Ancestral Healing and the Gift of Tears
How an encounter with the ghost of my grandfather began a healing process
My grandfather Joe didn’t want me to exist. After my older brother was born, he asked his only child (my mother) not to have any more children. He said it would be too hard on him to see her go through another pregnancy.
She went against his wishes, and here I am. I have no memory of him — he died when I was a year old.
Grandfather Joe came by his fears honestly. He was the oldest child in a formal, Philadelphia Quaker family. In 1885, his mother died at home after giving birth to her fourth baby, the only other boy in the family. The story came through my mother. My great-grandmother Mary delivered the baby at home with a hired nurse and a female relative attending her. A doctor was called once her labor progressed to that point.
The nurse asked, “Doctor, did you wash your hands?”
“Don’t be silly,” he retorted. “I’ve only been working in my garden.”
That unnamed and unwashed doctor gave Mary Haines a fatal vaginal infection — puerperal fever, a really nasty way to die. It set in a few days after the birth, which went well. Mary’s baby survived thanks to a series of wet nurses.
By 1885, germ theory was generally accepted by the medical profession, but obviously this doctor was some kind of holdout. He was without excuse.
I have my great-grandfather William’s diary from those days. It corroborates something my mother told me: Quakers are pacifists, but William was so angry with the doctor he talked about buying a gun and killing him. He was around 30 at the time, but his entries mostly read like those of a respectable middle-aged businessman: Lots of board meetings, luncheons, and phrases like “so and so left our employ today,” but no expression of emotion. He’d not even given prior indication that Mary was pregnant.
Sunday, March 1: “Cloudy morning. Rainy afternoon & evening.
Unsettled all day.
Baby born at 3.20 P.M. Eleanor Emlen was with Mary.”
William goes back to his routine reporting. Suddenly, March 7 is blank. Each day is blank until March 12, the day of her death. Then he pours into prayer.
Thy will, O God be done…
My soul is very low in my great affliction but “He doeth all things well.”
The entry for Friday, March 13 reads:
“The Cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” But Oh for Grace from on high to enable me to put my trust in my Saviour without any misgivings is what I feel I need. My Father Bless me I pray — purify me and keep me from evil.
It’s likely that this is a reference to his murderous rage toward the doctor. My mother was not a romantic or a teller of tales — If she said something, it’s because it happened.
She also told me that my Grandfather Joe “was made to kiss his mother in her coffin. Naturally,” she added, “he never wanted to kiss anyone again.”
Joe endured another trauma around childbirth. He married a woman (like me, named Helen) in 1916. She died of toxemia of pregnancy in the same year, and her baby also died. I have her jewelry, much of her silver. For some reason I feel a connection to her, and once I brought flowers to her grave at the Friends’ Cemetery in Upper Darby. It looked neglected — Helen’s “stillborn” in the unmarked grave next to hers was the last of her family line to be buried in that cemetery.
Grandfather met my English grandmother Margaret in the early 1920’s.
Two huge birth traumas, then my mother was an only child. I know that my grandmother did want another baby, tried for it, but it never happened. I have no idea how she and Grandfather negotiated that. My family never talked about such things.
Also, family curses are not part of the vocabulary. I can imagine my mother being cynically amused by what I’m about to say. Drawing room manners were the bottom line, the family way of being. My mother revered her father, but she disobeyed him by having me.
It’s my belief though, that spiritually, something was handed down. I was marked by a dark energy. I wasn’t supposed to exist. I nearly died at birth because of a blood incompatibility with my mother. I also had a traumatic experience giving birth— my son and I both almost died from a placental abruption. Another Helen, but this one defied the curse, and my son is fine.
Since beginning Ancestral Healing work, I’ve learned that my way of being in the world is: I’m not really supposed to exist, but since I do, I might as well make the best of it. There’s something shame-based about it.
Joyfully standing in my RIGHT to exist is a whole nother feeling — one I am just discovering.
Recently I had a vivid dream about my grandfather Joe. In my dream, he was seven years old, the same age when his mother died such a gruesome death. In the dream he was being sent off to a really nasty, rigid boys’ boarding school. I was aware he couldn’t speak the words, “Daddy, I’m scared.” He had no recourse but to shut down emotionally and do what was expected. I wept dream-tears for him. From my journal:
I cried for the little boy. I cried and cried, thinking of that little life struggling to feel ok in a world of ice. I felt great empathy — suddenly he was no longer a story, but a person. And I thought, finally, I’m crying. Finally, I am able to cry. How I need to be able to deeply cry!! My tears are frozen inside.
This was painful to write, but I felt a bit of lightness when I recalled my dream-tears. I’ve been told by a kind ritualist that this dream helped my grandfather in some way.
A few weeks before having this dream, I had encountered his ghost — and not in a dream. One morning over coffee, I was reflecting that Grandfather didn’t want my mother to have me. I thought, Gosh, it feels like he’s here…and then he WAS there — a “seeing” in my head. He sat across from me begging and needy, craving something from me that felt like far more than I could give. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I felt it would not be safe to ask him. I told him I couldn’t help him. I watched as two wise beings escorted him out of the house, almost like prison guards.
In the dream about my grandfather as a little boy, I felt his humanity for the first time. To me, he had always been a vague, idealized presence based on my mother’s almost reverential attitude toward him. He was suddenly real, a little boy, as real as the ghost, but someone I knew it was safe to connect to. And I did so by weeping. After the tears, the dream shifted to another classroom where I was a student — at the same Quaker school Grandfather and I both attended. A woman teacher was challenging me: How are you loved? I took her to mean, Who loves you? I began to name aloud all the beings who love me.
I woke from that dream still speaking aloud all those who love me and celebrate me — so many! My Higher Power; loving, wise Spirits; my husband; my dear children; friends; fellows in my 12 step program…
May all of us who were taught we must grieve in icy silence be graced with the gift of tears.