By Bill Mannle, LMFT
After year and a half of doing Family and Systemic Constellations at a high school in Connecticut for the school’s regular Alateen group, I began to notice a pattern. The first student to enter the room was the one who would work that day. Today was no different.
“Hi Bill,” said Laney, 16, as she walked in.
“Hi, Laney. Are you going to work today?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so, I don’t know,” she replied.
“Whatever you want,” I said.
When the other students filed in and settled, my colleague Sue, the school social worker who ran the Alateen group, shared announcements, introduced me to the new students, and then we did a round. After I explained Family Constellations, I noticed Sue looking at Laney.
"Are you going to work today?" Sue asked. But before Laney could answer Sue added, "This is your time. You’ve been sitting in this group since October, and I know what you been struggling with, especially given recent events” Sue said.
I was curious. I looked at Laney. "Whatever you would like. It's up to you," I said. Laney stared at me in silence. "Okay, I'll go," she said, then got up and sat beside me.
“Given your interaction with Sue, is there something you’ve been thinking about working on?” I inquired.
"Well, I've been having some problems with my boyfriend," she said and then chatted on sharing about recent ups and downs.
"Is there anything else? I'm not experiencing any push and pull either way with the story of your boyfriend,” I said. “This is it?”
Laney glanced at Sue.
"You can do this," Sue said.
"What's going on Laney?" I asked.
She looked around, lowered her head and took a deep breath, "I had an abortion in January." The room was still. The silence was palpable, and my heart began to race. I told everybody to breathe, myself included.
"Have you done any work around the abortion?" I asked.
"Well, I have a therapist, but I haven't really talked to her about it." She grabbed my hand, "I'm afraid. I sort of blocked out the abortion, blocked my feelings about it. I squeezed her hand and suggested that we just sit for a moment. She squeezed my hand back and we sat in silence.
Laney had not told her psychotherapist about the abortion, let alone processed it herself. In 50 minutes, the bell would ring and she would leave the group for math class. What was I going offer this girl?
I knew that Laney was a high achiever and a good student; in spite of a somewhat difficult home life, she managed to keep her head above water and keep moving forward.
I could have refused her, saying something about the inappropriateness of doing a piece of work especially since she hasn’t explored her feelings around the abortion; that, and the time constraint and the setting.
Yet, did I really want to send her away feeling rejected now that she exposed herself to the group? What did Laney need in this moment? What would strengthen her and not weaken her? She could use some resources. I thought of the Women’s Fire Ritual.
Originally a puberty rite or celebration when a girl first experiences her first menses or “fire,” the ritual is now often used to support integration of feminine sexuality and sensuality in Western culture, and for women who experienced trauma and are longing for a deeper feeling of connection.
I remembered the book Connecting to Our Ancestral Past: Healing Through Family Constellations, Ceremony and Ritual by colleague Francesca Mason Boring. She calls the Women’s Fire Ritual a “deep celebration of womanhood, creativity, sexuality, and sisterhood” that provides our context as women.
The ancestors are invoked, she says, and each woman who participates calls upon all of her ancestors to support her in standing fully with a woman who was “meeting her fire." And “each woman participating fully experiences the support of the trans-generational female field."
I told Laney that I had something I could offer her. It’s called the Women’s Fire Ritual. It’s a Native American ritual where women gather to celebrate each other. It would offer her the opportunity for to receive wisdom, strength and support from her ancestors. Everyone in the group was willing to participate.
I asked the women—teenage girls ranging in age from 14 to 18 to form a circle and for the men—teenage boys also from 14 to 18 to stand on the outside of the circle with me.
Each woman would stand as one of Laney’s ancestors. These are ancestor women who struggled, danced, loved, laughed, cried, felt pain and joy. They were strong proud women.
Being a man, I asked permission of Laney and the women to begin the ritual and to help guide it. They agreed. Then I lead Laney to the center and the ritual began.
“The ancestor women have come today to offer support and to share their gifts and wisdom with you Laney. I invite you to receive these gifts of wisdom and strength, and to feel supported in this moment of uncertainty.” I said
The men and I took our place at the outer edge of the room. We became the warriors who would stand as protectors of the circle and offer our prayers into the circle for the women in our lives.
Slowly each “ancestor woman” approached Laney, and either through touch or a gentle word, offered their gifts to her. Tears bloomed in Laney’s eyes as her breathing expanded and her arms flew open.
What happened next was stunning. The women began weeping, weeping and a holding on to each other. To this day it is hard to describe. These were not sad tears, or angry tears, but tears of recognition and connection: a deep knowing that belongs to women. Then without warning, the women began singing, singing holding on to each other, and rocking back and forth.
One of the boys I was standing with, a tall, thin 17-year-old named Jake, stared in disbelief. “I had no clue that girls could feel so deeply!”
“Think of it as gift, Jake, on your road to manhood,” I said.
Slowly the singing subsided, and the woman reformed the circle with Laney again in the center. I asked Laney if she felt she had received enough. She said yes. Next I asked her to thank each woman, and then for all to step out of role.
There was barely enough time left for the group to sort itself out, wipe away the remaining tears, and set of to the next class. Laney said that she felt grateful and lighter. The rest of the group expressed similar feelings, and then the bell rang.
I have often wondered how Family and Systemic Constellations and these deep rituals have affected these kids. Other than the feelings of gratitude, or “Things with my mom are different now,” – and perhaps that is enough – not much was expressed.
These teens would travel deep into their heart and souls, opening spaces and touching feelings they didn’t know existed. Perhaps the beauty of the age is the resilience and ability to switch gears and go on to the next thing.
And then this happened:
On a bright June day as I was heading into the community’s Town Hall to meet a colleague for lunch, I bumped into Sue, the high school social worker, in the parking lot.
“Bill, so good to see you! I have something for you,” she said and pulled a folded piece of notebook paper from her knapsack and handed it to me.
“Here, I got this yesterday and was told to please give it to you.”
The message said:
“Bill, I wanted to let you know how much the other week meant to me, when you visited our Alateen group at the high school. Doing the Family Constellations you helped me grow the trust we already had. That group has probably saved my life, and you played a huge part in that.
“Telling everyone about my abortion and being accepted and loved like that meant more to me than I can ever even put into words. Those girls cried, cried for me, cried for my broken heart, and for my baby.
“It was the most incredible thing that ever happened to me, and it helped me a lot. Thank you so much for that. You better come back next year. Laney”
I was floored, and touched. Here it was, the power and reach of this work in Laney’s own words. Laney, a 16-year-old girl on the verge of womanhood who, along with the entire group, stretched their hearts and souls and went deeper into themselves beyond what they imagined.
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