Difficult Ancestors: Difficult Decisions


This time of year, we Pagans focus a lot on our ancestors. And the message that can come through sometimes is that all of our ancestors are “our beloved dead,” or “the mighty dead,” or people to whom we owe reverence, blots, attention.

As someone who came from a dysfunctional family, I’ve always found this emphasis on ancestors to be a double-edged sword. I appreciate the sense of continuity, but I don’t necessarily welcome the family members who slip through the thin veils and begin to inhabit my dreams at this time of year. I don’t make an altar with pictures of family members because I don’t want to spend time sitting there, staring at the faces of people who harmed me, or the ones who harmed them, thus making them more likely to harm me.

One way that I’ve dealt with this dissonance between the emphasis of the season and my own experience is to expand my definition of “ancestors.” Thus, I’ll claim Dorothy Parker as the older sister or wonderful aunt that I never had, Oscar Wild as the great-grandfather of my ascendent Gemini, and an ancient cave mother that I met in trance as the great ancestress of my blood. I’ve been in rituals where everyone named their ancestors back as far as they knew them and, in those cases, I’ve simply said that I am Hecate, daughter of the Great Mother Goddess. And that works, to some extent, but there’s always a tendency around Samhein to focus on what went wrong.

So I was fascinated to read this article that provides support for people who decide to cut off relations with abusive relatives and cuts through a lot of the “guilting” that well-meaning friends and family can provide.

Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive pattern

I reached a point, when I was well into my adulthood, when I realized that, in order to heal myself and have a happy, productive life, I was going to have to cut off relations with my parents and siblings. I left a door open, although I always knew it was one that they were unlikely to use. I said that if they were willing to go to counseling with me and actually discuss the problems head-on, I’d meet them at the counselor’s office. As with many dysfunctional families, where what’s wrong must never be named or discussed, that was the last thing they were willing to do.

And, so both of my parents died estranged from me and I remain estranged from my siblings. I don’t regret that decision. (I regret that I didn’t have a loving family. I regret that my family couldn’t be proud of my accomplishments and enjoy my success. I miss having had, for example, the kind of mom I could have taken to visit Sweden someday or the kind of dad who would have enjoyed reading my briefs. But I don’t regret having cut off relations with the actual family that I actually had that was actually undermining my success and actually making me miserable.)

Near the end of my father’s life, another relative took me to dinner and begged me to just accept that I was going to have to be the one to apologize and “give in” so that I could make peace with my father before he died. I love that relative and I know that he meant well, but my answer was, “no.” I owed myself more than that. And I don’t regret that decision.

I think people often speak of “forgiveness” when what they really mean is “reaching some inner peace with the situation,” or “realizing that the abuser was also abused,” or “doing shadow work.” Or, worse, “just pretend that nothing happened,” which, in my family, was the exact practice that allowed the abuse to go on the next time, and time after that, and . . . .

To me, none of those things mean “forgiveness.” I don’t forgive the harm that was done to me. I have worked through my shadows enough and gained enough experience to no longer be terribly angry or hurt and to realize what may, in part, have caused my parents to behave as they did. But I don’t forgive it. Most of it was unforgiveable, especially when done to a child.

The article notes that:

In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”

I agree with these more bracing views about what forgiveness should entail. Choosing not to forgive does not doom someone to being mired in the past forever. Accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle. But it can be comforting for those being browbeaten to absolve their parents to recognize that forgiveness works best as a mutual endeavor. After all, many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame.

In the end, it wasn’t my job to “forgive” my parents or to, as my relative urged, “swallow my pride” and “make things better” with my father. It’s my job to be a good mother, mother-in-law, Nonna; to try to make sure to pass down as little of the dysfunction as I can do and to, instead, pass down health. It’s my job to make myself happy, to build a good life for myself where I feel loved and do work that fulfills me. It’s my job to care for the planet and, especially, my own landbase and Bit of Earth.

And, so, here, just before Samhein, I hope that your memories of your ancestors are happy and healthy. And, if they’re not, I hope that you can — in whatever way works for you — find a way to move on and do your jobs and that the linked article will be as helpful to you, at this time of year, as it is to me.

Picture found here.

9 responses to “Difficult Ancestors: Difficult Decisions

  1. How to decide on which ancestors to venerate, particularly at this time of year, is a tricky thing, for certain. There are so many who simply are not worthy, except in one single way: without them, you would not be here. And that is by no means a reason to honour them.

    May you find your peace.

  2. This, this, a thousand times this. The family/tribal nature that Paganism likes to lend itself to has always made me uncomfortable, coming from a fair bit of family disfunction myself.

    When I tell people that I no longer have those poisonous people in my life, they get all sad faced. I’m certainly not sad about it! I’ve never been better!

    I’ve started to adopt the philosophy, if you don’t have your own family/tribe – make your own. With beloved friends and confidants that can be close (maybe closer) than traditional genetic bound family.

    And I love the notion of artistic family. Maybe I’ll call Y.B. Yeats as a great grand uncle.

  3. My blood family are long gone from my consciousness. I haven’t even dreamed about them for decades. They were simply the vehicle Herself used to get me here. My family of choice on the other hand …

    … And as for being the one who ‘makes the first move’? What a lot of codswallop!

  4. I have read: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope of a different or better yesterday”. I think that is what you have done. It does nothing for the perpetrators of the abuse, but it does everything for you. I agree you should not have debased yourself as your relative wanted you to do.

    I grew up in an alcoholic home. My father no longer drinks, but he has never admitted he is an alcoholic. I now have a positive relationship with him and my step-mother. In our case, I think my father did the best he could with what he knew at the time. He came from a much more dysfunctional family than mine. With each generation, our family gets better. That appears to be true in your family also and you are the reason your son and grandson are such healthy, happy people. Goddess bless you. You did your job right.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I, too, cut off alcoholic and abusive parents….tho’ oddly, for a time, there was a sort of careful “detente” between the alcoholic father and me. He is dead now, my mother—the more abusive of the two, still leaves and made sure to lie alienation into the lives of my siblings and I, making me a demon on par with my father in their much younger minds.

    I honor the dead at Samhain, but call no ancestors of my own. I create family with my own husband and children and others we welcomed into our lives. We make a functional family out of the black sheep who fled wolves in family/sheep clothing. We walk the Walk of the Fallen Memorial Labyrinth and name the fallen of wars and honor lives lived in service. The poisonous ones can find their own way…as you say, there are doorways they never approach.

  6. I was just talking about this with my mom this morning. She was saying, as she often does, that you can count on family more than anyone else because blood’s thicker than water and all that. I said that we have the wonderful luxury of believing that because our family is made up of sane, safe people. Not everyone has it so good.

    A few Samhains ago, I called on my ancestors at a ritual when I wasn’t completely prepared for the possible outcomes of the experience. Besides just attracting the notice of my personal beloved dead, I managed to get the attention of every entity who had made a genetic contribution to my line. I had the sense of a vast crowd all turning to scrutinize me at the same time (WHO IS THAT?), and it was unnerving. So let’s be careful out there.

  7. Linden, you remind me of the danger faced by the “preborn” in Herbert’s Dune books of having consciouness consumed by the ancestral dead.

  8. I am getting caught up on your blog today and just made it to this post which deeply resonates with my heart. Thank you for sharing it and speaking to my soul. I have not found a new family in the real world . . . yet, but I am finding kindred spirits through the web, including your blog especially. Thank you for being such a voice of comfort and peace to us all! Bright blessings to you on this Solstice.

  9. Pingback: PBP: Ancestors and me | musings of a kitchen witch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s