A Sacred Circle (Writing Group-2)

Eliciting empathy to strengthen a group's bond.

Posted Aug 17, 2017

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

The second meeting of the "Transitions" therapeutic writing group built on the first in several ways, as closed groups often do. After the first session I had gotten an enthusiastic email from Deirdre, a rabbi in the group, expressing appreciation and admiration for the sacred space I had created. I hadn’t consciously done so, and my inclination was to give all the credit to the participants, but then I remembered a few moments when I had consciously tested the waters to see if the group could become more intimate.

I had wanted to see in the first session if the group members could write and talk about the pain in their transitions. Helen broke the ice, acknowledging how the ongoing grief she feels for the loss of her unborn child affects her happiness in being pregnant again. She cried as she read aloud, and the group held her feelings in silence for a moment afterward, before responding to the metaphor she had used with the plastic Easter egg. Yvonne, who is grieving her son and her husband, was sitting next to her. She reached over and touched Helen on the arm and whispered, “Are you all right?” I saw Helen retreat a bit, resume her public persona of glamorous confidence, and say “Yes, thanks.” But I also saw Yvonne take a big risk by coming toward relationship: Yvonne longs for intimacy and is terrified of it, and for her to make that gesture toward Helen was a big step. 

Yvonne’s courage in literally reaching out to Helen at the first session reminded me of the importance of touch. As the meeting was winding down, I suggested we clasp hands around the table, something I am more apt to do when the group members know each other better, a little farther into the group process. I wasn’t sure how Helen would react, nor Alyssa, who is separating from her husband, nor Adrienne, whose husband is retreating in dementia: each wears more armor than the other women in the group, and touch might be too much exposure. But I also knew that Yvonne, Hillary (who has relocated from across the country), Amy (who is recovering from cancer), and Deirdre (whose daughter is going off to college shortly) all need to feel securely anchored in this world.  Everyone took her neighbors’ hands and the circle steadied and tightened: we created and held that sacred space. 

Aware that I was relieved that the circle was strong, I allowed myself to notice how it felt to me to be holding the hands of two women: Yvonne’s on one side and Alyssa’s on the other.  Yvonne’s hand is muscular and strong, to me parental and reassuring.  Alyssa’s is compact and cool, to me cautiously seeking my strength.  In that moment, I was a conduit: being cared for, and therefore also able to provide care.  I didn’t want to let go.

And so it was with regret and concern that I received two emails this Tuesday, one from Helen and one from Alyssa, each telling me that she couldn’t come to the second group meeting that evening. Helen’s was terse: “Sad news, but my husband is looking after me.” The pregnancy had ended. And Alyssa’s email asserted that after a conversation with her difficult husband, she was too upset to come; I encouraged her to wait a little and then reassess, and she texted me after the group had started, saying simply “Sorry.” I worried then that I had made her feel guilty about not coming. I longed for the comfort and reassurance of holding hands in a circle again: this time aware that I myself needed to soak up the connections that were palpable in the group already. Whenever I feel my needs coming to the fore in a group—ye olde countertransference—I deliberately pull back a little and let the group process take over. It never fails to strengthen the group’s bond.

In fact, the writing assignments for the second meeting had been designed to strengthen our nascent bond. Each woman had written a brief, completely factual account of the circumstances of her transition. One by one each read her paragraph (“just the facts, ma’am”) aloud. Then the rest of the group reported their responses to the paragraph by asking, “I wonder if you feel ______?” All the responses were relevant, tender, and supportive.  Various members wondered, for example, if Adrienne felt frightened, lonely, abandoned?  If she felt sad, bereft, trapped?  And if she felt protective, loving, purposeful, and proud of herself, as she provides care for her beloved husband as he slips away from her as his memory declines. “You all got it exactly!” she said in astonishment. “I didn’t think anyone in the world understood my feelings, and now I see that you all do. You get it!” The empathy made her feel seen.

For Yvonne, reflection from a group member allowed her to see something in herself she hadn’t recognized.  Her paragraph was a nugget of rugged detachment describing her husband’s sudden death while on a trip; Hillary’s response to it a gentle inquiry: “I wonder if you feel at all?” Yvonne’s response was to provide a cool and honest exploration of having her feelings freeze and disappear after her husband’s death. When she stopped talking, Hillary leaned in to her and said, “I wasn’t sure I should have said that to you. I didn’t mean to be critical. It just seemed like it might have been hard to feel anything after your experience with your son and your husband.” For the first time, Yvonne smiled. “It was fine. I hadn’t really thought about it. And I think you were right—I don’t feel. I need to figure out how I can. I wouldn’t have talked about what you said if it hadn’t been what I needed to hear.” They looked in each other’s eyes deeply, briefly, and as they did, I felt my own eyes fill with tears. Intimate connections where we reach across vast chasms to help one another to safety. Sacred space.

When we held hands at the end of the second session, I thought of Helen, at home with her husband, and of Alyssa, too full of feeling to be able to take on any more at present. I held them both in my heart. I don’t remember whose hands I held that night; instead, I remember the flow of love circling through us all.