It is axiomatic in the theory of child development that children need the security of the experience of being held safely in healthy arms and a healthy mind. For the very young child this is an absolute and essentially physical experience, although its presence or absence has a profound effect on her life. As a child grows there will be physical holding from time to time, but it becomes increasingly a matter of internalising the truth that there is a person or people who continue to hold him in their minds and hearts whether or not such a person or people are actually physically present.
When there is separation and loss, one way of conceiving what happens is to compare it with the feeling that the child has been dropped into a chasm, or even a void. The person who they expected to hold them is, for whatever reason, no longer there. Security has been shattered and the centre will not hold. In such situations it is no easy matter either to replace the significant person or to begin to kindle (rekindle?) and nurture the trust that went with the now-broken relationship.
This is where the best of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic insights come into play (notably for some of us engaged is some form of residential care, the work of pioneers such as John Bowlby and D.W. Winnicott). In various manifestations of such substitute care (that is based on people and settings other than the original parent or family home) one of the primary tasks is to find appropriate and sensitive ways of providing a secure and healthy way of “holding” the child. For the avoidance of doubt it must be stressed that this is not about restraining or pinning them down, but about creating an environment which is able to reassure them that they are accepted and safe and will not be let down or abandoned (as they may well see it) again.
Such substitute or alternative environments come in many shapes and sizes, with a diversity of philosophies, methods and practices. They range from foster care to residential therapeutic communities and psychiatric hospitals. Mill Grove is somewhere in all this, although it has never been easy to describe its essence or to locate it satisfactorily on the spectrum. Perhaps the truth is that it has represented different things to different children. Be that as it may, this is not the point or focus of this article.
Rather I want to describe an evening meal just before Christmas 2016 where I was particularly conscious that every person present was “being held” in one way of another, and then to attempt an enhanced understanding of what might have been going on. Put another way, I am seeking to identify some of the elements that might have contributed to the healthy holding process.
We had finished our evening meal which we had on this evening around a single table. There were eight of us present, and when the dishes had been cleared one of the young people collected the Advent wreath from the sideboard, and placed it in the middle of the table. We each had a Bible open in front of us, and when the appropriate number of candles for that day had been lit by the youngest person present (that is the unwavering tradition), we read the next part of the story leading to the Christ-child event. Before a short prayer we shared family news and looked at one or two of the Christmas cards that had arrived that day.
This was the context and the content of the moment when I became acutely aware that each of us as individuals, and the group as a whole were “being held”. It may be helpful to share one or two things about those who comprised the group before continuing. There was a mother chronically troubled by childhood abuse and diagnosed among other things with OCD. There was a child of junior school age who was experiencing bullying at school. There was a young person who had never experienced predictable relationships with either of his parents throughout childhood. There was an adult who has struggled with the essence of her identity and finds fantasy and fabrication a way maintaining some sort of purchase, though tenuous, on life and meaning. There was a young mother who had recently had her children placed in foster care, and was mourning their loss. And there was a young adult who had experienced abuse, and serial separation and loss.
Until this moment I had not categorised the group in this way because they are all part of the extended family of Mill Grove, and I have known them all for most of their lives. So we think of each other primarily as people with names, rather than by formal classifications or diagnoses. But this is the group that was evidently, in my view, being held.
So what were the elements that combined to make the holding possible? I am musing at this point and so my reflections do not come in any logical or reasoned order. There was of course the fact that each person knew precisely how the mealtime and the Advent reflection would go. It was safe because it was predictable. What is more each one valued the ritual. They had contributed to it before, and knew that it meant a great deal to many others who had been part of it over the years and decades. Some of those who sent Christmas greetings and cards referred to this particular tradition.
Then there was the candlelight. This creates an atmosphere and is inherently soothing (as distinct from say, strobe lighting for discos and concerts, or the visual spluttering of a television screen). But it also holds the gaze. The verb “hold” is used deliberately here because sight is involved as well as other senses, and the emotions. If you are together around a table with candles in the midst, and the electric lights turned off (as they were), then the gently undulating light of the flames draws each pair of eyes, and therefore of necessity, brings the whole group together in a common activity.
Another element is the narrative of the Christmas story. Whatever your faith and beliefs, the Christmas story recounted as narrative is inherently inclusive (that is, good news for all people). It is about a family that is ordinary in many ways, and under extreme pressure. But the stories of Matthew and Luke are brimful of hope and expectation. This chapter of the story, or act of the drama, is but a small part of an epic narrative story that spans history and the whole of humanity. So, properly understood (that is, on its own terms) each person around the table was being affirmed as significant. The birth of this baby named Jesus was somehow intended to bring help, even healing and reconciliation for everyone. In Wilfred Bion’s terms the story contributes to the well-being of the group as a provider of strong symbols that “contain” the processes and dynamics, the stresses and contradictions within each person’s life, and the relationships within the group as a group.
Now I do not want to imply that this is what each person was thinking, or how they were processing things. I have little idea of what was going on in the recesses of each mind and heart. Unconscious processes were surely at work. But it would be unwise to try to understand the “holding” without at least considering the nature of the story that was being told.
Another factor was the presence of Ruth, my wife, and myself together at the table. We have been constants in each person’s life. We have always been there for them. We are married (“in a stable relationship”) and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we will be together for the rest of our lives. In other words everyone present could rely on our presence in their lives, our acceptance of them, and our commitment to them. What is more we are practising Christians (“followers of Jesus” is my preferred term) and so even if the Christmas story is just a convenient and agreeable seasonal fiction to someone in the group, there is a holding that goes with their vicarious experience of our celebration of this event.
Then there is the length of the history of this tradition. The cards are reminders of this. Some senders lived at Mill Grove as long as 70 years earlier, and they still feel part of the family. Many of them are known to those who were sitting around the table. This is not an initiative or pilot project, a unit or a time-specific package of treatment or care. And the place in which we were sitting has been the home of this family for well over a century. Buildings matter when it comes to “being held”.
I could go on, but this is probably the right place to stop for now. Perhaps others might help with this working out of what might have been going on. But there is one final thought that occurs. What if the real truth (if we can suspend our disbelief for a moment) was that this holding was largely in my own mind, a product of my imagination? Perhaps I was projecting my personal feelings on to the event and those present. If so, then the significance was that it was a holding experience for me, which enabled or helped me in the process of seeking to be present for members of the Mill Grove family who needed care and support. I don’t think it was just in my mind, because I could recount many other times when “being held” was not a shared experience, and over the years I think I have come to know the difference!
What I can’t do it to ask the others about it, because as Keats the poet realised “cold philosophy” or analysis can dispel the very object of its gaze (Lamia). In my view what was going on was far too precious to risk discussing it with this group. It is even possible that what was going on lay too deep for tears, and had to do with reasons of the heart that reason itself cannot fathom.