Symptoms that Don't Make Sense

By Betsy Hostetler, Ph.D.

Illness as guide
A person facing a serious illness carries different kinds of burdens. Not only do they have to deal with the symptoms, they often have to sort through complex and confusing treatment options. When the cause of the illness is anchored in a person’s family system, a remedy at the family system level is required. Looking at the whole system through the lens of constellations can provide support for the person, support for healing and sometimes even resolution of seemingly intractable illnesses.

This article draws on the work of Bert Hellinger, an early pioneer in the constellation process. Through his facilitation and writing, he opened the door for us to view the power of systems and the dynamics that influence health, healing and thriving in life. The healing stories below are drawn from a session with Bert Hellinger, from sessions with Mary Rentschler and Carol Heil, my partners in the Constellations Group, and from my individual practice.

The role of symptoms
One couple lost four of their six children to typhoid fever one winter, and generations later, their great grandson had four failed marriages. A constellation showed him how his grandparents’ unresolved grief had been passed down to him with the message “don’t trust life.”

The great grandson had symptoms that didn’t make sense for him. What was at play? Sometimes symptoms are a sign of loyalty to someone who came earlier in the family, whose presence was never acknowledged or whose loss was never grieved. Through the symptoms, we can see the pattern of the original loss. Sometimes these patterns echo through systems over generations, repeating the patterns until they are acknowledged. Only then is resolution possible.

When symptoms don’t make sense for a person, the question is, ‘”For whom do these symptoms make sense?”

The role of loyalty
Members of family systems bond to one another at an unconscious level. The system includes parents, grandparents and great grandparents, or further back, and their siblings and offspring. If someone takes another’s life (except in the line of duty) the victim can become part of the family system, too. If someone in the family loses their life to another, the perpetrator can become part of the family system as well.

In a family system every person has a right to belong. If someone is excluded, someone who comes later will take their place, in a symbolic way. The one who comes later will hold a place for them by unconsciously choosing difficulties or physical symptoms similar to the ones the excluded person experienced. It’s as though they say to the others in the system, “I don’t forget, even if you do.”

Very young children, from in-utero to age five, six or seven, are open to energies in the family system in an especially vulnerable way. They want to help the system resolve its unfinished business. Out of a kind of blind loyalty they take on a family burden so that the system as a whole can come into balance. In a mobile, if one element is very heavy, the others adjust to bring the whole back into balance. It’s the same in family systems. If one person has a heavy fate, others adjust to bring balance. Similarly in couples, sometimes a spouse will carry the weight of a partner’s burden by taking on symptoms on the other’s behalf.

The role of grief
A difficult fate suffered by one can be terrible for other family members to bear. Parents who lose a child or children who lose a parent, for instance, can be overwhelmed by the loss. It’s a natural coping mechanism to shut down emotionally for a while. If they don’t open up again to grieve, however, the grief doesn’t get resolved. It falls to a member of a later generation to deal with. The pattern of the loss echoes through the system to remind the family to bring their task to completion. An innocent descendent, out of a deep, unconscious love for the family, may suffer unexplainable symptoms related to the earlier loss.

Stories of healing
A man, skilled at farming, had difficulty finding work. He left his wife and children and never returned. All the generations of women that followed were angry with him, including the client, his great granddaughter, who had never met him. Through the constellation she could see that the family excluded him through anger, even though they didn’t know if he had deserted them out of choice, or if he had died in a dust storm while he was out looking for work during the dust bowl in the western United States. The client was struggling with career choices, and she also had asthma. When she looked at her ancestors’ dynamics, and made a place for her great grandfather in her heart, she got clear about her vocation and her asthma improved.

A young man served in the US military, and died in foreign territory. His mother intuited when he fell to the ground and sensed that he lay unconscious for some time before he died. His great niece experienced lapses of memory where time just stopped for her; she got stuck when moving forward on projects she cared about. During her constellation she remembered falling from a tree in her back yard as a child. She fell on the far side of the fence which was ‘foreign territory,’ and was unconscious for some time before someone found her, perhaps an echo of her great uncle’s experience. After the constellation she experienced a greater ability to focus.

The lens of constellation
Through a constellation, participants like the people above are sometimes able to see how past dynamics relate to their present difficulties. When a dynamic is seen, experienced and acknowledged at the heart level, healing can begin. They have a new understanding of their own entanglement with the past and how they can give the difficulty back, with love, to those to whom it really belongs. After the constellation they hold a new picture in their mind, and a new energy in their body.

The constellation process provides a lens for looking back through generations of our family systems to see the patterns that originated there and continue to play out in our own lives. It shows how, out of unconscious loyalty, we can get tangled up in others’ unresolved problems. It shows how love moves through systems, and how we can increase the flow of love and reduce suffering. It shows what it means to be human. It shows how we belong.

Valued Resources

Bert Hellinger
Love’s Own Truth: Bonding and Balancing in Close Relationships. Bert Hellinger. Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Inc. Phoenix, AZ, 2001.

This is an early work of Hellinger’s in which he explores relationships. He has a number of books now, and everything he has written is profound and useful.

Laws of Healing: Getting well, staying well. Bert Hellinger. Hellinger Publications, Bischofswiesen, Germany, 2011. Here he describes how illness can be a form of love.

Stephan Hausner
Even If It Costs Me My Life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness. Stephan Hausner. A Gestalt Press Book published and distributed by Routledge, Taylor &Francis Group, New York, 2011.

Stephan Hausner gives many examples of patients who looked at their symptoms through the systemic lens of constellation. Some gained greater acceptance and ease with their disease, while others found their illness improved or resolved completely. It is an exciting book that helps us understand how family systems influence physical health.

Dietrich Klinghardt, MD, PhD
The 5 Levels of Healing. Dietrich Klinghardt. Explore! Volume 14, No. 4, 2005.

Dietrich Klinghardt, MD, PhD, is a physician who practices integrative medicine and studied and practiced constellations extensively with Bert Hellinger. In his break-through article, The 5 Levels of Healing, he shows how health operates simultaneously in different systems. The first level is the physical body, followed by the energy body, mental body, dream body or intuitive body, and finally, the spirit body. “In turn, each level has its own laws and its own order which needs to be acknowledged and understood (Klinghardt, p. 4).” If the problem originates at the fourth level, it must be addressed there to achieve resolution. He describes the role of constellation in addressing issues at the fourth level.


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