Christmas Medley: Death, Divorce and Gestalt

This week has been a bizarre and challenging one. From the death of an estranged aunt, to reminders of divorce, to readings on the psychology of Gestalt therapy, I’ve been wading my way through some deep stuff.

Yesterday my sister and I had to sort out the belongings of an aunt we’d had little contact with for over 30 years. We knew she was still alive and until recently our mother had kept in touch, but with this lady being the kind of character she was, rifts could happen so easily. Stubborn, strong and wilful but never changing or appreciating others views, she was always right – as the old adage goes ‘you couldn’t tell her anything’. And yet I have some happy memories of her, before her life became more and more challenging, ending in her divorce from her former farmer husband, quite late in life. She ended up on her own, as they never had children, but was stoic and determined, for which I did admire her. She lasted until the age of 78 despite smoking around 40 cigarettes a day. And when we entered her small cramped house, that was the most pervading aspect of her life that came to greet us when we stepped through the front door. She’d lived so frugally through necessity, but never stinted on her ‘cigs’, as she would have called them.

For me and my sister, this was our first house clearance following the death of a relative  – I guess we all get our turn as the generations move through time. This aunt had belongings that came from her mother’s house clearance, with family birth and death certificates, linens, china and photographs. She also had masses of accounts and paperwork from her time as a farmer’s wife back in the 70s and 80s, along with a 1970s Volvo parked outside, undrivable and rusting,  but kept for her memories of a former life. Finding the decree nisi from this former life, when she and her farmer husband split up very late in the day for her generation, amidst inheritance intrigue, double dealings and betrayal, was moving to say the least. I was told she kept files and ‘evidence’ of all this because she believed that one day it would make a good story. Ironically, I am probably the only one who cares – but maybe that’s the nature of being a writer. She never knew I became a writer, so there is irony there too.

So me and my sisters experience was grim and perhaps it was just as well we had to work fast with not much time for on the spot sentiment. We can try out a little more feeling at the funeral next week and perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.

And that brings me to Gestalt!  – the topic of the book I’m currently reading. It’s a person centred therapy which believes that we should cultivate a high degree of self awareness which should always operate in the present, from moment to moment, from  encounter to encounter, while we strive to be aware of how our own negative thought patterns and behaviours are blocking true self awareness and causing unhappiness or conflict. In the present, we should strive to make these encounters have satisfying outcomes according to our own nature. They use the terms of figure and ground, which take some getting your head around, but which basically means as follows:

The word figure refers to an individuals need at any particular moment.  At any given time there may be several needs operating which have to be met, and when a person is functioning well in relation to their environment or ground (which includes other people) their needs are clearly seen against this background of their awareness. The task is to choose the most important figure or need as it arises, and to satisfy this need so it can fade into the background. This is what is known as an effective ‘gestalt’. If the need isn’t met, the unmet need creates conflict. It’s all about cultivating wholeness. Now if we are self aware and go with the flow of our own nature in the present, I’d like to think this process happens reasonably naturally, and that most of us try not to accumulate a great deal of what we suspect may become unfinished business…

Unfinished business is seen by Gestalt as a developmental disorder, where people with unfinished business resent the past and are therefore unable to focus on the here and now or get closure in relation to the past, in order to be free of it. So if we return to my aunt’s life, you can see she kept hold of her unfinished business – both that of her heart, (clothes, car, ornaments, old Christmas tinsel, and mementos from happier times) and her mind (all the farm accounts and intrigues she believed went on in so many folders symbollically tied together with bale string) – which my sister and I were having to physically and mentally get to grips with the other day. Certainly the past had defined my aunt in her own mind. She never got her closure, one of the major goals of gestalt. Sad indeed, but also a stern reminder to us all to live well and consciously in the now.

As for the now here in the Scottish Borders –  it’s wild outside with freezing rain and wind. The Christmas concert I was going to sing in has been cancelled as snow is supposed to be on its way, so I may well set up our bauble tree with lights and get the Christmas wreath on the door. And as I type the word wreath I’m moved to look at why these are intended for both celebration and commemoration. So over to Wiki!

‘’The wreath has significant meaning for the season. It’s circular shape represents eternity, for it has no beginning and no end. From a Christian religious perspective, it represents an unending circle of life. The evergreen, most frequently used in making wreathes, symbolizes growth and everlasting life’’.

 So there we have it!

Wishing you the kind of Christmas you enjoy the most, and don’t forget those gestalts if you have any family get-togethers where tensions may ensue. Many thanks for your support of my musings and I’ll be back in the new year.

Here’s a card for you from the artist me, and I hope you have a cosy and warm Christmas time. 

About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: Art: Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook Artists page Facebook
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23 Responses to Christmas Medley: Death, Divorce and Gestalt

  1. Wow Lynne, there’s a lot to unpack in your post. I find the story of your aunt very fascinating. Maybe you will write more about her? 40 cigarettes!
    I am only vaguely familiar with Gestalt Therapy, but I think it sounds like something I might want to look in to. I think unfinished business is very unhealthy. And although I don’t believe everything finds closure, there is something to completing things whether they are mundane chores or big projects. Matter of fact, my New Year’s resolution this year was to finish things I’ve started. I worked on it, but didn’t ace it.
    Here’s wishing you a peaceful, joyful, merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Many thanks, Cheryl. Yes, her story is intriguing and I got to know a few more details yesterday at the funeral. A few people came who knew her over the last few years and she was certainly still her indomitable self but did have some support which was heartening. I will go through her story – a huge file of paperwork currently in my hut – later on when more in the mood. Yes, gestalt could be a powerful therapy to deal with unfinished business and I think more gentle than it was in Perls’s day, but I agree not everything can get closure, but we can try. Merry Christmas to you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry to hear about your aunt. You may not have known her well but it is nevertheless sad when people who have been a part of our life, even for a short period, go. Hoping you and your family also have the Christmas you would like.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A.P. says:

    Replying to Galen, I’d have to look it up too. Lyrics that come to mind are: “He must know somethin’ but don’t say nothin.'” Makes me think of “He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” Also, “the way that can be described is not the way.” I paraphrase, but I do remember thinking this, when I used to teach singing back in the 90’s, and we often used that song.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A.P. says:

    Yeah, the piano coming back around is pretty cool. It’s almost as though I had played it before. Similarly, I have played a Wurlitzer spinet just like the one I grew up with, when I go to play for the people at the nursing homes here. Not sure if I ever told you, but they had door-to-door piano salesmen in the 50’s, and one came knocking on my parent’s door when I was in my mother’s womb. So they decided to buy it. My sister was a teenager at the time, and she told me she saw it being wheeled off of the piano. Then I became a piano player, and it was almost as though it happened just for me.

    “Hey, Andy’s in the womb! Time to get a house piano!”

    There was another synchronicity around this, too, having to do with the book that converted my dad to ragtime in the 60’s, when prior to that he had been playing mostly jazz standards and show tunes. Not sure if I ought to tell the whole long story right here and now, though, lest this comment be too lengthy and drift astray from the common topic . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A.P. says:

    I also don’t need a lot of stuff. I’m more comfortable with minimalism. Lynne’s account reminded me of when my father died, and my mother and a hired cleaning lady had the job of cleaning out the house and selling it, which my mother did in a five week period, before taking the money and entering into a year and a half period of traveling the States in total denial, pretending her husband of 45 years, a Navy man, was “at sea.”

    To the point, however, everything was cleaned out fast, including all memoribilia. The cleaning lady, whose name was Crystal, got my dad’s 1920 Howard upright piano, which he had turned into a player. Oddly, a friend gave me a Howard just like it for free, about six months ago. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. galenpearl says:

    My favorite Perls quote — “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.” Very Tao-y, and Buddhist-y, I think. I have a friend who went through intense Gestalt therapy back in the early 70s. He swears by it, and indeed, he seems to be a very well adjusted guy.

    Yes, cleaning out after someone has died. I’ve done that a few times, including for my parents. With that in mind, I have cleared out a lot of my own stuff. There is still plenty to go through, but I’ve disposed of boxes full of photos that mean nothing to anyone except me, lots of papers, and other things. When I retired, I let go of a whole office full of professional memories, rather than pack it up and bring it home for someone else to deal with.

    My sister accuses me of lacking sentimentality, but I don’t think that’s true. I care about some things, and about my memories, but I don’t need a lot of “stuff” to carry those with me. I’m sure my kids will still be overwhelmed by all the stuff that’s left. They have no idea how much I’ve saved them from!

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks for sharing, Galen. Much appreciated. I’m so glad to know that Perls teachings drew upon Taoism and Buddhism and it is very interesting that your friend swears by the therapy he received. There was so much I couldnt go into in the post. My aunt had kept everything from over 30 years ago. Same furniture, same three piece suite,, same china – it was truly dismal, so with that perspective, I believe you’ve done the right thing. We only really need a few things for sentimental reasons which have to be appropriate to the relative who decides what they want to keep. My mother has kept all her teaching stuff and so much more but has been clearing out a little in preparation for later on. At the end of the day it’s just ‘stuff’ and the meaning dies with the person to a large extent – life is about the now and the future, not the past. Many thanks!


    • A.P. says:

      I may be the only one (?) but I always thought the song Ol’ Man River by Jerome Kern was about the Tao.


      • galenpearl says:

        A.P. — I could hum the tune, but I had to go look up the lyrics. The refrain certainly is very Tao-y. Water is the most commonly used metaphor for Tao. And like Ol’ Man River, Tao “just keeps rollin’ along.”

        Liked by 2 people

  7. A.P. says:

    I got about four or five hours, which is par for the course these days. Echo Echo Echo. Somebody’s a broken record. Meh.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A.P. says:

    Fritz Perl — seemed to me I have heard of him, in the context of someone who never really “made it” till he was in his 70’s. But other than that, he’s been only a name. I’ll definitely heck out those videos, once I can manage to get some sleep here. Thanks, Lynne.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A.P. says:

    “Unfinished business is seen by Gestalt as a developmental disorder, where people with unfinished business resent the past and are therefore unable to focus on the here and now or get closure in relation to the past, in order to be free of it.” This describes an aspect of myself that I’ve not sure how to address. I have so much “unfinished business” regarding the nature of my old life in California, that it often prevents me from focusing on the “here and now” in my much more positive, healthier life here in Idaho.

    Living “well and healthfully in the now” has, in fact, never been easy for me. Gestalt Therapy sounds like it might be something for me to look into.

    Liked by 1 person

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