Ceremony & Therapy

For twenty years my family therapy practice was fairly ordinary. I saw my clients once a week, more or less. I kept up with the best practices of my field. I had a wide referral base of physicians, ministers, and lawyers. My clients included couples in various states of distress, parents with “difficult” children, women suffering from depression and anxiety, and teenagers who couldn’t talk to their parents. My continuing education included training in cognitive-behavioral therapy, post traumatic stress, attention deficit disorder, the Gottman method, and dreamwork.

It wasn’t boring, exactly, but I always felt that as a therapist I was missing something important.. I, like many therapists, had entered the field partly to help me understand what made certain people, like my mother and father and myself, tick. The more family therapy training I received, the more I understood that it wasn’t enough to understand the individuals – a family was a system with rules and conventions that were often resistant to change. And my family was particularly complex.

Briefly, I am the oldest child of five. My closest brother in age, Marc, is my only full sibling. Our parents were divorced when I was only five years old, and my brother and I drifted through our childhoods between two sets of parents, like sailboats without rudders. Neither set of parents were anchors in our teenage storms – each wanted the other to take responsibility. We never felt like we belonged anywhere. Our stepparents were either negative and discouraging, or manipulative and hostile. I survived this all fairly well, thanks to my grandmother’s involvement and my expertise on the violin, which helped to structure my life around practice and orchestra rehearsals. Marc survived less well.

But the feeling of not belonging continued into adulthood. My three half siblings were a team; Marc and I were always on the outside, often not included in family gatherings, and rarely knowing what was going on with our extended family.

When I married and became a family therapist, I wanted to “fix” this somehow, not only for myself, but because of my daughter, Joanna. I wanted her to feel connected and supported by her aunts and uncles and cousins, since she was an only child, as her father was before her.

I had numerous conversations about the problem with my mother and other family members, and once held a meeting with the women of my family where Joanna, then 20 years old, articulated her feelings of disconnection to her extended family.

At that meeting my youngest sister Marianne talked about how she had always been jealous of Joanna because of my maternal grandmother’s favoritism to her. This was a tremendous surprise to me, since Marianne was 20 years older than Joanna, and my grandmother had died when Joanna was only ten years old. Other issues emerged in that discussion, including my own feelings of being judged by the family for my spiritual beliefs and being excluded from discussions and family gatherings.

As a result of this meeting, there was an effort made to include my daughter and me in more family activities. But as we all know, families are resistant to change. The pattern of interactions had been developed over years, and old habits are hard to break. Eventually I began to accept that close relationships with my brothers and sisters were probably impossible. We were too different, and much about me made them uncomfortable.

One of the reasons for my siblings’ discomfort with me was that in 1991 I had begun a journey into a world that expanded my understanding of how personal change occurs, a world of Native American ceremony. This journey led to tremendous changes in my life – divorce, re-marriage, moving, different habits of worship, different friends, As is the case in many situations such as this, my siblings lacked curiosity and were quite judgmental when it came to what had happened in my life, They never asked me any questions, and made many assumptions. One half-sister even refused to come to my daughter’s 16th birthday, because by then I had a sweat lodge in my yard. My half-siblings and first cousins were all evangelical Christians, and I learned to keep my new spiritual beliefs to myself. I had no idea that my involvement in ceremony would eventually lead to a deep healing for my family.

Over a decade of involvement in indigenous ceremonies, including sweat lodges, healing ceremonies of various kinds, coming-of-age ceremonies, and sundances taught me a great deal about healing, community, and the power of ceremony. I saw many addicts and alcoholics maintain their sobriety with the help of these ceremonies. I witnessed physical and emotional healings in people for whom Western medicine was ineffective. By being a supporter at many sundances, I began to understand the critical role of community support to psychological health. And I began to see how the absence of initiation rituals and community ceremonies contributes to everything from drug abuse to terrorism.

Once I experienced a Day of the Dead ceremony, and became convinced that a similar ritual could and should be performed with individuals from the western culture.