Take this burden

Two days later we were back for our second Family Constellation, save for Alex who had suddenly discovered commitments he could not possibly break. All the pleading in the world got us nowhere. Alex is tough like that. Dr. Stern understood and reflected that it is a good way to be, to be tough. In reviewing the outcomes of the previous session, Ian and I agreed that we felt closer to the reality of our ancestors’ lives. Chris seemed to politely agree.

This time, it was my turn and I placed the outlines of the shoes on the floor without thinking too much about where to place them. My parents, my sisters, and my mother’s mother, father, and brother became shoes on the floor. Dr. Stern took up her position as interpreter of personal dramas. She started out slowly, but horror gradually pervaded her body as she recounted, from the point of view of my grandfather, his wife’s premature death from scarlet fever transmitted by my mother, who was four years old at the time. Dr. Stern put her hands over her cheeks and shook her head in dismay while rocking slightly back and forth. The presence of my grandfather was also there in the room, in abject despair over the unfortunate turn of events in his life.

Ian and I cried harder into the tissues provided by Dr. Stern and wiped our eyes. We were caught up in the drama. Dr. Stern, also quite tearful, looked up at Chris from time to time to gauge his responses. Chris, once again, was keenly following the action without saying much. Taylor, slumped in his chair in the corner of the room, was out and out bored, verging on sullen.

As I looked at the patterns on the floor, my mind began to wander. I was acutely aware of the injustices my mother had experienced, beginning with her mother’s death. This particular family injustice began earlier than that, however. My great grandmother died when my grandmother was very young, just as my grandmother left my mother prematurely.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, having met him once when I was about three years old and once more when I was in my early teens. His fourth wife was slightly younger than my mother. They lived many miles away, but the lack of communication was not due to the driving distance between us. My mother, who was not given to saying unkind things about people, did not speak much about him. Her mother’s death left her estranged from my grandfather, who she felt blamed her for her mother’s death.

Dr. Stern paused to observe sadly that there was a pervading sense of death and chill in the room. Perhaps there was. The atmosphere was changed. Dr. Stern caught something in Chris’s reaction that she felt was important. At the end of the session, she said she thought she had it, and she turned to Chris and said that he should no longer have to carry this burden. He could begin to live. We left that day, totally exhausted but rejoicing in the family members who had gone before and we forgave them and them us. Harmony was created where before there had been disharmony caused by death.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes

Dr. Stern was a tall, elegant woman with upswept blond hair and precise, German-accented English. She appeared to be in her late forties. Because of our particular circumstances, she conducted the Family Constellation with only our family members present. Normally, other participants or “actors” stand in for your relatives and interact in a dramatic interpretation. Instead of “actors” standing in for the family members Dr. Stern improvised by drawing the outlines of shoes on papers to represent the individual family members (a left and right shoe per paper). Chris, Alex, Taylor, Ian and I sat in chairs in a corner of the large office, wondering what would happen next.

We began with Ian’s paternal grandfather’s story. Dr. Stern asked Ian to put the shoes of the grandfather, grandmother, Ian’s father, his father’s older brother who died before Ian’s father was born, and his father’s two sisters on the floor.She asked him to do it spontaneously and not to think too much where the shoes should be placed.

Dr. Stern then literally stood in the shoes of each of the individuals and spoke for them, letting her voice rise and fall, speaking angrily or softly, or clenching her hands if she felt so moved. She gave voice to each of them, based on her intuition from reading the paragraphs I had given her. She was Ian’s Scottish grandfather emigrating to a new land, only to be sent back to the old world to fight a trench war, then returning to a strange land as an invalid, a convalescent beginning a family life. His firstborn son, carried away by death. Ian and I wept openly for father and first born son, who we did not know in life but felt a bond to in the present. Taylor and Alex looked bored, occasionally exchanging suppressed smiles.

Every so often, Dr. Stern would glance sideways at Chris, to see how he followed the unfolding drama and to see what his reactions were. Chris was attentive and interested. After three long hours, we were all grateful to leave.

Family Constellation Therapy

In the final weeks of Chris’s attendance at the day program, I began in earnest to look for a psychiatrist who practiced Family Constellation Therapy. Given the special circumstances of our geographical location, it took a while to find that person. After a number of months, I found Dr. Maria Stern, a trilingual psychotherapist with a practice in our city.

Family Constellation Therapy and shamanic healing operate at level 4 of the healing pyramid. Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt speaks of level 4 as the intuitive level, the realm of dreams, trance, meditative states, out-of-body experiences, and the collective unconscious. Level 5, the peak of the healing pyramid, is the spiritual level, the realm of your personal relationship with a higher power, call it God, if you will. No shaman or doctor of priest can help you at level five. Healing at this level is up to you.

Family Constellation Therapy, also know as Systemic Family Therapy, was developed by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. It is based on the premise that all members of a family, living and dead, have the right to their place in the family tree. If someone is denied this right to belong through an untimely death, imprisonment, or perhaps being the family “black sheep” another family member will (usually unknowingly and often generations later) exclude him or herself as an act of atonement for the injustice.

Bert Hellinger writes that many of us unconsciously “take on” destructive familial patterns of guilt, pain, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and even illness as a way of belonging or being loyal to our families. Bonded by a deep love, a child will often sacrifice his own best interests in a vain attempt to ease the suffering or solve the “unfinished business” of another family member. As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung famously observed, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

According to Dr. Klinghardt, schizophrenia often has its roots at the fourth level of healing because schizophrenics are particularly sensitive to these familial exclusions or injustices and will act out the role of victim. Dr. Klinghardt maintains that if schizophrenia is not cured at the physical level (level 1), it is usually because the issues lie at level 4. According to the Family Constellation theory, the root of the issue is almost always found three or four generations removed from the present. The parents and current family environment aren’t directly responsible for the origins of the schizophrenia, but they are implicated because of the way the parent might unconsciously deal in the present with the aftermath of the family event from the past. I see this as yet another example of how an energy imbalance might be expressed within the family.

What is particularly compelling about Family Constellation Therapy is that it can put to rest so-called family curses or stop recurring patterns of illness or destructiveness from being passed from generation to generation.