sure to take steps to care for yourself and process the emotions that arise. How you choose to engage ancestral energy should always be in a manner that resonates most within you and feels most meaningful. Your practices may change over time, deepen, or release from your consciousness. Regardless of what you do and when, remember, the heart of ancestor work is your own healing.


2 thoughts on “Ancestor Work with Problematic Families: Honoring Yourself in the Light of the Past

  1. oh how beautifully written and well said. your gentle touch shines through clearly between the lines. last Samhain was the first I actively did ancestral work. didn’t have a clue, just followed my instinct. I wore the jewelry my mom, dad and sister gave me a long time ago. I set out a few extra glasses of wine and small snacks as offerings to my family long gone. I tuned in to “pretend” conversations. I allowed myself to pretend a little, which ego did not care for at first. now looking back…. wow, how impactful that was. your article inspired me to put more thought into the upcoming Samhain celebration and for that I thank you

    1. Karin, thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your experience. I have no doubt your intuition has guided you and it sounds like a beautiful connection you were able to foster. It’s always wonderful to hear of how, when we let our hearts guide us we come to healing places we might not have found otherwise. Thank you again for sharing!

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