EMPTY CHAIR GRIEF WORK FROM PSYCHODRAMA PERSPECTIVE
This was published in the April, 2010 issue of Counseling Today, 52 (10), 50-51.
Marvin G. Knittel
Gibson published a Reader Viewpoint article about the Gestalt
empty chair intervention technique for grief counseling in the
September 2009 issue of Counseling Today. Fritz Perls, the founder of
Gestalt therapy, and Jacob L Moreno, the founder of psychodrama,
explain the empty chair technique differently. Perls believed the
client should imagine an absent person in an empty chair, while Moreno
believed the client should reverse roles and become the absent person.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between Gestalt therapy and
psychodrama and the use of the empty chair technique. This article
gives an example of how to establish the presence of the absent person
in the empty chair by using role reversal. The following is the story
of Paul, recently widowed.]
Paul sits mindlessly staring at the television. It has been nine months
since his beloved Carmen died. He spends most of his days in that chair
except for when he goes shopping, attends church or is with his
friends. Funny thing about friends. Right after Carmen died, they
called and included him in different activities. Now, after almost a
year, they don't come around very often. Paul knows part of that is his
fault. He would rather be alone most of the time. He tells his friends,
"I just don't enjoy things without Carmen." Paul has never been a
person who talks openly about his feelings or problems. Yet Paul has
said to very close friends, "I still talk to her. Do you think that is
wrong?" His friends tell him they don't think so but also advise him
that it would be a good idea to talk to someone who helps people who
have lost a loved one.
I met Paul almost 10 months after his wife had died. We spent our first
session trying to determine (as Kenneth Doka writes) how Paul defined
attachment. That is, how he gave meaning to the loss of Carmen. I also
wanted to get some idea of how Paul grieved. Did he grieve with an
obvious degree of emotion and affect, or did he grieve more cognitively
by talking about his lost relationship? As I listened to Paul, it
became obvious that he probably dealt with his loss cognitively. He
seldom used "feeling" words and usually described activities with
Knowing he missed talking things over with Carmen, I decided to use the
empty chair technique so he could "talk" with her and thereby find a
way to live more comfortably with his grief. Many writers mention using
the Gestalt empty chair technique. I prefer to follow the empty chair
technique shaped by Moreno from his psychodrama method.
According to Moreno, the empty chair method requires that the absent
person be brought to the session by role reversal rather than by asking
the client to speak "as if the person is actually in the chair" (as
Gibson accurately described the Gestalt empty chair approach). Moreno
believed that pretense diluted the power of the process. Therefore,
with the psychodrama method, a counselor asks the client to sit in the
empty chair and "be” the absent person. As the counselor then
"interviews" the absent person, two things occur. First, the counselor
gathers valuable information about the absent person. Second, the
absent person becomes existentially present. That is, the empty chair
is no longer empty; the absent person occupies it, and the client quite
easily sees the absent person present in the moment. In my opinion,
Moreno's role reversal approach is more compelling and brings the
experience more completely into the moment than the Gestalt approach.
Let me demonstrate.
In the second session with Paul, I say, "Paul, put that empty chair
across from you. Now move over and sit in the empty chair. I want to
meet Carmen, and the best way to do that is to talk to her. I want you
to be Carmen. I want you to sit in that chair the way Carmen sits in a
chair. I want you to capture the way Carmen answers questions. I want
you to be Carmen in every way you can. You know Carmen better than
anyone, so I know you can do that."
Notice that I try to be clear about what I want him to do. Notice also
that I do not give him a choice. He is with me to get help, and I need
to manage the session so that happens. Paul sits in the empty chair. I
begin with the least threatening questions first. "Carmen, thank you
for being here. How old were you when you died?"
Paul (as Carmen) says, "I was 62 and Paul was 64."
I ask, "How did you die?''
Paul answers (as Carmen), "I died from lung cancer."
I continue: "What did you love most about Paul?"
Paul (as Carmen) says, "He was good to
me. We did almost everything together, and we always made decisions
I respond, "Carmen, Paul is here.
He has missed you very, very much. I think he needs to talk to you."
[Let me make a comment about what I have done so far in the session. I
have established the "presence of Carmen. I have discovered that Paul
saw himself and Carmen as inseparable. Therefore, his grief is
connected to the loss of an active participant in his life. Of course,
connected to that is the sadness with which he continues to live. Now,
as we progress, Carmen's presence is no pretense. She is clearly “in”
I continue the session and say, "Please reverse roles and be Paul."
Paul moves back to his seat and looks at the "empty" chair that now
holds Carmen. I say, "Paul, many thoughts have crossed your mind during
the lonely days since Carmen died. She is here. What do you want her to
know? Tell her."
Paul looks intently at the chair and in a
quiet voice says, "I have really missed talking things over with you.
You always did so many little things like stopping and starting the
newspaper when we were gone and buying the kind of food that was
healthy for me. I relied on you to do so many of those little things. I
tell you, Carmen, I feel really lost without you. But you know what,
Carmen? What I probably miss most is just hearing you in the house! It
is just so darn quiet, I don't know what to do."
The dialogue continues along these lines until I think Paul has come
full circle. I then know we need to move toward an encounter with
Carmen focused on how Paul is going to move forward. I have found one
of the best ways to do this is by creating a "wisdom figure." In this
case, I endow Carmen with the wisdom.
I say, "Paul, Carmen has been gone almost a
year, so let's assume she has been endowed with wisdom beyond what we
mortals possess. Think of Carmen as having that gift, and talk to her
about where you go from here."
Paul looks at Carmen and says, "I'm not
going to stop mourning and being sad, but I know I can't continue
staring at the TV set. I just am not sure what I should do."
Paul reverses roles with Carmen, and I say to her, "Carmen, you have
been able to watch Paul, and you have wisdom to help him. He has made
it clear he is not ready to stop mourning your loss, but he thinks it
is time to do more than watch TV. Tell him what to do."
What I have done in giving Carmen the gift of wisdom is to empower Paul
to get beyond himself. Be aware that this may not happen until the
third or fourth session. I have truncated this session to give readers
an idea of psychodrama role reversal and to illustrate that the power
lies within the client.
I leave Paul in the role of Carmen. He says (as Carmen), "Paul, you
know you have not been alone. I have been there in spirit. It is time
you begin to do some things that get you moving out of the house. Your
friends from the planthave asked you to come to their card games, and I
know the church is always looking for ushers. You know how to get
started doing things. You always did woodworking around the house. I
know that Casa De Los Ninos always needs someone to do small jobs for
the center. The thing is, Paul, I don't want you to forget me, but
neither do I want you to shrivel up and die."
I say, "Reverse roles."
Paul returns to his own chair, and I move the empty chair away. I then ask, "What did you learn?"
He answers, "I learned that I don't need to stop grieving, but I can start living on my own."
After we visit a little while about that, I ask, "Paul, do you want to come back to see me?"
Paul says, "Yes. If you don't mind, I might want to talk to Carmen again."
I have been struck by the frequency with which Gestalt empty chair is
mentioned in publications about grief work in comparison with
psychodrama empty chair. Part of that is because Perls was skilled at
creating an appealing public image, while Moreno was less publicly
known. The other part is that psychodrama has been cloistered behind an
extensive set of training standards, and it is essentially a group
therapy method steeped in sociometry.
I hope this article whets your appetite for
the psychodrama process of role reversal and the psychodrama empty
chair technique. Check out psychodrama training centers near you.
Marvin G. Knittel is professor emeritus of counseling and school psychology at the University
of Nebraska-Kearney and a life member of the American Counseling
Association. He is currently retired in Tucson, Arizona. Contact him at
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