Petrūska Clarkson has been on my mind all this week. “One of the most significant figures in the history of Gestalt therapy in England," therapist, lecturer, academic author, creatrix of the Systemic Integrative model, Clarkson killed herself in the summer of 2006. You can read more about her incredible list of achievements here.
I never met Petruska Clarkson but along with colleagues noted her death and then never spoke about it again. Her death will have had a much greater impact on her personal friends, colleagues, students and of course the many clients with whom she worked over the years but somehow I missed any obituary other than a letter in Therapy Today. A personal and heartfelt forum for people who wanted to remember her is here.
As far as I know there has been no professional debate over what her death, particularly her death by suicide, might mean to psychotherapy. Having spent a day combing the internet either I’m searching in the wrong places or there has been no discussion.
This morning I was very sobered by the realisation that I’d forgotten her name and searched for her under ‘psychotherapy’ on Amazon where she emerged on page 6. Then I searched for the Physis Institute, the training organisation she founded (as well as being a founder member of Metanoia) and came across a good number of therapists who have called their practice Physis with no reference to Clarkson, but was unable to find anything about the Institute.
How can such an important person disappear so completely? Is this a partial clue?
“I insist that there be no funeral, cremation or memorial service of any kind held for me. Instead I wish sincerely that all those who have valued my work just continue to ‘help the people’ in the spirit of Physis as they are”.
Jason Mihalko, a US based therapist, has written about the impact of a client suicide:
"My patient who killed herself told me once that when she died she wanted no obituary, no service, no tomb stone--no marker of any sort that made mention of her life. She wanted there to be "no memory that my sad life ever existed on this planet."
This is an endlessly complex matter and I hesitate to draw parallels between two people I’ve never met who had very different lives. But there is something profound about erasing oneself not just by suicide but also in the insistence that routine death rituals be put aside. Even people with no friends, family or money get their name mentioned by a priest as part of their paupers’ funeral, they’re not simply loaded into the cremator or fed into the earth. But Petruska Clarkson and the anonymous client (and any number of other people who kill themselves) insist that just this be done for them.
Perhaps, just as we could not fulfil the needs of people in life who are adamant that this lack of fulfilment be brought to their death rituals, we may need to ignore their needs in death. Jason’s writing about his experience with one particular person has offered a great deal to his readership over a year, probably extending into many more years. I’m very wary about treading on the broken hearts of people who knew Petruska Clarkson or offering them any offence: speaking for myself I’m disturbed that her desire for erasure seems to have been taken all too seriously. In death, she has yet more to offer psychotherapy.
There’s a great deal more to be thought about here, but perhaps it’s good to end this entry with Jason’s wise words, words that echo Clarkson’s final wishes:
“Treat people like they matter.
It's the most important thing you will ever do.”
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