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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Ancestral Healing: Where Does it Begin?

Mother and Child Portrait (glow imagery)
Mother and Child Portrait (glow imagery)

Those of you familiar with my work, purpose, and journey along the pathway to intergenerational and cultural healing, this is for you. To recap, I emphasize the importance of acknowledgment. We open the door to healing when we simply recognize what and who came before us. This has been the foundation of my work. 

I wasn’t aware of this until I was literally standing at the pauper cemetery gate, with 298 anonymous graves sprawled out before me. Even then, I was not clear about what would unfold. All I knew is that as much as I clearly stated that I did not want to look at property in the town of Ossipee, New Hampshire, I ended up right there. Of course, the premises came under the name of “Granite,” which is part of Ossipee. The rest is history. I get it now, and I’m grateful.

I sensed pain, angst, fear, and many other adverse responses to the site. Everything changed; I wanted to know who they were. I needed to know. After I was told to let it go because the records burned in a fire, the hunger worsened. I couldn’t move on without them. My state of being did not begin to show signs of improvement until the day I found 268 previously-lost souls. The upliftment was significant. I will never forget it.

Returning to my opening statement—it has been well over a decade since this discovery. A lot has happened in the world for us all. Through this process, I comprehend the significance of simple acknowledgment and the power of healing intergenerational, cultural, and historical trauma. Whether it be our direct ancestors or those in our collective historical past that reach out for integration, for what I like to refer to as “re-membering,” we can find our way home.

How does that happen, and what difference does it make? We may not attain this level of healing unless we are willing to open up to the world of both individual and collective fear and shame. It took years for me to recognize and perceive this. Again, it begins with acknowledgment. 

The first step with the paupers was identifying them and giving them back their names. We recognize that they existed, had families, and lives—in some capacity, typically, there were painful circumstances, but this is primarily due to the human experience. It is not the event. It is how we deal with it that matters. As I have said consistently to my children (and others) throughout the years, find the lesson. Do not miss the opportunity.

Now, a friend and reader of the Etched in Granite Series posted on the Facebook Discussion Page: 

"Mj, what if you’re unable to get your family to talk about the past? I want to know more about my own past and ancestors, but I seem to make them sad when I push it. I don’t know if you remember my story, but I was adopted at the age of 5 after my mother took her own life. I have since been able to locate 5 family members who love to hear from me, but it seems way too painful to discuss the past."

With her permission, I am sharing part of my response to her. I sincerely hope that it begins to assist her healing and for those who may be reading this.


  Intergenerational Trauma Integration

This is precisely how we bury our wounds, unable to face them for healing, alchemizing, and integration. Then, we carry on as individuals, families, and cultures with these painful experiences packed deeply within our psyches. We continue to pass along the grief and pain of those before us, and in time, forget their origins. We inherit their losses.


  Partial Response

I have some specific meditations and sacred rituals that connect to our ancestors. There are certain mantras (outside of that) that may help. It stands out to me (as I read your post and consider what you told me) is that you were separated from your siblings, which is a natural response. Social agencies come in and take care of the children. It’s their job.

Hence, what happened to you, although devastating, is a common practice that has been in place for generations. You were removed from the situation and therefore disconnected from what was happening. It is logical, and we can expect that.

This is my primary focus—children are/were removed from their families or trauma site and placed in poor farms, orphanages, reformatories, or foster homes. The children are sometimes lovingly cared for, but the fact remains that an event, likely tragic and traumatic, caused the separation. The trauma is impossible to integrate if a child is detached and placed in another setting, never authentically discussing again. Love, shelter, and overall care is vital, and we can be grateful for this. To be without it would be worse.

God bless those who open their hearts and homes. Still, it is humanly impossible for them to ease the root of devastation if their (kind) gesture is primarily to provide love and stability. That is a series of beautiful and necessary acts and should not go unnoticed. However, the trauma is locked within the child. In some cases, this child will grow up to function okay, but the wound does not go away magically on its own.

What helps now is for the child (within the adult) to be “RE-MEMBERED.”

Re-membering has many layers. Initially, it is to be made whole and then re-membered into the community, family, the collective. It is restoring the individual back to its place of belonging. A trauma, which comes in so many forms—remains intact, but manifests within the human vessel.

Regarding suicide—I learned when integrating my own childhood and ancestral trauma—there is a strand that continues throughout the generations. When I was just under a year old, my paternal grandfather took his own life. For several years, I attempted to follow that line of healing, only to continue facing obstacles. My family members accepted the unknown as the way it is. Staying true to myself, I did not, 

Recently, I finally heard the “truth” from the family patriarch, the remaining member in that family and generation. No one would ever talk about it. It went down in our history as some sort of bizarre mystery. That cannot be. Alas, in rolls the shame. If we do not talk about it, it will fade away. Unfortunately, until it is realized, it remains. After proper handling, then it is ready for release. Yes, it can be and is often painful, but it is more destructive to carry all in a wounded heart.

My family did what humans do; we tried to make sense of it and filled in the blanks. There were several possible narratives. What could have been so bad to be driven to leave this earthly plane?  A soul is suffering.

In his nineties, our dear uncle was (finally) asked if he knew why his father took his own life. Was it really just a perplexing, unexpected tragedy? I had to know. I was prepared for more avoidance, but he had illustrated that if asked, he would answer.

This man is a deep thinker. We did not genuinely connect until after everyone in his generation had passed. I visited him while we were both in Florida when this opportunity arose. We talked a great deal. He shared so much about our family, I was profoundly indebted and enriched. After that essential bond was formed, I saw him often. 

My father was a great man who didn’t want to talk about messy things. When I was crafting EIG, I asked about his grandmother, Nellie. He told me that he didn’t have the answers. He didn’t want to talk about his grandmother’s heritage. It was clear that he was wired with shame regarding her Native ethnicity.

It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that he craved to hear about her, wanting to know all that I had unearthed. I sat at his bedside and read my academic work aloud. He passed away before my books were published. My father was a good man, drawn to laughter and light. Heavy, dark, complex emotions were avoided at all costs.  Issues surrounding his father were better left unsaid.

Apparently, my uncle, who used to appear quiet and detached, had outgrown this code of silence. Perhaps, it is because, in the past, no one bothered asking the questions as I did. He may have been waiting politely for an opportunity to speak. 

He shared incredible stories about my grandmother, ones that I never knew. Guess what? I was entirely wrong about her and other relatives because I had no idea what they had lived. My uncle shared the circumstances surrounding the death of my grandfather with conviction. He was clear and concise, with no blurriness, no sugar coating. It appeared to be a relief for him to share this old story that had weighed on him for a lifetime.

I thought that my grandmother, Sarah, was a mean old woman who I needed to avoid. This was based on a false narrative that others had created in their desperate need to run from the truth. For her, life after marriage was tragic and grueling. Before that, she was remarkable. She loved classic literature, had a sweet singing voice and was the governess on a coal schooner that traveled between Boston and the Chesapeake Bay. One would never know that she enjoyed such a rewarding life in her youth. 

In my memory, she is brutally silent. She lived with us a few times. I had no idea that we were so aligned. We missed the opportunity to connect; but, I finally had a chance to know her by going back when I did as a grown woman and mother.

My uncle and I didn’t really know each other well when the family was brimming with life. I was a kid. My uncle and I were the “quiet ones” at family get-togethers. His generation is gone now. With all of the commotion taken away, my uncle and I have received the gift of discovering our alliance. I learned about the way we, as humans, relate to each other inter-generationally.

This is one example. I have done so much work with my ancestry on both sides. I continue to write about my mother/ maternal side. She is everywhere in my third book, which is dedicated to her. I am writing a memoir—Marya’s Mother. In its own time. The next book, The Crows’ Path, is in progress. Her sisters are the angels in The Angels’ Lament, Book Two. All of this ancestral discovery and acknowledgment are an integral element of truth woven into my books.


We may not know the cause of the suffering of our loved ones that came before us. But on an unconscious level, we often do not want to remember or forget. We tend to remain loyal to them by taking on their pain, suffering, and grief. This can go back hundreds of years—to those who died in wars, famine, and more.

I provided a ritual that may help my friend begin her healing journey. If you are interested in it, please send a message, and I will gladly send it.

In Lak’ ech Ala K’in — I am another yourself.


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