If you’ve never seen your dead father staring out at you from a stranger’s face, I assure you, it’s an experience.
At this point, I'm just spending my life splatting face first into the space-time continuum of metaphysics. Over the past four years, I've worked with all sorts of coaches and mentors and healers who do really fun, weird, and often completely inexplicable things.
One day, my smoke alarm starts howling like a banshee of the damned while I'm on Skype with one of my coaches. My ears split and my eyes watered and I spent ten minutes trying to get the damn thing to stop – made more difficult by the fact that there was no smoke anywhere and I couldn’t reach the off button.
When the unearthly shrieking was finally curtailed, I hop back on Skype and my coach asks, “What were we talking about right before the alarm went off?”
Often, when there's a disturbance in the force - the phone cuts out, Skype hangs up on you, or fire alarms go berserk - it means something important is happening energetically.
We were talking about my father and it was so intense, my coach sent me to his mentor - a man named Carl who does family constellations.
Far better explanations of family constellations exist, but my understanding is that they call in the energy of the family and the specific family members, alive or dead, and whatever is needed to be released or healed shows up. People playing the roles within a family will begin expressing the emotions they feel – sadness, anger, relief, comfort – emotions that shift and change and vary depending on who is introduced into the constellation and what their relationship was in life. Family constellations often shed light on patterns and feelings and events that even the people within those systems don’t understand.
So on a summer Wednesday, I end up in a room where a circle of Carl’s students are waiting to call in the energy of my family.
Sitting in a gazebo under the stars of Northern California, I watched a small Asian woman in striped pants take on the role of my grandfather. I know nothing about my grandfather, except that he left abandoned the family when my father was very young. I don’t even know his first name, although I carry his last.
A blonde woman in a red shirt took on the role of my father. She started dancing. I dance, but to the best of my knowledge, my father never danced a day in his life. But there she was, twirling and spinning, before collapsing in a chair. Her eyes narrowed as she glared at my grandfather, and a deep anger began to radiate from her like electricity. “Rage comes in waves, I suppress it like it doesn’t exist. Turn it off, don’t look at it, eat ice cream.”
“So I push it down and create a new life,” she continues.
If I had any doubts about the process, they would’ve been laid to rest right about here. I’m well-acquainted with deeply suppressed rage – and my father’s favorite comfort food. Before he died, one of his last requests was for ice cream.
I know better than to think that a man abandons his family simply because he wants to – there are always reasons, deep and profound and unsettling reasons, why such a course of action is chosen. But when my grandfather, still in the form of a small woman in striped pants, turned to my father and said, “I’m overwhelmed by warmth and tenderness. I can’t look at you because my heart is aching,” I was surprised. Without ever really thinking about it, I reflected my dad’s anger toward the man who took off, leaving my father and his family in a very bad situation that lasted until my father left Pennsylvania for California.
What came through in that small room was that my grandfather was young, maybe not yet ready for the demands of a family. He loved his young son, but he was restless, he longed for adventure. He wanted to be at the bar with his friends.
As he was explaining the love that wrestled with his need to leave, a woman sitting in a chair across the room suddenly flopped face down, nose squashed into the carpet. “I just need to be here,” she said.
Nobody has the answers in a family constellation.
Carl has no idea what’s going on, the volunteers who assume the energy of different family members have no idea what’s going on, I sure as hell don’t have any idea what’s going on. We all just have to watch it unfold and put together the pieces. That’s why sometimes, when there’s an unknown element at work, a random person will flop out of a chair and squash their face into the carpet. Even when they’d really prefer not to because the carpet has been molding on the floor since approximately 1982.
Suddenly, the woman playing my grandpa begins to look guilty. “I did that,” she said, pointing at the woman on the floor. “I did that.”
That’s when it gets really weird. Like film noir weird. Like the moderator looking up from her notes and saying “holy shit” three times weird.
Turns out, my grandfather accidentally killed a man in a bar fight. So he and his buddy left the body lying there and skipped town, never to be heard from again.
Children, even when only a few years old, perceive things.
Looking at the dead body on the ground, the woman in the energy of my father says she feels a strange sense of peace. “You won’t see that,” she says to my grandfather. “You’ll run because of it. I’ll see it for you. It feels good, because it’s reliable. If this is all I can have of you, I’ll take it.”
“Shit, shit, shit,” says my grandfather.
A man who was accidentally murdered by my grandfather in 1944 in a small mining town in Pennsylvania made my smoke alarm shriek seventy-one years later.
Left on the ground in an alley, he needed resolution. The energy was called in so that my grandfather could acknowledge and own and apologize for what he’d done.
Carl makes a joke about dragging the body to a river. “It would’ve been a sign of respect to put me in the river,” says the woman playing the dead man to my grandfather. “Don’t just do this and leave. Put me somewhere.”
After accidentally killing a man when a fight got out of hand and then abandoning his family, my grandfather lived a haunted life. Death was all the only thing that brought him peace.
When a parent abandons their child, the parent is left half-alive. Even when that decision is made out of love, out of fearing of hurting the child if they stay. Decisions made from a very deep love can do great harm. Simply because, at the time, there doesn’t seem to be another way. Fear consumes and makes it very difficult to make choices that will serve us well. On a deep level, this can impact the family for generations if those emotions are not fully felt and acknowledged and peace made.
“Just kill me,” my grandfather says. “It’s better than feeling what I’ve done to you.”
“This is the first time in any constellation when ‘Hey, douchebag’ is a healing statement,” Carl says.
The murderer and the murdered each turn to each other and say, “Hey, douchebag” and the ownership of accidental, terrible actions transform into something funny and heart-breaking and healing.
"Hey, douchebag" was their path to peace.
Emotion was deep and overwhelming, experiences described by these people who had never met me or any other member of my family so closely mirrored my own experiences – of being overwhelmed, stuck behind a wall, going blank with no words in times of great stress or emotion.
That’s why I love this stuff. It makes you question what you believe to be possible and nudges you into expansion.
After absorbing the energy of murder and abandonment, my father wasn’t very alive. All he wanted was to escape and begin a new life and shield his children. He wanted to shield us – and so my brother and I took that shield and divvied it up. For reasons I never fully understood, I couldn’t let things in while my brother couldn’t let things out. This includes money, relationships, connection, love. Not all-inclusive, but I’ve always felt a wall there.
At the end, my grandfather and the accidentally dead bar buddy lying on the ground behind us, my father turns to me and my brother and says, “We can breathe now.”
“You’re seeing your father for the first time,” Carl says. “Because of what happened, he could never be fully present.” Even as I write this now, I begin to cry. Because it’s true. My father had to maintain a certain distance his entire life. Less so with my brother and I than with most people, but distance nonetheless.
We received a blessing from our father that day from beyond the grave. Children receive a spiritual blessing from their father. If his wounds block him from giving that blessing, then our supply of money and of creative power becomes crimped, because it can’t run through the pipeline without causing Dad stress.
After his death, we received what he meant to give us while he was alive. Drained by circumstances beyond his control and without the tools to heal it, he simply didn’t have it to share.
Who knows what of this is true, what truly reflects what happened in my father's family. But on some level, who cares? More is gained from believing than disbelieving. More is healed by allowing the experience in than in shutting it out because it can’t be proven.
And it reminds me that love always comes through, even if circumstances and choices block love or the ability to give what we all want to give our families. That love is always held in trust for us, to be delivered when the time is right, even if it takes lifetimes.