Susan Privett was “having a little visit with her mom,” standing by her mother’s graveside when the phone rang. There, shattering the quiet cemetery setting, she received a message that her son and daughter-in-law had been in an accident. While processing her immediate denial, she recounted the word echoing around her brain: “No.”
I once worked with a woman who was the youngest of several siblings, all of whom had been sexually abused by their father. She was in her 40s, and struggled with guilt because she hadn’t “done something” earlier to begin helping her family heal from the trauma. She, however, was the only person who had been brave enough to disclose the behavior, and to do what it took on her part to make the abuse stop.
One of our last sessions together involved a fairly elaborate ritual; it was an emotional intervention wherein I took the role of her father and tied up each family member (represented by chairs in a circle) with secrets and suffering (represented by a rope, looped through and around each chair).
As she made the decision to forgive herself for not disclosing the abuse sooner in her life, she took a pair of scissors and cut “herself (the chair with her name on it)” free. It was difficult for her. She was holding on to self-blame because it was one of the few things she felt like she could control from a very ‘uncontrollable’ upbringing.
She then, however, went on to cut the ropes around her brothers and sisters, in order of who she would approach first, as she made the decision to approach them and ask them to think about starting their own healing process. The second to last person she cut free was “her mother” as she decided to forgive the one person who might have been able to protect them from the abuse.
The chair remaining at the end of the hour was the one representing her father. She wasn’t ready to forgive him, and couldn’t sort out how it might even be possible, as he had died about five years before that day. The woman seemed like a different person after that session, and had worked six months to get to that point. She told me she needed some time to think through all she’d accomplished, and to visit each one of her siblings. She wasn’t sure if she’d be back, but she might write someday.