Ancestral healing and end-of-life doulas

Great gandparents Yaakov and Sarah, my grandma Shifra’s parents

Comfort for the dying and bereaved, healing for us and our ancestors

I had an extraordinary experience of ancestral healing last year. It was an experience of the power of sacred intention, and its importance in the repair of ancestral trauma.

It was an experience shared with a few dozen other people, yet was deeply personal. It unfolded in a twenty-first century moment, but spanned generations. It felt epic to many in the room, and was deeply grounded in that precious moment.

This story, and the poem that follows, stem from that sacred healing moment.

Meeting each other, meeting our grief

I had this experience during my Sacred Passages End-of-Life Doula training with the Conscious Dying Institute. About three dozen of us spent eight rich days together immersed in learning, in building the craft of accompanying those who are dying.

A full day of the training was devoted to Grief – personal, communal, and ancestral – and we were given many opportunities to express and explore the depths of Grief’s power in our lives.

At the training, I had the privilege of meeting Mindy Anderson. Mindy is a musician. As an end-of-life doula, she uses the healing sounds of her violin on behalf of those dying and those caring for them.

At times she’s also played for the sake of her ancestors, our collective ancestors, and the healing of ancestral trauma.

What’s an end-of-life doula?

Before our story continues though, I imagine you may be asking, “What’s an end-of-life doula?” Glad you asked. Here’s how Mindy describes it on her website.

“My role as an End-of-Life Doula (also called a Death Midwife or Death Doula) is to provide spiritual, emotional, practical, psychological, and physical support to families facing death. I assist the dying in identifying their personal wishes for a sacred and peaceful transition and support the patient, their families, and caregivers in communicating and realizing that goal. My role is to help dispel fear and embrace acceptance about the natural transition of death, which all humans experience.”

Music, healing and ancestral trauma

In our training, Mindy shared her deep sense of being called, among other things, to use her music towards healing of ancestral trauma. As an American of German descent, and perhaps to her surprise, she’s found herself drawn toward Jewish music evocative of the period before and during the Holocaust. She played a piece for us during the training.

What she played surprised me at first. It wasn’t a piece of music from that time, or that place. But it did pertain to them, much like the two of us. It was a descendant of sorts, attempting to illustrate a story of people experiencing the trauma, and unexpected contradictions, of that time. It was the theme from the movie “Schindler’s List.”

My paternal grandmother, Shifra, as a teenager in Ukraine

Both of our families have been in the U.S. since before the Holocaust. Most of my family was from the Ukraine and Lithuania, not Germany or Western Europe. My ancestral trauma stems from the Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Mindy and I, as Americans with our respective German and Jewish ancestry, grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust nonetheless. Her longing for healing spoke to me profoundly.

The healing in holding well

She played. And it felt as if the penetrating sorrow and horror and shame and guilt and pain and awe and potential for redemption, all required of that moment, were being channeled through her by the ancestors, and poured out through the strings of her violin.

And when she finished playing, and after a stunned silence on the part of everyone in the room, and with the beauty and weight of what we had just witnessed hanging in the air, I found myself standing to embrace her. And there we stood, for what seemed an eternity, but one that somehow flew by, holding onto each other as tightly as we could.

And a well of ancestral healing and repair seemed to open up beneath us, and around us, and between us, and within us. And gratitude. Not to forget. Gratitude.

So I offer this poem, The Field of Forgiveness, in honor of that moment. And in honor of all the ancestors, without whom we wouldn’t be here.

May their memories be for a blessing. (z”l)

The field of forgiveness

 We brought it all
to the Field of Forgiveness
to the enormous open pit
in the center
that holds the endless Grief
of our longings and
ancestral trauma, and
unfulfilled knowing.
You played the violin,
the wizened instrument
from a place where your forebears
straddled borders like the bridge
you are now, and we listened
to the Sorrow.
Love and my people’s need
for Healing, and you, and your
people’s need for Healing
moved me toward you,
and we held onto one another
at the edge of the pit, like a novice
skydiver with a teacher
about to jump from a plane,
we two novices, two teachers,
and we  jumped into that Sorrow
and were held in its trapped winds
where we stayed long enough
for the Depth to remind us
there’s a well down there
beneath the stink 
of our inheritance
of purposeful cruelty
and benign neglect
we caught a whiff
of the waters below
and dropped in our desire
to drink from it
and then when we were ready
a sound wave
that had made its way down
from your violin
carried us back out
to the Field, unfinished
and complete, ready
to return to our respective
and collective paths
awaiting us
at the edges of the Field.
© Shifrah Tobacman, 2019

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About Rabbi Shifrah


I’m a rabbi, holistic teacher, interfaith chaplain, end of life doula, and poet. I have a healer’s spirit, and am dedicated to social, economic, and environmental justice. I live in Emeryville, CA with my beloved wife Ruth, with whom I’ve been happily partnered for over twenty-two years.

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