How I Connect To & Honor Ancestors—& Why You Should Try This Mindful Living Practice

February 25, 2021

We all come from different backgrounds and places, but we all have one thing in common—we all have ancestors. This is an obvious fact, but it’s often one that’s taken for granted. When is the last time you thought about them? When is the last time you researched them or considered honoring them? You’re not alone if those aren’t things you generally do, but there are some important things to consider (that many people, namely in the Eastern world, understand and integrate into their lifestyles and religions). You wouldn’t be here without your ancestors. Not only because of their genes, but also because of their sacrifices, choices, and dreams. Consider this: they had to be exactly who they were and do exactly what they did in order for you to even have a chance of existing at all. That’s a big thing to think about, and as mentioned earlier, we take all of that for granted. We all know we have ancestors, but we leave it at that.

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I have a lot of sea captains and coastal people in my ancestry, and having grown up on the ocean this makes me feel really connected to them. This marks two of their graves up in New England.

That’s not a very mindful way to live, and maybe more importantly, that’s not a very considerate way to exist.

I often think about my ancestors, and the things they survived. I have ancestors who weathered the gut-lurching journey of crossing the ocean on the Mayflower. I have an ancestor who risked everything to save her friend from being hung as a “witch” during the Salem witch trials, all to watch her be murdered by hysteria and sexism. I have an ancestor who was kidnapped for years, given the chief’s staff and set free, all to be kidnapped again by the same people. I have an ancestor who gave up her royal title to follow her heart and marry her coach driver. I have ancestors who crossed the plains of North America to settle a hostile desert. I have ancestors who endured cults and indoctrination, being married to their abusive leaders (which unfortunately means I’m also related to those abusive leaders). I have ancestors who were killed at Jonestown, and one who narrowly escaped it.

My ancestors went through hell. They experienced deep loss, heartbreak, loss of reputations, and deadly journeys. Haven’t we all though? It would be hurtful to think that all of that would be erased when we die. It would hurt to think that our children and grandchildren and so on wouldn’t give a damn about any of it.

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My ancestor fought to save Rebecca Nurse, but she was still killed. It’s heartbreaking to visit the grave with that knowledge.

They went through those things and you came out of it all, one way or the other. That makes those things worth knowing, and the thing is, it’s also comforting because while none of us have the exact same experiences, the themes are the same. We lose people close to us. We have our hearts broken. We fall in love. We experience embarrassment and pain. We don’t live up to expectations. We take chances. We hope for better things. We live on. That stuff matters. That stuff is what makes us who we are, and it’s so unifying and humbling to understand that everyone who’s ever walked before you gets it. You could sit down with any one of your ancestors and tell them about a breakup, a success, or a time when you experienced grief, and they would say the same thing—I understand. They might even tell you a similar story of their own, because I can guarantee they had a similar experience. We constantly put this barrier between us and our ancestors and assume that they were very different, primitive people but here’s the thing—No. They. Weren’t. They lived in a different time. That’s all. That should remind you of something so vital to our survival, and that’s that we are not alone. We never were, thanks to those guys—our ancestors. Isn’t that worth celebrating, or at least acknowledging daily?

You don’t have to believe in an afterlife or spirits to honor your ancestors, because it’s not about that. It doesn’t have to be a religious act to give thanks to them in some way for what they went through. It doesn’t have to be a religious thing to connect with yourself by understanding those who built you. It should be more personal than that. The important thing is to just remember them, and reflect on the fact that they are literally the reason you exist. Think about the fact that their choices allowed you to be here reading this screen. That’s worth a few seconds of your time.

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This is my family cemetery in Rhode Island. It sits on a small lane by a big meadow and forest, and it’s filled with my ancestors. My family and I visited often as a kid, and I just barely visited with my partner over Valentine’s Day.

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If you want to make remembering and honoring them special, and want to make it into a bigger deal than just thinking about them, there are a few things you can do. For starters, learn about them as much as you can. It sounds obvious, but I am always surprised by how little people know about their ancestors. Obviously the amount of information about them will vary, and will unfortunately often be based on social standing, racial factors, and other elements. Just be patient, and utilize sites that have family tree building services so that you can build on what others already know about them. Look them up when you know their names, and read everything you can about them. You can even try to get to know where they were from. Everyone has a strong sense of place in one way or another. In the past, people rarely traveled far, and tended to stay close to where they were born. Learn about those places in your family line, and get to understand the culture. Do you have family from Sweden? Maybe learn a few Swedish words every so often, watch a movie from there, or look up beautiful places in the country. Are your ancestors from Kenya? Consider cooking some Kenyan dishes or planning a trip there (post-COVID of course). This will give you a better sense of who they were and what shaped them. If you have pictures of them, pay attention to their appearance. Are they wearing turquoise jewelry? Maybe buy a turquoise necklace yourself to wear and feel connected to them. Do they have red hair? If you’re someone who likes to dye your hair, consider dying it red to honor them. If you know where they are buried, visit their graves. If you know something small about them like their favorite flower, buy a bunch of them for your table. These all may sound like generally small actions, but they all add up to feeling a more powerful connection to them and ultimately feeling less alone yourself. These people are your family, whether you met them or not, and having little pieces of them in your home and thoughts is a beautiful way to keep them close to you. More importantly though, it’s an important way to acknowledge that they lived and that’s the bottom line.

They lived. They hurt. They had favorite foods and favorite places. They loved. They had best friends. They experienced success and beautiful sunsets and bad dreams. They lost people. They woke up tired some days. They had favorite colors. They died. That matters so much. It will matter just as much when you’re someone’s ancestor, and none of that is something to skip over. That’s something to breathe in, to reflect on, and to honor in whatever way speaks to you because everyone deserves to be remembered.

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Photo: Emily Iris Degn

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is a multilingual travel and freelance writer, editor, professional artist, model, and published poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and dozens of plant babies. She is also an ecofeminist activist, and works to focus her professional work on those issues. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @wildearthgoods @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at Em Falls to Earth.

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