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  • Writer's pictureKate Viernes

Honoring Ancestral Grief

My home altar to honor ancestors (October 2022)

As I know many of you have been, this week I’ve been sitting with the current events in our world—namely the large-scale brutality in Israel, though this is the tip of the iceberg—which are activating within me the many common human feelings of sorrow, anger, helplessness, as well as at times indifference, numbness. The acute loss of human life in such large numbers, across so many regions on Earth, in and of itself activates righteous, collective grief.

I started to think about all these different groups of people grieving for their different, righteous reasons—the people of Israel, Palestine and Gaza, and those in the diaspora; the Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and immigrant residents of Lahaina, Maui, and their kiaʻi, those who protect them; and Indigenous people everywhere—and how their active losses are so deeply intertwined with the past, deep losses experienced by their ancestors.

Ancestral grief is an added, complicating layer that compounds acute grief and trauma, increasing its heaviness:

Ancestral grief- the grief we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors, much of which lingers in a layer of silence, unacknowledged. This sorrow becomes concentrated over time... a layer of heaviness. The stoic façade and behaviors of these generations left behind a legacy of unattended pain. (Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow)

And unlike acute and tangible forms of loss, ancestral loss can be less obvious, and insidious. Colonization. Capitalist exploitation. Displacement. Appropriation. Unspeakable grief and unexpressed pain that fester into the passage of trauma from one generation to the next.

If you’re feeling weighed down, stuck, or devastated in ways that feel less than specific these days, you are not alone. Consider the ancestral grief you may be holding in your body. If you are able, make intentional time to be with that ancestral grief, to tend to it, to help it move. Tending to ancestral grief is an act of healing for the ancestors, your children, and yourself, creating more space for intergenerational wisdom and resilience.

I am grateful to my grief work teachers, including Jana Lynn Umipig and others at the Center for Babaylan Studies, who a couple of years ago began to open my eyes to my own ancestral grief as a Filipinx in the diaspora, as well as other “gates” through which one enters grief. The framework for this is inspired by Francis Weller’s work on “the Five Gates of Grief”, which illuminates the following paths through which we come to know grief (he acknowledges there could be more):

Gate I: Everything We Love, We Will Lose Gate II: The Places That Have Not Known Love Gate III: The Sorrows of the World

Gate IV: What We Expected and Did Not Receive Gate V: Ancestral Grief When put this way, even if you have not yet or have not recently been touched by immeasurable loss or death (which… we know we all will, eventually), you begin to realize the depth of unspoken, unspeakable grief you hold. The five gates, and more.

And we must find ways to honor them all. As individuals, communally, and as a society.

Sending my kapwa spirit to those who need it most in my global community. If you would like to speak with me to find ways to honor your ancestral grief and loss, you are welcome to reach out.


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