‘Dead Body, Living Body’… Reflections on a Research Journey

 by Monique Danaher

Perhaps all our attempts at re-search are sacred acts whose deep motive is salvation or redemption. Maybe all our re-search reenacts the Gnostic dream of the fall of soul into time and its desire to return home.

(Romanyshyn, 2007: 68)

Six weeks before I was due to start a post-qualifying research masters, my only brother, Warren, was drowned.

Somehow, that sentence feels as if it needs to be on its own. It deserves a pause. A moment of silence. It seems to say everything.

The power, force and suddenness of Warren’s death, its brutality and finality, shattered me. Horror is the only word that describes what it felt like when the divers finally discovered Warren’s dead body. It was one of the most painful moments of my life, telling my parents they had lost their only son and my sisters their only brother. It felt as if one part of me froze and another part went on.

Sudden death
With sudden death the bereaved has to deal with psychological shock. Rando says that the grief is not greater with sudden death, but the capacity to cope is diminished. There is no gradual transition, no time to psychologically prepare or say goodbye. Trauma and bereavement can interface in many ways after a sudden death and it can be difficult to distinguish the two (Rando, 1984: 23).

According to psychologist Jeannette Ambrose,

The role of visual horror (real or imagined) or other intrusive violent memories may interfere with the reminiscing and the positive or pleasant memories inherent in the process of grief and mourning.

(Ambrose, 2001: 4)

This theory fits with my personal experience. For the first few months after Warren died there were times when I was terrified of my thoughts because of their ability to move me into agonising feelings. Particularly horrifying were images of his death. All I could see was him drowning. I pictured him in the dark. Suffering. Terrified. Not wanting to die. This caused me overwhelming feelings of gut-wrenching emotional pain. That he died alone was an agony for me. At other times, I had flashbacks of being with his dead body and I would dissociate from my own body. I found myself avoiding reminders of him or anything that might trigger a connection to him. I was also avoiding him internally, distracting myself, pretending he was getting on with his life. My sleep was disturbed and I was anxious in my attachments, terrified someone else close to me would die. I felt unsafe in my world.

Doorway to the past … frozen little girl
While it was a very difficult decision, for a number of reasons I decided to go ahead with the course. I was a shattered, fragmented researcher thrown into an underworld place, a dark world full of frozen ghosts and old defences. Initially I had huge resistance to accepting the research that seemed to have chosen me. This would have meant accepting Warren’s death. There was a part of me deeply in denial about that and fighting desperately against this surrender to loss. Warren’s death had brought me back into shock and grief and these were not new experiences for me.

When I was five, my sister Lorraine died suddenly, and although I had remembered this cognitively and explored it in therapy, Warren’s death, I felt, brought a very different connection to it at a somatic level. When my three-year-old niece Laura was being told her father was dead, I was holding her in my arms. The past and the present seemed to collide in my body at that moment. Although I was so grateful to be with the children at that time, it was agonising to know what was coming to them and not to be able to stop it. I felt a profound helplessness and heartbreak as I witnessed the moment their life changed forever.

Five months after Warren died, in January I had a prophetic dream that brought Warren’s death, my sister’s death and an impending illness together. In February, the actual illness appeared, and the doctors described it as a condition that had been ‘there since childhood’. This was another shock. My illness required a hospital stay and painful surgery. This illness and physical pain brought my body into the foreground of my experience and greatly increased my death anxiety. Lorraine had died in the month of February.

Psychoanalyst, Donna Orange, speaks about “encapsulated dissociations” that allow for a life that is only periodically disrupted by retraumatisations, at least until some major loss or shock in adult life upsets the precarious equilibrium (Orange, 2011: 145).

As the first year passed, I slowly began to surrender to sibling loss and sudden death as my research question and something I needed to write about, but in my body I always felt there was a deeper question I could not quite get to. This deeper question was about my own ability to dissociate and deaden my body. Warren’s dead body seemed to highlight my living body and I wondered again, how alive was I? There seemed to be a split between my ego and my body in the research. Resistance and struggle were themes that accompanied me throughout my research journey.

Initially I decided to use a heuristic methodology developed by American psychologist, Clarke Moustakas. Heuristic research can be described as;

…a search for the discovery of meaning and essence in significant human experience. It requires a subjective process of reflecting, exploring, sifting and elucidating the nature of the phenomenon under investigation.

(Douglas & Moustakas, 1985: 42)

Moustakas had created a methodology with few restraints and invited me to “recognise whatever exists in my consciousness as a fundamental awareness, to receive and accept it, and then to dwell on its nature and possible meanings” (1990: 11).

This process left me feeling that I was in open fields with no boundaries at times. Containing my search and myself was a recurring difficulty for me.

While Moustakas does encourage the researcher to be open to the unconscious, he gives no direction or support for working with these processes as part of the research, which I feel is a weakness in this methodology.

At a time of feeling stuck and despairing in my journey I had an intuitive feeling to go back to read Robert Romanyshyn’s book The wounded Researcher (2007). This book had been part of the reading suggested on the MA curriculum at BCPC. I had followed the path paved to BCPC by my friend and colleague Alan Rodgers who wrote so movingly of his research journey in the Autumn 2015 edition of Inside Out.

The wounded researcher … research with soul in mind.
In Romanyshyn’s (2007) ‘imaginal approach’ to research, he makes a place for soul in the research process and says we must acknowledge that the researcher’s own wounds, her complexes, provide the connection with the topic. “A topic chooses a researcher as much as, or perhaps even more than he or she chooses it” (112). Research is seen as “vocation” (4) and the researcher is “claimed by the work” (62). It is a shift from an ego perspective to a soul perspective. Romanyshyn says we need “a psychology of the borders, transitions and gaps” and a “psychological language capable of writing down these moments” (317). His method, which is informed by hermeneutic phenomenology, is deeply rooted in alchemy.

Romanyshyn sees the unconscious as a dynamic presence in all aspects of life and he emphasises the ethical importance of recognising unconscious factors in psychological research. For him, research that keeps soul in mind attends to the awareness that a transference field exists between the researcher and his work, just as it does between a therapist and a client. Romanyshyn describes four realms of the transference field: the “personal, cultural-historical, collective-archetypal” and the “eco-cosmological” (2007: 152-153). His approach attempts to make the unconscious field as conscious as possible, through “reverie” (4) and “transference dialogues” (71), modelled on Jung’s notion of active imagination. These processes can be used with any approach to research.

I was excited to hear Romanyshyn address resistance, dreams, symptoms and synchronicity, all of which had played a big part in my research journey. There had been so many synchronicities for me, some of which included sharing a hospital room with a woman whose brother died suddenly on the day she was being discharged and being nursed by a woman whose son had drowned. Romanyshyn provided ritual, containment and direction for working with these unconscious processes as part of the research. This is what Moustakas’ method had been lacking for me. Romanyshyn spoke in a language that my body immediately resonated with, a language of descent, dismemberment and underworld places. I felt deeply seen and mirrored by him in the type of research journey that was happening for me.

Ghosts from the past and speaking the unspeakable
Romanyshyn suggests that the “wounded researcher” who has been “claimed by a work through his or her complexes” (2007: 62) will see the work through the lens of those ancestors who linger with their still unanswered questions. The wounded researcher becomes “a witness and a spokesperson” (65) for the ancestors whose “unfinished stories seek expression through us” (146). For Romanyshyn, “the gap between consciousness and the unconscious is inhabited by the ancestors” (313). This may not just be our personal ancestors but could also be “the silent greater family that stretches down the centuries” (85). He goes on to say:

The work that we are called to do is in service to the ancestors, and it is through our archetypal blessings or wounds and our personal complexes that we make the work, which comes through us, but is not about us.

(2007: 121)

At a personal level, this part of my research journey connected me to my maternal grandmother Lil and to layers of shock and frozen grief in my female ancestral line. It had huge meaning for me. I saw clearly how intimately shock was connected to death in my mother’s family. Sudden death was a permanent shadow throughout my mother’s childhood and mine. However, there was no way to talk about the dead. My sense was that the traumas were unprocessed, carried silently, shame bound in the collective and individual body of my family.

From the place of death and shock, I saw again what a profound impact Lorraine’s death had had on my family. This brought back so many memories from that time in my childhood. I understood more about my mother’s fear and my history. I experienced a deep connection and empathy with my mother and grandmother and an honouring of their unspoken losses. It helped me to have a better understanding of the transgenerational effects of traumatic loss. This part of the research also brought me back into connection again with the traumatic death of my first child Daniel in utero when I was 24.

Again, I felt seen by Romanyshyn when he says: “Do we still not suffer the work, bear it in our flesh and even spin it from blood and bone and guts and heart” (2007: 179).

Romanyshyn cautions that “that working with material psychologically can be and is often psychoactive” (2007: 195). There are many dangers in this type of depth research including “being swamped by archetypal energies released in the work” (195).

There were times when I felt the work was much bigger than me, times I felt possessed by it and times when possibly I was in touch with the collective. The sudden dead were always with me not just the dead of my family, but the dead of the twin towers, of car crashes, heart attacks, tidal waves and today, as I write this, the dead who were murdered in Paris. All those whose lives are cut short and those they leave behind.

Romanyshyn’s approach makes the body visible in the research process and there were so many ways I experienced this as deeply healing of my mind/ body split. One example was that during the course of my research journey, I felt at times that it was my “split off intellect” (Winnicott, 1963: 59), that was doing the reading, and I loved how Romanyshyn encourages reading where you notice if you are captured and taken off in a reverie. This then can be explored as a communication from the unconscious. This type of attention to detail was wonderful in helping me to hold more consciousness between my body and my mind and engage with theory in a way that supported my embodiment. I felt deeply seen and welcomed in my visceral, lived body and this was reparative for me. He says:

Research that would keep soul in mind is a matter of the flesh and one is drawn into research as re-search not as a disembodied and dispassionate mind, but as a full flesh and blood human being…

(Romanyshyn, 2007: 71)

The Orpheus movement … looking back
In the end, I did write the dissertation and I struggled greatly in birthing it. There were so many big themes – sibling loss, sudden death, trauma and grief – that it felt like an overwhelming task to bring it together. I researched all these fields looking for parts of my shattered self. This generated so much material in me that it was another grief process to let some of that go. There were a thousand exquisite moments I could not include, including deeply personal processes and theory that I loved. One of the ways I came alive again was in the details of that writing, as I struggled to find my voice and move my body’s experience into language. However, this was not an easy task. Stern comes to mind here; he has written about the inadequacy of language, particularly prose, to capture significant aspects of human experience, and speaks about the loss of “wholeness, felt truth, richness and honesty” in the process of making implicit knowing explicit and verbal (2004: 144). He suggests that there may be

a resistance operating to counter this loss – a resistance that keeps some experiences protected in their complex, nonverbal, non-reflectively conscious state. Perhaps it is an aesthetic and moral true to self- resistance, an existential resistance against the impoverishment of lived experience.

(2004: 144-145)

Although this research started as a way to understand my experience after my brother’s death, it became for me a major life review. It is only now, in the Orpheic movement of looking back, that I can understand how enormous this experience was and the depth of my personal transformation. This deeply personal self-search brought me back to revisit again my own difficulties with “psychosomatic indwelling” (Winnicott, 1962: 58), and my mind/body splitting as a solution to my own traumatic history and somatic memories. It brought me back to core themes of embodiment and trauma. This was the underlying question for me at the beginning of my research – my dead body.

Kalsched suggests that trauma alone does not shatter the psyche; the psyche shatters through its own self-defence system (1996). It is this suffering that I feel most passionate about as a therapist: how the defences we create as a result of developmental and shock trauma can then go on to create so much suffering in our lives. They can leave us in hell on earth, unable to connect to our embodied experience, to our hearts and the hearts of others. Mind/body splitting is a way to protect a broken heart. Kalsched says, “what we are really looking for is psyche, or soul – the place where body meets mind and the two fall in love” (1996: 65).

The sudden loss of a sibling is a complex intra-psychic and interpersonal experience, and in my research I looked at it from many different perspectives, including the body, shock trauma, and the psychological loss of “the Assumptive World” (Parkes, 1971: 102). It is also an interpersonal experience which includes the relationship to the now deceased sibling and new family relationships. The full meaning of the loss can only be fully understood across time. I also included the voices of other bereaved siblings and I hope to write more about this part of my research in the future.

Research as Dencansos
Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes “Dencansos” (1991: 365) – symbols that mark a death. They are usually little white crosses seen at the side of the road and are a sign to say, right here, in this place, someone’s life journey came to an end. She says “Dencansos mark death sites and dark times, but they are also love notes to the suffering – and this can be transformative” (365). Dencansos can be a conscious practice that gives honour to the orphaned dead of our psyche.

My research project became my Dencansos: it marks the site of Warren’s death, as well as that of my sister Lorraine, my baby Daniel, and all the other frozen dead in my body and the body of my family. It also holds many traumatised parts of me that were struck down along the journey of my life, parts that were waiting for me in the deep tissues of my body. This became a way for me to earth the dead and wounded, to let them rest and to give a voice to the voiceless.

As for the researcher in me, Bromberg tells us that self-experience originates in relatively unlinked self-states, each coherent in its own right, and that the experience of being a unitary self is an acquired, developmentally adaptive illusion. He sees our mind as decentred, made up of a configuration of shifting non-linear states of consciousness. For him, “health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them – the capacity to feel like oneself while being many” (Bromberg, 1993: 166).

Bromberg says that some people can “stand in the spaces” better than others. After Warren’s death, I believe I had access to and awareness of parts of myself not normally available to consciousness, including split-off self states from my childhood experiences, and assumptions I did not know I had until I lost them. In the painful struggle to put my shattered self back together again, the researcher in me was the one who learned to stand in the spaces and that made all the difference.

I am still often startled when I remember that Warren is dead. It seems to be such a slow process for that knowledge to fully enter my body. As I write now I am aware of my sadness in finishing this project and the ongoing connection it has given me to Warren. I am also deeply aware of all that remains unsaid, in what I have said.

After her younger brother Johnny died from Aids, the American poet Marie Howe wrote him a poem in the form of a letter, which is called “What the Living Do” (1998). For me, her poem captures beautifully the themes of life and death, the mundane and the sacred and the going on after loss. I would like to finish with an excerpt from it:

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss ‒ we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living, I remember you.

(Reprinted with kind permission from the author)

Monique Danaher is an IAHIP accredited psychotherapist, supervisor and group facilitator based in Limerick city. She can be contacted on 087-6272304 or at moniquedanaher@gmail.com.

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