Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a geological feature at the heart of Australia with huge cultural significance to people living there. For indigenous Australians, it is holy ground, representing millenia of history, mythology, and their symbiotic relationship with the land. Every inch of this awe inspiring rock is celebrated, represented, and connected with places far and wide across Australia through the “song-lines” which unite and re-unite people over time. Uluru is the ultimate Memory Space and a focus of healing for the peoples of Australia, both ancient and recent.

In Africa we say “Umuntu ngumuntu, ngabantu” which means “a person is a person because of other people”. This finds expression in traditional African values around community and belonging.

Psychologically, it is both constraining and liberating to hold this value. As individuals, we could feel smothered by a sense of responsibility for others or the demands of others. Yet, the knowledge that our very individuality is gathered by, with and for others infuses life with meaning and hope. This is especially true when illness, injury or loss shake up our ordinary lives until nothing is “normal” any more.

Recently C, a wise and creative patient introduced us to the technique of the “memory space” as a guide and support through the process of cancer diagnosis and medical treatment. The idea was to use a dedicated space in her own home, to represent the experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer and of going through surgery. By inviting people who counted in her world, and who were interested in helping to create this special space, C began to share the burden of having cancer, as well as the hopes she had for the next steps in her journey with cancer.

C has kindly given us permission to share this initiative via our website. It is a valuable exercise not only for recently diagnosed cancer patients but for anyone who is facing a personally devastating change or loss – whether that be divorce, illness, emigration or bereavement.

Of course, it’s not easy to talk about cancer to others – especially when you’re still trying to get your own head around the news. The story is often shared with a chosen few; who usually try to respond in loving and supportive ways (though see our post on What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer).

C’s many years of experience and research in psychotherapy alerted her to the knowledge that more is possible – a deeper experience of Ubuntu and of love. Those invited to the ceremony were encouraged to bring whatever they felt moved to share: a note, a card, a piece of writing or music, a picture, an object with shared significance, a joke. The brief was fairly specific: the guests express their feelings about the cancer diagnosis and proposed surgery, offering a personal response to the impending loss of C’s breasts (she had decided on medical advice to have all breast tissue removed).

The ceremony took place on the weekend before surgery was scheduled. C asked a trusted colleague with extensive experience of group therapy to act as “MC” and guide. For a potentially emotional group experience this is a valuable safeguard for everyone present. It also allowed C to experience the event without feeling responsible for its process. This might not be necessary if the group involved is small and well known to one another, but C’s ceremony involved more than a few people, not all of whom knew each other well.

Taking turns, each person introduced his or her personal contribution to the Memory Space, explaining how their chosen item fitted in with C’s life and with the occasion. This stage of the meeting had a level of formality that allowed it to be a serious occasion and a fitting recognition of the dire situation C was facing – and yet still made room for joy and humour to be felt and shared. After presenting the item, it was placed on a central coffee table and remained there with the other contributions.

After everyone had presented their offering, time was allowed for quiet reflection on what had been said or shown, and then for C to respond. The formalities brought to an end, there was time for people to relax, drink some wine, and enjoy themselves.

Although this ceremony served to express the feelings of C’s community as they faced cancer together with her, it  did not provide any diversion from the huge challenges C and her partner had to deal with as they waited for treatment to begin. The time between confirmation of a breast cancer diagnosis and the first surgical or medical intervention is often very difficult, being marked with uncertainty, grief, and waves of unrelenting anxiety. The Memory Space ceremony did not provide an escape; as C noted, “it is what it is”. C is right: a full experience of life includes difficult, painful moments as well as high points and moments when there’s nothing much to worry over.

The Memory Space did, however, achieve something amazing: a ‘safety net’ in the presence of this anxiety, in the form of an alternative story that C found (and continues to find) emotionally healing. The gift of her family, friends and colleagues did not neutralise the cancer story, but it did mark out a safe space. In the weeks that have followed, C has been able to inhabit this space where she knows herself to be surrounded by love and affirmation.

Whenever she lingers in the Memory Space, C is able to feel less helpless or insignificant.  Her Memory Space is a psychological and spiritual refuge.

One other thing is clear: the Memory Space technique is not aimed at achieving “closure”, whatever that may be. Perhaps there is no such thing as “closure”: joy and sorrow, loss and restoration, pain and peace do not oppose and exclude one another in human life as they do in language. Instead, we constantly move between these experiences and the one leads seamlessly into the other.

This is a common if not universal experience of life: sunshine and shadows, rain and drought, assurance and anxiety, pain and peace.  The ancient Greeks said, “nothing endures but change”. Yet the creation of a memory space like C’s ensures that whenever cancer is experienced as ravaging and taking down hope, options remain for honouring and healing body, soul and community.

The Memory Space is a concrete representation of an alternative story – alternative to the story of cancer and of medical treatment. Such stories have great power over our imaginations. Aristotle taught that the human imagination compels, conditions and changes thought, emotion and even physical states. Stories of all kinds have the power to evoke healing imagination, but especially those that endure from ancient times.

A well known “dreamtime” story of Australia concerns the Rainbow Serpent, who travelled across the landscape creating and destroying life and uniting humans with the landscape. One version of the story is here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2vh6moD9ZOU

In his frantic search for belonging, the Serpent goes through all the feelings we do at times of great challenge in our lives: loneliness, loss, exile, weariness, rejection, fear and rage. There is no “happy ending” in this story. Serpent and people cannot live together and both are forever changed by their conflict. Yet they do come to terms, and survival becomes possible. The ancestral home of both Serpent and people is destroyed, yet everyone gains something. The Earth is brought back into balance, but only if the people will take responsibility and will care…

The great myth of the Rainbow Serpent fits well for personal journeys with cancer and other life threatening illnesses. As actors in this story, we are not in control of Nature and never will be – but we can care and we do appreciate the beauty that is around us and within us.

To C: Thank you for reminding us that the Rainbow Serpent of cancer is a builder as well as a destroyer, and that no one need face him alone. Thank you for sharing your personal experience of this beautiful technique with us, and with our readers.

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