The Integrity of Love
Connie Donaldson, MA
|Dumping the Magic
A Retired Cynic Revisits Spirituality and Healing
March 15th—ten days after my 58th birthday. A dozen different things went through my mind as I
headed down the Parkway that Tuesday afternoon. None of them had anything to do with God or my
mother. I’d given up on both of them years ago.
My thoughts bounced from the weather—it’s March; it shouldn’t still be snowing—to my dislike of
driving to Squirrel Hill. As a native Pittsburgher, I generally tried to avoid going any place that involved
crossing a bridge and going through a tunnel on the same trip. Bottlenecks at these junctions were a
fact of life. Plus, once I arrived, I knew I’d have to find a parking space on Murray Avenue, one of the
busiest streets in the universe.
Only something as huge as my need to find a way to remove the emotional boulder lodged deep
inside me, keeping me from resuming my life, was incentive enough. After almost eight years of
debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and years of therapy before and during the CFS, I ached to get
back to real life with a vengeance.
I smiled as I pulled into an extra large parking space in front of Mark Wolynn’s office. I loaded the
parking meter with gusto. I’d completed the challenging part of the journey. I was ready to face the
easy part—the therapy.
I liked Mark’s office. The walls were filled with photos and cultural artifacts; the sofa and chairs gave it
a casual, friendly feel. Mark seemed genuinely friendly and intelligent. He listened intently. His eyes
never left mine and he nodded in all the right places. When I finished the synopsis of my reasons for
coming—depression, the need to lose weight, the desire to find a new career—he asked just one
question: “And your mother; how are things with your mother?”
He caught me off guard. I hadn’t even mentioned her. I smiled. “I’ve worked with that issue a lot
already. I think I’ll wait until one of us is dead before I deal with it again.”
He didn’t smile back. “So she’s still living. How’s your relationship?”
I was a little angry as well as nonplussed.
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Then you might want to find someone else to work with.”
For a second, I thought of leaving. Then I thought—and for some strange reason it mattered to me at
the time—“Wait, I have almost an hour and a half left on the parking meter.”
“OK, I’m at least willing to listen. What do you mean?”
“In the kind of work I think would help you most, Family Constellation work, one thing is key. Healing
your relationship with your parents is essential to understanding and healing your life. I can explain it
to you in detail. I’ll be glad to suggest some books and articles to read. But let me just say this: If you
give this approach a chance, I can assure you that you’ll come back here some day and say to me,
‘Mark, I’m grateful we did this work while my mother was still alive. I can’t believe what’s happened!’”
I forgot about the parking meter; I still felt skeptical but now I was also intrigued. I decided to take a
chance with him.
Mark asked me to put my relationship with my mother into a couple words, maybe a sentence. I
thought for a while. I wanted to make sure I presented my answer accurately.
“I guess I always felt I wasn’t safe with her, that she just might abandon me because I wasn’t good
“Did she ever abandon you?”
“No, but you asked me what it felt like. I felt like I wasn’t safe, like I feared she would.”
He asked for more information about my mother. It embarrasses me now to remember how arrogantly
nonchalant I was about her life that afternoon—and for so many years before. With a sigh, I gave him
the standard story I knew.
“My mother was the middle child of a butcher and a housewife. Although she was born in Pittsburgh,
her family sent her and her older sister to live with their maternal grandmother in Italy when she was
almost three. Her own mother, my grandmother, was seriously ill and couldn’t take care of her
children. They returned to the States when my mother was five years old.”
Mark stopped my recitation. “What was your grandmother’s illness?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone ever talked about it.”
“How odd you don’t know. You have children. What kind of illness would make you send your own little
children away—to a foreign country—for years?”
Wow, I’d never thought of that, of what could have been going on in my mother’s family—during my
mother’s young life—to make Grandma send Mom and Aunt Norma away. It gave me a moment’s
But Mark didn’t let it drop there. “How old are your grandchildren?”
“Four and three.”
“Can you imagine what it would be like for them to be sent away at this age? Is there anything you
could say or do that would make them understand? Is there anything that would make such a thing OK
“No—and I don’t want to imagine it. I don’t want to even think about it!”
“But that really did happen to your mother. Talk about abandonment issues. Do you think that, when
she had children of her own, these issues might have affected her in some way? Do you think her own
fears could have—consciously or unconsciously—affected how she treated you? It’s just something to
I was still holding on to my righteous indignation toward my mom, just a little less firmly. Mark was
planting some big depth charges to destroy my old belief system.
He asked about my position in the family, how many siblings I had.
“I’m the oldest of five.”
“No deaths of siblings? Your mother had no miscarriages?”
“Actually, I had a sister who died at birth and my mother had several miscarriages.”
I told him of my mother’s appendicitis attack during her fifth month of pregnancy with my younger
sister. She carried the baby two more months but went into labor well before her due date.
“So you’re the oldest of six, not five. (In another conversation weeks later, we would amend the
number again to include my half-brother Erik, from my dad’s second marriage.)
“Yeah, I guess so. I just never thought about it.”
“So after all the other trauma and loss in her life, your mom lost her second child? Was it a girl or a
“A girl. Judith Lynne.”
“And the miscarriages, how many?”
“I don’t know for sure. My mother tended to exaggerate those kinds of things.”
“But she did miscarry several children, right?”
“Yes”. Again he made me see my mother in a different light.
We talked a little more about Family Constellation theory. Mark wrote down the titles of some books
and then glanced at the clock. We’d gone way over the hour designated for the appointment.
“We’ll begin next week with the actual Constellation. Let’s see when we can schedule it.”
As I got out my checkbook, my mind was racing. I didn’t want to wait an entire week. Something in his
confidence, something in this new perspective, something in the weight of his promise and the depth
of my need clicked.
“Do you have someone scheduled for the next hour?”
He glanced at his appointment book. “No.”
“Well, now you do. Let’s do it today.”
Mark hesitated a moment, perhaps weighing the advisability of it, perhaps just rearranging his
afternoon. Then he faced me with a smile. “OK. Let’s do it.”
Typically, Constellation Work as Bert Hellinger introduced it in the 1980s is done in a group setting
with members of the group volunteering to represent parents, siblings and ancestors. However, the
method can be amended to one-on-one work where the facilitator acts as the director of a guided
visualization. That’s what we did that day.
The first part of the process involved my dad, who had died twenty-eight years before. In the
visualization exercise, Mark had me imagine myself as a little girl standing in front of my dad. He asked
me to get in touch with how it felt being with him. He told me to make the visualization as real as I
could, using as many senses as possible.
I pictured how Dad looked when I was little. I remembered the cigarette smell of his soft flannel shirt. If
he was wearing flannel, it was the weekend, and he’d be home with me all day. I felt my muscles
loosen with that image. I pictured Dad telling me a story—acting out a story—with different voices and
the flash of an imaginary sword rousting the bad guys from Sherwood Forest. I felt wonderful.
“In your mind’s eye, just bow your head and let your dad know how grateful you are that he’s your
Bowing my head felt a little hokey, but the words came easily as I imagined myself standing in front of
him. “I love you, Daddy. Thank you for being my father. Thank you for being my dad.”
Mark brought me out of the visualization and we talked a bit about it. He was satisfied I understood the
process. I was a little surprised by how real the experience felt. It seemed to touch more than just my
“Ready to do something similar with your mom?”
“Sure, but it won’t do any good. I wouldn’t be sincere and she wouldn’t accept it even if I were.”
Mark took my hesitation seriously; he led me in another, easier, visualization first. For this one, he put
a tall pillow beside me on the couch and asked me to imagine it represented my mother. Then, when I
got into the visualization, he asked me to try to just lean into the pillow a little, to see if I could imagine
relaxing into my mother’s embrace. I tried. I failed. I wasn’t being stubborn. I was scared.
When I opened my eyes from this exercise, Mark said we had two choices. We could leave it here and
continue next week, or we could try to move forward. I felt apprehensive but also excited. I felt we were
on the verge of something big.
“Let’s do it.”
“What if you’re not sincere? What if your mom doesn’t accept it?” Mark was throwing my own
objections back at me, planting more depth charges.
“I’ll do it anyhow.”
“OK, if you’re sure you feel ready, let’s keep going.”
At first I had to work hard to get back into a visualizing kind of space. Then, as I continued to breathe
deeply, I felt myself get into it. In my imagination, I saw myself standing in front of my mother. I felt the
discomfort in both the little girl I used to be and in my adult body doing this exercise. The feel of the
visualization with my dad had been like being in a warm spring breeze; this felt like a hot dry desert.
My entire body felt tense and brittle.
My attention was immediately drawn to my mother’s well-manicured, red fingernails. I saw the
disapproval in her raised, perfectly arched eyebrows. Mark tried to get me to relax with this image. It
didn’t work. But I stayed with it, waiting for more instructions.
Mark continued, “Connie, see if you can find that little-girl place inside you that still longs to be loved
and cared for by her. Where do you feel that place?”
My hand went to my stomach. “It feels very deep in my gut."
“Great, now breathe into it. Now, from that place, just bow your head and tell her: ‘I’m grateful that you’
re my mom.’”
I started to tense up, but I didn’t want to leave the visualization. The little girl in the image stood her
ground. I watched her take a deep, determined breath. She bowed her head very stiffly, very slightly,
and then said the words: “Thank you. Thank you, Mom, for being my mother.”
Mark added more words and little Connie repeated them in my head: “Thank you for giving me life.
Thank you for loving me. Thank you for not leaving me.”
Then it was over. Mark instructed me to open my eyes. I felt a little disoriented but nothing else. No
feeling of relief. No rush of emotion. I remember thinking to myself that the visualization probably hadn’
t been effective. “If this had worked,” I said to myself, “wouldn’t I be crying now?”
We talked a little more and I wrote him a check. Mark suggested I wait until I felt ready before we made
another appointment. This made sense to me. At that moment, I wasn’t sure I’d ever come back.
Then I stood up. To this day, I don’t know what standing up had to do with it. Maybe my body was on
delayed-reaction time. But as I stood, a feeling of—not happiness, not joy, not lightness—of movement
deep inside me took place. I could feel my face flushing.
I stood there in the office, a little dazed. I knew I should just walk out the door, but I couldn’t. I needed
to ground myself.
“I need to give you a hug.”
Mark chuckled and nodded.
I hugged him hard; then I could speak. “Thank you. I don’t know what just happened, but I know it’s
big.” The next words I said surprised me as I heard myself say them. “Whatever just happened,
happened on a tectonic level. It’s as if continents shifted inside me.”
After I left his office, I sat in the car for a while until I felt normal enough to drive home.
What we choose changes us.
Who we love transforms us.
~ Jan Richardson
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