What's the Harm? When Psychic Mediums Serve as Grief Counselors

By Freedman, Russel P. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

What's the Harm? When Psychic Mediums Serve as Grief Counselors


Freedman, Russel P., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


Here's my fantasy--I imagine I hear the voice of john Edward saying: "I am not a therapist or a grief recovery counselor. If you feel incomplete with a loved one who has died, please consult an expert in that area. I am an entertainer. Please enjoy the performance the way you would enjoy a performance by Siegfried and Roy." And I imagine James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne nodding in agreement. And then I wake up to reality.

The impetus for this article was Michael Shermer's question to me, which he gets asked in nearly every interview he does about psychic mediums who claim to talk to the dead: What's the harms Since I am a professional grief counselor, Michael wanted to know how I might answer that question. Who does it hurt? Sadly, the answer is every broken hearted and desperate human being who does not know how to deal with their grief. When the heart is broken the head doesn't always work so well. The brain sometimes goes on holiday and the magical thinking that we are capable of as small children returns and convinces us that a stranger, who never knew our loved one, could somehow make contact and bring us a message.

The Six Myths of Grief

Grief is an emotional response to a crisis. The death of a loved one can throw us into an almost unfathomable vortex, in which we can remain for a long time. We can get stuck in grief because most of the ideas we have learned about dealing with loss are incorrect. There are at least six major myths that contribute to the storehouse of false ideas about dealing with all kinds of loss. It is the combination of those myths, in concert with the adult capacity for childlike magical thinking, that leads people to the all-too-willing, outstretched arms of the hucksters.

(1) Don't Feel Bad. This is the unfortunate preamble to almost every unhelpful comment ever made to grieving people. "Don't feel bad, she's in a better place." "Don't feel bad, he didn't suffer." It all starts when a child comes home from pre-school, with tears in her eyes, having had a bad day on the playground. When asked what happened, she replies, "The other little girls were mean to me." To which the loving but uninformed parent says, "Don't Feel Bad, here have a cookie, you'll feel better." Aside from the fact that a cookie doesn't make the child feel better, what is being suggested is that the child should not feel what she is feeling. Studies suggest that by the time we reach 15, the message that it is not acceptable to feel sad or communicate those feelings has been reinforced more than 23,000 times. So when the psychic says, "Your grandma doesn't want you to worry, she wants you to know that she's fine," it is just another way of saying "Don't feel bad."

(2) Replace the Lass. For many children the first loss is the death of a pet or the loss of a prized possession. The dual message they hear when their pet dies might be "Don't feel bad, we'll get you a new dog." The second part of the statement translates into a potentially lifelong belief that instead of dealing with the feelings caused by the loss, it is better to just get another of the things that died. The teenager, following the breakup of the first romantic interlude, hears, "Don't feel bad, there are plenty of fish in the sea," implying that she should replace the loss instead of grieve over it. The psychic is given a wide opening by this myth, as he replaces the loss with a virtual soundbite from the original.

(3) Grieve Alone. This myth is familiar in the cliche "Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone." It is reinforced with lines like: "If you're going to cry, go to your room," or "We don't wash our dirty linen in public." This is not meant to imply that each of us must be in the company of others to talk about every feeling. Solitude is important. But the grieve alone myth tends to promote isolation, a dangerous state for a grieving person who has a normal and natural desire to communicate the thoughts and feelings they are having about a loved one who has died. …

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