Sunday, September 4, 2022

Hanging Portraits of the Dead

When I first began the work of building an Ancestor practice back in 2008, the idea of connecting to some of my dead was...unappealing. There are folks in my life who caused me great pain when they were alive, and the veil between us brought me a sense of comfort, of safety. Part of the work of the ADF Dedicant Path is to connect to all three Kindreds, and without this important breakthrough, I knew I would be unable to complete it. 

Fast forward to today, I now have a strong Ancestor practice; in fact, it is probably the most consistent and deeply intimate part of my personal shrine work--and it is much easier to engage with because of our Ancestor Box practice. 

Developed by Three Cranes Grove, ADF, the Ancestors Box is a place where mementos, photos, obituaries, small items that they once owned, etc., are stored for eleven months of the year. The moon service prior to Ancestors Night, or Samhain, holds significance as the evening the box is opened. For the duration of a moon cycle, we take out our mementos, photos, obituaries and trinkets to commune with those who have gone before us, to tell their stories, and to remember their names that they may live on. Then, on the moon rite after Ancestors Night, the box is closed. 

Leapfrogging through time with the Ancestors this way provides opportunities to engage with their stories in a healthy way. There are boundaries to engaging in this work, a clear end point, and the knowledge that we are the ones in "control" of the interactions. While not all Ancestors will require this level of planning and coordination, when it is necessary, the work becomes manageable and even fruitful. There may be certain Ancestors we never work with because of what they broke when they were yet alive, and those are personal decisions we each have to make. We now follow this tradition here at Mountain Ancestors Grove, ADF.

Since I began my Ancestor work in 2008, I have muddled through my grief, my frustration, my anger, my resentment, my disappointment, and the death of the hope I carried that things between me and some of my relatives be made right: I had to accept that none of them were ever going to say, "I'm sorry." Just, oof.

I've had many more of my relatives pass away since then, as well, and I've continued to add them to the box and do the annual work of engaging in their memories, our relationships, and my healing through it all. At our home, we have the main Ancestor Shrine for our family's dead as well as an Ancestors Wall on the main shrine where we place the photos of members of the community who have passed. Up until today, the wall behind our family shrine has held only one photo of my dead: that of my father. Managing my grief process and reconciliation after his death was HARD. Much existed between us that was left unsaid, since he took his life through intentional overdose. Having his picture up was a mark of the work we did together after his passing, and I am grateful to him for many life lessons that have made me a better person. 

I have been resistant to hanging other photos, even though I have so many more relatives to place on our family tree of the dead. My husband already has everyone up, including folks with whom living relationships were difficult, and despite the slight pang of guilt I felt with additional photo (internal guilt, he's been great about it), I have never been motivated to add more photos to my side of the wall. 

A few weeks ago, my mother's biological mother, Ursula von Stephen, passed away at the age of 89. I found out through Facebook, and my mother and her family were left off the obituary. They've never been a part of my life, so I harbor no ill will toward them for the oversight. It is one more reflection of the vast chasm between us despite our shared blood. Interestingly, Ursula's passing sparked within me a desire to preserve our part her story. Reading the obituary shows that her connection to us will not live on without intentionality. My aunt posted some lovely photos, and I printed one for the wall. Her name, and her connection to those who come after me, will live on though us.

However, this presented me with a conundrum: I have other relatives that should already be on the wall! Their names began floating before me: Shirley Lou Caniff, my grandmother. Edward H Caniff, Sr, my grandfather. Deborah Ellen Burchfield, my mother-in-law. Paul Milton Burchfield, my father-in-law. These are my BELOVED dead, folks whose influence and love marked me in too many positive ways to count. Was I really entertaining putting up my estranged grandmother before I added them to the wall?

Well, yes, of course I was. We were estranged, which meant it was safe to put her up. My dad was up there, because I did the work to bring myself healing. My estranged grandmother doesn't require work, because I have long been at peace with our arrangement. My paternal grandparents and my in-laws--now that stings. Their loss still wells up within me, and keeping my grief locked away in the Ancestors Box for eleven months a year was enabling me to nurse my grief rather than allowing true healing to descend (read that again if that resonated with you). I have spent so much of my time focusing on how to work through the death of folks with whom I was not in right relationship that I took for granted how much work is still required when there are peace and love between us. 

For me, and I suspect for all of us, we have a tendency to assume we only need to engage with intentionality when we have a wound that must be healed. When someone who has wronged us passes away, we are the sole party left in the relationship who is capable of bringing the peace that comes with true closure. After crossing the River of Forgetfulness, the Ancestors do not hurl insults or angry threats at us. All of that negative talk lies within us and lives on in the memories we carry of our time together when they were alive. When the memories of those who have hurt us are invited to the table, we are the ones who bring fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and the shadows of all we have been through with us. So, we do the work to guard our hearts and heal our spirits. And, those whom we loved dearly who depart with our blessings for safe passage to the Otherworld deserve our intentionality, too. 

Today, my husband helped me hang their portraits, and I wept. It was a brief spurt of tears as their faces staring back at me reminded me of what I have lost in them. Now, I begin to complete the work of filling in the cracks in my heart left behind by their passing with gold. May their memories always be a blessing.