Case #1: Virginia, 46-years-old, divorced, no children
Issue: Virginia had been depressed for as long as she could remember, and blamed her mother for not giving her what she needed. "She's mean, critical and aloof. I feel that she never loved me."
Family History: The year before Virginia was born, her mother had fallen asleep while breastfeeding Virginia's older sister, and accidentally suffocated the baby. This event was never talked about.
Resolution: Whether Virginia's mother felt that she didn’t deserve to be a mother or feared that she could also hurt Virginia, or that Virgina would die as well, she was unable to bond deeply with Virginia, the next baby born. In the session, Virginia realized that her mother’s aloofness was not personal. She could feel her mother's deep pain and guilt, and could finally open her heart to her. After the session, she reached out to her mother and no longer felt depressed.
Comments: Without a loving connection to one's mother, one rarely feels a loving connection with one's self. Self-hatred and depression are often a consequence of rejecting a parent.
Case #2: Bruce, 31-years-old, with a 3-year-old son
Issue: Bruce had been smoking since he was thirteen and wanted to quit.
Family History: His father died when Bruce was five of esophageal cancer. His father's father died of black lung when Bruce's father was eight.
Resolution: Bruce closed his eyes and visualized his father telling him not to die and leave his son as he and his father had done. His father told him that by living a long life, Bruce would honor his memory and break the family legacy. Bruce wept as he visualized his father holding him. He promised his father that he would quit smoking, and he did.
Comments: Bruce had been on a clear path to die young like his father and grandfather, and leave his small son fatherless. Children whose parents die young often have difficulty thriving. There appears to be an unconscious loyalty to follow down the same path. An intellectual understanding of the family connection is not enough to shift the behavior. Often, the understanding must be accompanied by a visceral experience.
Case #3: Sandra, 59-years-old, married, two grown children
Issue: Sandra was anxious and depressed. She had been taking heavy doses of anti-depressants for several years. Twice she had attempted suicide. Each attempt came approximately 6 months after moving into a new home.
Family History: When Sandra was two, her 6-year-old brother was killed by a drunk driver as he stepped off the school bus. This tragedy occurred six months after her family had moved into their new home.
Resolution: Sandra had never made the connection. In the session, she understood how her older brother's death had influenced her life. She felt that the best way to honor him was not to live depressed and die like him, but to live fully and do something good in his honor. She had an image of him being proud of her. After the session, her depression lifted. Sandra has remained depression-free.
Comments: Many times, a tragic event in our family affects the way we react to the stressors in our lives. If an older sibling suffers or dies young, a younger sibling can struggle, unconscious of the connection.
Case #4: Josh, 11-years-old and Brenda, his 40-year-old divorced mother
Issue: Josh was a chronic nail-biter.
Family History: Josh was anxious and fidgety in the session. Brenda and Josh's father had been divorced for five years and shared joint custody. When asked, Josh explained that he felt like he needed to take care of his mother because she was often nervous and angry. He said that he felt guilty every time he went to his father’s, and was afraid to hurt Brenda by telling her that he loved his father.
Resolution: Hearing this, Brenda was surprised. In the session, she could feel how Josh, loyal to both parents, was being ripped apart. Making sure her body language matched her words, she told Josh that it made her very happy to know that he loves his father and enjoys spending time with him. At first, Josh didn’t believe her. Brenda reassured him several times. Within weeks, Brenda reported that Josh had stopped biting his nails.
Comments: Divorce often creates a split in the children. Parents, whether unconsciously or deliberately, must be careful not to block a child's path to the other parent. Children must feel free to love both parents. Anxiety is often a result when a child feels that he cannot openly express his love for both parents.
Case #5: Susan, 34-years old, single, no children
Issue: Susan had her suicide all planned out. She intended to “vaporize” herself by leaping into the vat of molten steel at the mill. "My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, "even before it reaches the bottom." She had had depressive thoughts all her life, and never understood why. The connection she hadn’t made was glaring.
Family History: Her maternal grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz.
Resolution: In the session, she realized that the suicidal thoughts were a reflection of her grandmother's unbearable grief and survivor's guilt that had been passed down through the generations. By acknowledging the family tragedy, Susan was able to break the cycle of family pain. After the first session, Susan reported that her depression had lifted. She no longer wanted to die.
Comments: After losing her entire family, Susan's grandmother moved to America, converted to Catholicism and never spoke about her parents and siblings again. In this way, her grandmother had attempted to forget what happened. But there are consequences when family members are disregarded. Susan, without realizing it, "remembered" the dead family members for her grandmother and suffered with a grief that nearly obliterated her.
Case #6 : Tara, 18 years-old, migraines, fatigue and gastroparesis
Issue: While away at University, Tara began experiencing sudden bouts of fatigue and severe migraines. The symptoms became so extreme that she was forced to discontinue her studies. She returned home where she was also diagnosed with gastroparesis, a condition that affected her ability to digest food. Her symptoms left her virtually debilitated.
Family History: When Tara's mother, Susan, was 18, she got pregnant and gave birth to a little girl up who she gave up for adoption. Susan never told her family and claimed she would take the secret to her grave.
Resolution: Recognizing that Tara's condition was linked to her own tragic experience at 18, Susan changed her mind and decided to tell her family. In doing so, she changed the course of Tara's destiny. When Susan told Tara about the half-sister she never met, Tara's condition instantly improved. The headaches diminished and the fatigue disappeared. Tara understood that she had been physically expressing the emotions that Susan had buried. Revealing the truth brought them closer together. It was as though a wall around Susan had crumbled and Tara could begin to feel closer to her. Tara was able to understand why her mother seemed so distant when she was a little girl. Tara realized that she could stop taking care of her mother emotionally and begin to let herself feel small in her mother's care.
Comments: Some family secrets come at a cost to the children who follow. Our children need to know of events that can adversely affect their health. Our children are our legacy. We need to ask ourselves: What are we really handing down?
Case #7: Evan, 37-years-old, married, with a 6-year-old son
Issue: Evan became depressed and started drinking when his wife was pregnant with their son. At the same time, Evan also began to drive recklessly.
Family History: Evan’s father died in a car crash 5 days before Evan was born, leaving his mother to raise four small children. In her grief and anger, Evan’s mother told Evan that his father was a bad man, an alcoholic who once hit her when he was drunk.
Resolution: Unconsciously, Evan was afraid that he would die just like his father before his own son was born. Loyal to his mother, Evan was unable to have a positive inner image of his father and, in fact, knew very little about him. In the session, Evan felt a connection with his father for the first time. He visualized his father at his shoulder, supporting him, and telling him to live. Evan made a promise to respect his father and to stop drinking. Two years later, Evan has kept that promise.
Comments: We often have a misguided belief that by disparaging an alcoholic spouse, we will deter our child from following down the same path. In actuality, the opposite effect occurs. Unless a child can love both parents equally, he can adopt the negative traits or rejected behaviors of the one he is forbidden to love. For Evan, drinking was his covert way of maintaining a connection with his father.
Case #8: Alexandra, 44 years-old, married, two children
Issue: Multiple Sclerosis
Family History: At 20, Alexandra got into an intense argument with her father. Later that day, he died in a car accident. She never forgave herself and indirectly blamed herself for his death. When Alexandra reached 42—the same age her father died—she began to experience symptoms of weakness on the right side of her body, symptoms which were later diagnosed as MS.
Resolution: Alexandra never made the link between her condition and her father's death. Upon making the connection, she experienced an outpouring of grief, sadness and longing. In the calm that followed, she described that she could feel her father's forgiveness and support. She attached his photo to the bed frame above her right shoulder and began to visualize his love repairing her body. In time, her symptoms began to lessen.
Comments: In the experience of a physical condition, one can share a life similar to the “imagined” experience of a loved one who has died or suffered. It's as though through limitations, we are somehow made equal. Once this dynamic is brought to light, we can experience our condition, and ourselves, differently.
Case #9: Deirdre, 39-years old, newly married
Issue: Deirdre felt sexually distant from her husband. “It only happens when I’m in a committed relationship. I feel boxed-in, disconnected and disgusted whenever he makes love to me.”
Family History: The great love of her mother’s life left town promising that he would return soon to marry her. Not believing that he would ever return, Mother got pregnant by Deirdre’s father. When the first man did return, he found her pregnant and refused to marry her. Reluctantly, she married Deirdre’s father, and lived unhappy and unfulfilled. The marriage lasted only three years.
Resolution: Deirdre, merged with her mother’s feelings, felt repelled by the man she had married, even though she knew he was the "right" man, the man she wanted. Understanding this identification with her mother, Deirdre was able to recapture her attraction to her husband, even when her mother could not be attracted to Deidre's father.
Comments: In a systemic identification, a child can carry the feelings of a parent, especially when a tragic event is not fully grieved. By acknowledging her mother’s loss, Deirdre did not have to repeat it.
When grief is overwhelming, we are rarely able to complete its process. Instead, we remain frozen in secondary emotions, unable to access the very emotions that will bring us relief. We develop unconscious strategies—anger, numbness, addictions to substances, exercise or work—designed to keep us going, but often these strategies serve only to keep us stuck. Unfortunately, our children learn too well from us and often repeat our patterns. We see time and time again how an individual’s unresolved grief becomes the family’s unresolved grief, and continues from generation to generation. When family members have been left out of our hearts because the pain is too difficult to bear, we often repeat what's unresolved and share feelings similar to theirs. Yet, when we look back at the tragic events that devastated our families and remember those who suffered, and acknowledge them with great respect, we can begin to experience immediate relief. If we were to imagine the posthumous wishes of our dead ancestors, they would want only happiness and peace for us.
The Hellinger Institute of Northern California
Copyright 2004-2016, Mark Wolynn. All rights reserved.
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