A family constellation therapy session reveals an unknown family grief, a loss that happened over 70 years ago, that Emmy attempts to heal and bring to completion.
The Mourner's Kaddish is recited in this podcast. It is done with reverence, sincere intention, and respect.
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In 2018, at age 55, I received a Family Constellation Therapy Session from a woman named Hargopal Kaur Khalsa from LA. Hargopal is an American Sikh and a Kundalini Yoga teacher. She is an experienced meditator who has developed an incredibly sensitive intuition over her decades of practice. She’s also originally from the Bronx and still has her New York accent despite having lived elsewhere for much of her adult life and she has a bit of a no-nonsense New York edge to her that, as a fellow New Yorker, I know and recognize and enjoy. So, for all these reasons, while she knew nothing about me, I trusted her, as it was my first Family Constellation Session.
In our session, we sat on the floor on either side of a small table. Next to me were various bins filled with miniature figures of people, animals and nondescript beings. She instructed me to pick out representatives for the main members of my immediate family: my mother and father and my two older brothers, and one to represent myself. I set the figures up on the table and we both stared at them taking in the placements I had chosen and suddenly I felt an energetic field surrounding these figures who represented my family and our discerned relationships to each other. This field felt like a dynamic, living and breathing entity even though two of my family members, my parents, were no longer living.
Hargopal quietly stared at the figures and after a short while, said, “There’s a deep loss that your mother had, regarding a young man in her youth.” I was perplexed. I could think of no loss regarding a young man and my mother and told her so.
“A young man,” she repeated. “Perhaps he died young,” she offered. “She’s very grieved by this.” She was so certain of this that she had me place a figure for the young man at my mother’s feet, with the figure lying down on his side.
Mystified, I stared at the figures I had placed on the table, and then, like a fog lifting, it was as if I had entered the energy field and suddenly I felt what she was talking about. I felt my mother’s grief over some young man I’d never met. It felt oddly familiar. And as I stared and felt, all at once, I saw quick images flash on the movie screen of my brain, memories and clues from over the past 50 years or so, that somehow came together.
The first image was a photo I’d seen in my mother’s photo album, an album she’d put together around 1950, when she was about 23 years old, during her first year as a newly hired high school librarian in what would be my small, rural hometown in New York state. She was straight out of college, single, and lived in town in an apartment above a store that she affectionately called the Bohemian apartment, that she shared with two other new, young female teachers. My mother and her two roommates, were part of a social scene with other young people in town that included parties at their apartment or nights on the town sometimes spent with the man who would become my father and his gang of single, guy friends. Some of these early friends eventually got married and settled in my home town, and they became prominent adults in my life while I was growing up. Others didn’t stay but moved away and were strangers to me, faces in the photo album who became part of the lore of my parents’ early stories. The photo which came to mind was of a young man I didn’t know, taken around 1950, who, with a look of contentment, had his arm comfortably around my mother’s shoulders, pulling her close to him. My young mother leaned her head into his neck, with her signature bright smile, and her eyes flashing in a way I’d seen before which meant she was happy. They sat at a table in front of glasses of beer and it was hard to tell if this was taken at a bar or my mother’s apartment. After my mother’s death, when I was in my mid 30s, I sat with my father and the two of us flipped through this photo album. When we got to the photo of this man and my mother, I asked my father who the young man was. I had seen other photos of him taken with my father and his friends. He told me the man was his friend Sammy, and I noted something in his voice that told me there was a deeper story there between my mother and Sammy and perhaps my father was even bothered by it. This would have been before my parents had dated. For a brief instant, my father had dropped into that world of complete mystery to me, that time and place when my parents were young, when they had their own lives before kids. And I knew it was a door he was not willing to open for me, so rather than ask my father further questions, I tucked the memory away.
As I continued to sit with Hargopal and stare at the family figures on the small table, another flash memory hit my brain: an entry from my mother’s old diary from the 1950s that depicted her early days as a new school teacher in my town and all the shananagans around her new group of friends. I had read this diary after her death and remembered an entry about Sammy’s farewell party and how sad everyone was that he had to leave.
And then, in another flash, a final memory came to my mind. Another photo. This was a small black and white photo of my mother during that same early period of her young adult life as the new librarian. She sat on the sand with her legs folded under her, by some lake, looking like a movie star with her bright smile, short, sassy hair, and dressed in a summer outfit with a ‘come hither’ gleam: tight black shorts and a sleeveless off the shoulder white blouse with ties at the shoulders. My brother and I had found this photo tucked in the back fold of her wallet after her death when she was in her early 70s. We had never seen it before. On the back of the photo, was an unfamiliar but unmistakably masculine scrawl that said, “I will never forget this day. I hope you’ll remember once in a while.” And then, oddly, “I’m sorry.” At the time, my brother and I had looked at each other with raised eyebrows. But in that moment with Hargopal, I knew that Sammy had taken the photo and it was his writing on the back. My mother had kept it all of her life.
“I think I know who the young man was,” I told Hargopal. “I think he went off to the Korean War and perhaps he died.” And I shared with her my memories that had just transpired. She shook her head slowly up and down, clearly not surprised.
“Your mother never grieved losing him.” She explained. “And you took on her grief. You’ve been carrying her grief over this young man all of your life.”
And the weird thing is, I was shaking my head up and down agreeing with her. It all made perfect sense to me.
Family Constellation Therapy was founded in 1978 by Bert Hellinger, who was in Germany in 1925. During WWII, he was forced into the army and became a prisoner of war. At age 20 he entered a Catholic religious order and became a priest. He spent 16 years as a missionary in South Africa to the Zulu which was to have a big influence on his work. He studied philosophy and theology and trained in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and became a family therapist.
So what is Family Constellation Therapy and how does it work? I spoke with Emily Waymire, a family constellation therapist who studied with Hellinger, to find out more.
Emily Waymire: Family constellation work is based on the understanding that a person is embedded within a larger system. So, in that work we don’t view someone as an individual. We actually see them as just one part of a system and that system is held by a larger field and that field actually is trans-generational, runs through the entire family lineage. So, in family constellations we’re looking for, if someone comes for an issue, for example, we’re looking for what is the origin of that issue rather than just looking at symptoms, and kind of chasing symptoms;
EMMY: So when you say it’s part of a system, does that mean a FAMILY system ?
EW: So, what’s interesting about this work is that in observing, through observation vs applied theory, my teacher, Bert Hellinger, saw that family systems include non-blood relatives, and so it can be a family system, it can also be a work system or an organizational system; it can be your church group can be a system, right? So, it’s any social system, but in family constellation what we’re looking at is all the members of the family system and that includes any members of the family that were affected by blood family. So, if someone married in, or if there was an accident that resulted in a death or a disability, that person becomes part of the system.
In a family system there is a set of rules, unspoken largely, and hard-wired in our nervous system is the drive to belong so that we survive physically. And so from birth on, we will do, every single one of us, will do whatever it takes, unconsciously, to belong to our system and that means unconsciously inheriting all the beliefs, the language, the ideas, the behaviors, the loyalties, the choices, right? And that is, that is how we live. That’s a huge foundation of this work is being able to look at, “Oh, well what am I’m currently doing, for example, that’s actually an unconscious loyalty to the rules of my system?”
EMMY: Can you describe what might happen in a typical session?
EW: Yes. What we found is that you can take anyone and in this work we call them ‘representatives’, because they’re representing something. What we found is that you can take anyone and you can say, “You represent the mother”, and we can take someone else and say, “You represent the father.” And if they just stand in a collective way and breathe and feel their body, that what I am calling ‘the field’ actually begins to move through them. Right now what I am describing is a traditional Family Constellation.
I may or may not have already worked with the client. They sit next to me; we’re in a circle of people. It doesn’t have to be many people, and the client sits next to me and they are largely observing. So, I’m largely having them stay in their bodies, stay connected to, we want the feedback from their body. What’s making them feel stronger, if their heart starts pounding, how their breath changes, do they feel tense? So I’m really watching my client to see how are they responding to this work.
And then in the room, either I or the client will have chosen these people to stand in the center of the circle, and without any pre-conceived notion, this part’s very important: I don’t give the representative any information. What we found is that the body itself responds, again, as though to a magnetic force, and it feels magnetic, it feels like any other force, gravity, magnetics, right? In that what representatives report regularly is that their body begins to move, their body may start to turn a certain way or might start to sway, or tremble or they might have temperature changes, or they might absolutely feel the need to shut their eyes or they may become so heavy they need to lay down, or they may start to walk backwards. And this is quite an experience for representatives because most people have never experienced being involuntarily moved by a force outside of them.
My job, as the constellator, is to basically read that body language and I’m reading it in every single representative, and I’m looking at how they are relating to each other. Are they looking at each other? Are their eyes closed? Are they staring away at a spot in the distance? Are they staring at a spot on the floor? All of these subtle and not so subtle movements are what I’m looking at.
The other phenomena that will occur is that representatives will also feel emotions that just come apparently out of nowhere, and they will also have thoughts. So, they may start to have repetitive sentences that come to mind. Someone might be standing next to them and they don’t even know who they’re representing and they might just start thinking something like, “You did it. You did it,” Just over and over again. Again, these are all of the, these are all the phenomena that I am observing and am trained to analyze, actually.
EMMY: When I had constellation therapy with Hargopal Kaur Khalsa, she did not have actual human representatives, she used little, tiny figures that we stuck on clay and our field, if you will, was a little table top that we both looked at. My experience with that was I REALLY felt the dynamics there that were happening with these little figures. Could you speak to that method?
EW: Yeah, there are different ways, right? And what we’re really doing, when we use, sometimes people will use figurines like you said, sometimes people will use post-its; sometimes people will use, I use foam mats that are different colors that people can stand on or that I don’t have anyone stand or what can also happen is people don’t use any physical object. Sometimes we refer to that as an INNER constellation. We’re just, I say to the person, “Bring your mother in front of you,” and they just imagine their mother in front of them, for example.
So, what you were doing was a pretty well-known approach which is with figurines. And this is where I really need to speak about what the field is.
So, the field quite simply is an organizing force that holds the family system or any social system. So, a super helpful image for people is an image of a school of fish, or a huge flock of birds, that image of starlings that we often know, or when 10,000 wildebeests, right? Are moving across the land. And when seen from a distance, one can see quite clearly there’s an organizing field, a bubble if you want to think of it that way that holds that system. It informs the system, it’s a form of memory, it’s a form of communication, and it literally moves these bodies.
Well, human beings are in that same field, and a family system is in that exact same field. That’s what we’re working with when we are working with representatives. That same field can just as easily be translated to figurines, to mats on a floor, to post-its, or to what I call an Inner Constellation, just doing it all within the mind.
EMMY: How do you facilitate this? Does it just play out on its own and you’re watching, or is there anything you do to create a little momentum?
EW: Hmmm. That’s a great question and many answers because there are many ways to facilitate. In the more traditional or I will say, pure approach to it, the role of the constellator is in fact to remain restrained and still in their own core and the more the person can master that emptiness, the stronger the field will be observed and actually will move the representatives.
So, I’m looking for numerous things. I’m first looking for what we call often, the inner image, and that is, so if the client has set up representatives and remember, some might have their eyes closed, some might be looking away, some might REALLY want to turn away, some might be very drawn to each other. First I’m looking at that. And that’s what we call the inner image and that’s the image that the client is unconsciously carrying, but literally living their life off of, like a template, like a blueprint. So, I’m seeing what is the blueprint of this client that then affects every choice they make, actually and typically that’s when we see what is the hidden dynamic that is driving the issue.
After my session with Hargopal, I returned to my mother’s diary, to see if I could decipher any more clues about Sammy. The journal is peppered with accounts of evenings spent with a different group of friends often ending early in the morning even though she and her roommates had to get up and teach in the morning. Frequently people popped into their apartment in the evenings to visit the 3 young women where spontaneous poker games erupted, or they just stayed up drinking beer and having a good time. Occasionally they ran out to go dancing at a popular place at the time called the Mansion House returning home at 4am. Sammy and my father both played baseball in a local league and it seemed that my mother and her friends knew most of the guys on the league and often attended the games. Some of these names that appear I knew or thought I knew. The entries are peppered with my father’s name. He would pop over to the Bohemian apartment with a male friend, sometimes it was Sammy. Other times it appeared that my parents would double date: my mother and Sammy, and my father and another woman. Sammy is a frequent visitor to the Bohemian apartment. One night he stays until midnight. Another night my mother reports that he stayed until 4am.
In 1950, my mother was a devout Catholic. She had attended an all-girl’s catholic high school in Rochester, NY where she grew up. She had also attended college at an all women’s Catholic college. My mother could read Latin and attended Sunday mass faithfully. This was a very important aspect of her identity, especially as a young woman in 1950. It would have been very important to my mother, and perhaps essential to her family, that she marry a Catholic man. My own aunt had married a protestant man in the late 1940s and while she was married in a Catholic church, she was forbidden to be married at the altar.
There was a very large chasm for my mother and Sammy that was too big for both of them. Sammy was Jewish.
My mother makes special note of Yom Kippur: the day of atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. On this day, Jews pray, reflect and fast. My mother very aware of these things and respected other forms of religious devotion. One of her roommates was Jewish and in her journal she relates how Sammy and two other male friends came over that evening and my mother and the two guys drank beer while Sammy and her roommate abstained because of the holiday. And later, around 10:30 that night, she reports a beautiful walk that she and Sammy took up behind the school, that brought them high on a hilltop where they looked out under the stars at a sleepy town below.
And another time when Sammy came over for dinner. My mother and her roommates went fancy with a table cloth. And what did my mother serve? Pork roast.
As I browsed through my mother’s journal, I pondered what it might have meant for Sammy to be Jewish in 1950. He too, perhaps, was expected to marry a Jewish woman. There was clearly no future for them. But there they were. Spending so much time together. Perhaps officially dating. Clearly enjoying each other’s company. I learned that Sammy was a school teacher. This meant he had gone to college, unlike my own father and many of the young men in that town at that time. Perhaps he was an intellectual equal to my mother. He was probably smart and my mother, who was very smart and creative, I’m sure, flourished with someone who could match her.
My home town is very small, and rural, with a population of roughly 500 people. There is one main street that houses a grocery store, a restaurant, hardware store, drug store, a few bars, one doctor, one lawyer, a dentist, and a handful of other shops and churches. There are a few small side streets, mostly dotted with homes. Up on a hill overlooking the town, is the high school where my mother taught and where I eventually went to high school. I imagined Sammy and my mother traipsing around town together. This would have been during my mother’s first year in a town, a place where she would end up staying for over 40 years of her life. But that year, everything was new and perhaps quaint and exciting to her. And I realized with a start, that I too had had a parallel experience. As a teenager, I had had a Jewish boyfriend, whose mother was of Eastern European descent and his face, showed a similar heritage to Sammy’s face. He lived in town and we too used to traipse around that town, and more than once hiked up the path behind the school to look out at the stars and the town below. Perhaps it was the very same path. Perhaps we made the very same promises to each other as Sammy and my mother. When I envisioned the face of this boyfriend, now I saw Sammy’s face superimposed on top of his. Had it always been there? When we eventually broke up, of course I grieved. But it was a grief like no other. It was a grief that went on for decades; it weighted me down and I couldn’t comprehend it. Now I came to see that I had been absorbed, not by my own grief, but by my mother’s grief for Sammy. I had been confusing grief for my boyfriend with grief for Sammy.
EW: If someone is standing, as a representative, and staring at the floor in front of them, they’re looking at a dead person. Often, you’ll see, they’re looking at a grave actually and right there, if we see that, that person they’re looking at is missing and this is what we call again, an entanglement. They’re entangled with someone who’s missing and that the field itself is guiding that family to include. The field simply will remain whole. This field doesn’t break, it stretches. It stretches across generations and across time and space, so if someone is missing, due to a difficult fate, or they were pushed out of the family or they were guilty of something or there was a murder, or they had an accident, or someone was born stillborn or there was an abortion, or an early death.
In some way missing because the family itself didn’t have the resource, the inner resource, the outer resource to be able to grieve, actually, to complete grief and reconciliation around this loss.
If someone or many people are missing, that is what is passed to the next generation, to be seen and those missing people literally will show up through the children, even if they’re adult children, of the next generation because they remained missing because they weren’t honored and named and brought forward. And where grieving comes in is that grief, true grief, is actually what completes.
The last two entries of my mother’s journal entry from that time period read like this:
Sunday: Farewell party for Sam – Very sad.
Monday: Sam is all over today saying goodbye to people. Coach and team give him rousing cheer.
And then it ends. No more entries reporting on life in the Bohemian apartment. There are many empty pages and when she finally makes another entry it is about 8 years later, after she is married to my father and my two older brothers are born. Of course she was distracted with her work, and my father, and planning a wedding, and then the children, and then the new house. But ultimately, Sammy left and my father, who is Catholic, stepped in and the rest is history.
What happened to Sammy? Where did he go? Why did he leave? I thought maybe he had served in the Korean War and perhaps never came back. When I called my father’s younger brother, now in his 80s to see what he knew, he told me that no, Sammy did not serve in the Korean War, he was certain of that. Sammy had been my father’s age and therefore probably served in WWII he told me. My uncle was the one who told me that Sammy was a school teacher so perhaps he moved away to start a new job, he suggested. My uncle was 8 years younger than my father. He didn’t hang out with my father’s friends and so, he didn’t really know. Either way, Sammy never returned. And neither of my parents ever spoke of him.
I have no doubt that my mother loved my father when they were married. But the fact that she never adequately processed her grief for Sammy, meant the grief was never completed. There was a double grief associated with Sammy for my mother: True, Sammy had left too soon but even if he’d stayed, in 1950 they clearly had no future together because he was Jewish and she was Catholic. Things had changed by the 1980s when I was in high school, and I could have had a future with my boyfriend. It did not matter to either of our families that I had been raised Catholic and he had not. After my session with Hargopal, for the first time I felt the weighted belt of grief I wore. Also a weighted necklace of grief. I recognized it wasn’t mine but it was something I had carried my entire life. At the end of my session with Hargopal, she asked me to select a figure to represent this grief and this I placed beside my figure on the table. Then she told me to return the grief to my mother, so I picked it up and placed it next to her figure on the table. After a moment she said, “Now, we don’t want to leave it with you mother, so let’s return that grief to God.” And I ceremoniously picked up the grief and placed it at the feet of the figure I had chosen to represent God. It was extremely liberating and in that moment, I felt lighter and relieved. But, later, after searching through my mother’s journal and revisiting photos, I knew something more had to be done.
That year, Easter and Passover coincided and were swiftly approaching. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, and with the exception of my parents’ funerals, hadn’t attended a Catholic service in decades. But still, I am familiar with the rituals of what is commonly called Holy Week, and crafted a ritual for Sammy and my mother that felt right to me. It involved visiting a Catholic church on Holy Thursday, which is, perhaps my favorite holy day in the Catholic tradition. Holy Thursday begins the sacred Triduum, the 3 holiest days of the year in succession that include Good Friday and Easter Vigil. In Catholic Tradition, Holy Thursday commemorates the washing of the feet and the last supper for Christ and his disciples. It commemorates the events of the last night before his crucifixion when he asked his disciples to stay awake and keep watch. An evening mass is held on Holy Thursday. At the end of mass, the altar is stripped bare, the lights are dimmed and everyone exits in silence. After mass, the church is usually left open and parishioners are invited to sit in quiet contemplation and keep watch.
Mass can be celebrated again until the resurrection is celebrated on Easter Vigil. Therefore, the consecrated communion hosts are placed in a tabernacle within the sanctuary until needed. Some churches move this tabernacle to a separate altar called the Altar of Repose.
When I was growing up, my church was left open all night on Holy Thursday allowing people to come and go as they pleased, and sit quietly in prayer or contemplation. Today, many churches have special hours and often close at midnight or earlier. Such is the case for the church in my current town. I learned that after mass, the main church would be closed and the Altar of Repose was in a separate side room with its own entrance that would close at midnight.
I arrived just as the Holy Thursday mass had ended. I was hoping to light a candle for my mother and Sammy, but since the main church was closing I saw that I would not be able to do so. Instead, I decided to enter the separate room that contained the Altar of Repose, and entered.
It was a plain room, but comfortable. Perhaps it usually held church meetings or special classes and events. In the center was a low, simple, bare altar of plain wood adorned with two large white candles, a small wooden tabernacle, and on the floor in front, two, large and beautiful, vases of white Calla Lillies. The lighting was dim and several rows of chairs with kneelers had been set up in front of the altar. It felt peaceful and serene in here. I felt safe and as with all Catholic Churches, it felt familiar. Several people were scattered about in attendance. Some people were sitting in quiet contemplation. Some were kneeling in prayer. And there was an occasional sniff, as I had remembered as a youth that it was common for people to shed tears during this time of quiet contemplation of the last night of Christ’s life. I found a chair and sat for a while. I had to abandon the idea of lighting a candle for them, however, I felt comforted just by being there.
After a few moments I sunk to my knees on the kneeler in front of me and buried my head in my hands. Maybe it was because Catholic Churches remind me of my mother, maybe it’s because I still love Holy Thursday and the rituals of the foot washing to show our service to others, or perhaps it’s the significance of the last supper ritual where Christ extoled : “Do this in remembrance of me.” Or it may have been the simple dignity of the altar and sitting in semi darkness with people, strangers, all gathered in quiet contemplation. But I started weeping. The tears were steady and flowed effortlessly. I was overcome by what felt like a tidal wave of grief. I felt my mother’s grief pour out of me. I felt her loss. I was emoting her grief for her. It was very clear to me that this was not my grief. This was just something I’d been carrying and like a heavy weight, I simply was putting it down, one tear at a time. It felt like my heart were being squeezed of grief, like one wrings out a sponge. I don’t know how long I’d been crying, when at one point I looked up and saw a departing woman look at me with sincere compassion. Already, the room was emptying as people had paid their respects after mass and were heading home. Occasionally, a new person came in. Again I lowered my head into my hands and quietly wept. I might have even been curled up in a sort of ball on the kneeler, all I know is decades worth of grief came out of me. Sometimes I wiped my tears and blew my nose and kept crying. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, there was nothing left and I was quiet. My heaving chest was finally quiet. I was spent. Slowly, I sat up right in my chair and faced the altar again. My cheeks were stained with tears, but I had no more tears to cry. I was completely cried out. I was empty. I knew I had cried out all of my mother’s grief and as I sat there, I felt much better, much lighter, but quite worn. Glancing at the clock, I saw I had cried for 45 minutes straight. For the first time, I felt a new sense of freedom because I no longer held my mother’s grief. All these years I had been holding all this grief for Sammy. I finally felt whole again.
Looking around the room, I noticed only a handful of people scattered about. One was a man who had been there since the beginning. He paid no attention to me, and I sensed he was going to stay and keep watch until the church closed. There was still one more thing for me to do.
I left the room and stood in the hall and prepared my phone, placing my ear buds in my ears so as not to disturb anyone. As I took a deep breath I could feel my mother’s presence with me. “Shall we do this for Sammy?” I asked her. “Yes!” she whispered back with eagerness and delight. My mother loved what we were about to do next. Not quite wrong, but maybe a bit unusual? I knew that it had to be here and it had to be now. My mother was right with me.
I re-entered the room and this time knelt in the back of the room. I hit play on my phone, where a friend of mine had recorded the Mourner’s Kaddish. In Jewish tradition, the Kaddish is a prayer that is a public praising of God’s name and is said, to honor the passing of someone. It is a prayer that is said after someone dies. I didn’t know if Sammy was dead or alive. If he were still alive, he would have been 92 years old. But the truth is, he had died long ago for my mother. And so we said the Kaddish. I stood in the back of the church and quietly recited this ancient prayer, one of the oldest prayers of Judaism, in a language called Aramaic that is older than Hebrew. My mother and I said the Kaddish for Sammy. We said it for all of us.
After this the three of us sat in silence for a few minutes. All felt peaceful and complete. Eventually Sammy and my mother left. And then, I left the church.