by Daniel Hutt, C.S.W., B.C.D.
Daniel Hutt addresses the problem of dealing with severe grief in this moving paper. The client was a young man, racked by guilt and grief, who was helped by Hutt’s use of past-life therapy following other, more conventional, approaches. Hutt shows us the healing process of the young man in a clear, concise way.
Who among us has not experienced the loss of a loved one? And who among us has been able to use this experience to enhance their lives? Sounds paradoxical? This article proposes a clinical practice model for therapists whose job sometimes entails helping in the face of helplessness, and a way to go beyond bereavement.
Sometimes a client comes along who presents a particularly moving portrait or a problem which challenges the therapist on many levels. Such a case creates a visceral, core emotion evoking feelings within the therapist that may mirror the client’s. These powerful feelings transcend the boundaries of countertransference. They tap into a deep level of universal empathy that is part of a collective consciousness. The depth of the pain felt by the client, and sometimes the therapist, can be bottomless. Although the therapist may be well trained, skilled, adept at the art of psychotherapy, sometimes the questions arise: “How can I really help? How can I help this person find a degree of relief? Can I help them go beyond ‘relief?’ Can I be a true agent of change and not a superficial or benign presence offering what any traditional therapy might?”
These questions as well as others confronted me by the case that I discuss here. It was the notorious winter of 1994 in the Northeast. Seventeen-year-old Tom set out on his daily drive to school with his 14-year-old sister, Sue. Perhaps it was the foggy, icy conditions, an oversight, a lapse in judgment, but Tom did not see the oncoming truck as he turned into the intersection. Tom woke up disoriented in the hospital and at first he was told that all was well. Then he was told the terrible truth. His sister was dead, killed instantly.
Four months after the accident, dissatisfied with the first therapist they tried (both Tom and his mother, Rose, agreed on this), they contacted me. Rose specifically asked for past-life therapy for Tom. I agreed to see her son for a clinical assessment but informed her that I would make no promises as to how I would treat him. After all, he himself was not asking for past-life therapy. Given the developmental constitution of adolescents, their ever-changing and malleable image of themselves, I needed to truly know who this individual was before embarking on such a venture. I did, however, promise that if conditions were right, I would use past-life therapy.
So there in my office sat the proverbial all-American boy. A decent student, a high school varsity baseball player, a little bit of a cutup, big, strong, broken. I could have been looking at myself years ago. At that age, aside from raging hormones, life should be wonderful, and actually, the hormones added to the mystery of life. I reminded myself, as I do quite often, to monitor my countertransference and get back to the task of helping this kid.
The first thing that I did with Tom was to get his story, his feelings, his perceptions, in order to understand his reality. Tom was honest and direct with my questions, but his strained affect reflected his distress. He described the accident as a flash, but remembered nothing more. There was no alcohol or other mind-altering substance involved; no argument with his sister to distract him, no reckless driving. Prognostically, I knew that this would help to lessen his guilt because there was no overt carelessness or acting out behavior on his part that had caused the accident.
More nuanced and unconscious sentiments came through as he spoke of the accident through his obsessive questioning of his judgment that day: “Why didn’t I see that truck? Why did I turn when it did? Why didn’t I die instead of my sister? I wish I had died instead of my sister. Why is God punishing me? Why did I take her away from my parents? Was I so angry at my parents that I wanted to punish them? Was I so angry at my sister? Will there ever be a day in the rest of my life when I don’t blame myself and feel guilty about killing my sister?” I knew from studies of post traumatic stress disorder and particularly survivor’s guilt that very few survivors escape from carrying this guilt with them throughout their lives.
Tom’s sense of humor also became apparent as our sessions progressed. Oftentimes clients use humor as a defense mechanism. Tom used it appropriately. As Victor Frankel said, humor is one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. I used it with Tom as a way of stopping him from being swallowed by guilt. Humor, even if only for a few moments, can help an individual rise above almost any situation, more than anything else in the human make-up.
Once our relationship had been established I began using new tools to deepen a sense of trust. I used hypnosis simply for relaxation. I used visualization to help him with his continuing trepidation about driving through intersections. We analyzed his dreams, which were very upsetting, and in which his sister would come to him. Rather than interpret this as an astral experience, which he certainly would reject, I helped him to use this experience to honor Sue’s memory, to symbolically tuck her into his heart, and not to fight or avoid or deny her memory, but to bring her back to life by breathing her in with each thought and breath. If his heart ached for her this was further merit for keeping her memory alive. He began to make improvements, and his sleep was less disturbed. Not only was he able to sleep through the night but the unsettling, gruesome dreams abated. He was also now able to think of his sister without believing that he was her “killer.”
This was a major improvement. Tom was significantly more at peace. A more traditional therapy might have terminated around this point. Tom might have been referred to a bereavement group to complete the healing process. There clearly are wonderful models of bereavement practice around the country that have proliferated because we know there is a healing power in groups. However, all we had done so far was really just a primer as far as I was concerned, because I had come to feel that past-life therapy would be helpful to him, as his mother also believed. Now that Tom had come to experience me as someone who had helped him, someone he trusted, and someone with whom he was willing to take emotional risks, I brought out the heavy artillery and suggested past-life therapy.
Surprisingly, he was open to it, despite his previous experience with a psychic his mother had taken him to after the accident. That experience — an “eccentric” woman telling him that his sister was in the room with him and describing her characteristics — had become the butt of Tom’s jokes. As I chuckled at his acerbic humor, I could only imagine the comedic material I’d be giving him! I told myself that if I could not help Tom with his existential drama at least I’d make him laugh.
I suggested he view past-life therapy as an adventure, a journey of the mind of sorts, the ultimate form of virtual reality. (With teenagers, I believe that you must speak their language but not pretend to be one of them). I also discussed with Tom the fact that he did not have to have a particular belief system to enter into this realm as well as benefit from past-life therapy. Tom himself could best be described as an agnostic from a dual-religion home: His mother is Jewish, his father Catholic. When I felt Tom understood all this, we began his regressions.
Regression Number One
The year is 1931 and Tom finds himself a farmer in upstate New York. His name is Joe, and he is married with one child, a daughter. It is an unremarkable life. Back pains force him to retire, sell the farm, and move to Florida. Joe and his daughter have a conflictual relationship, and the daughter moves out. Joe’s wife dies, and at that point father and daughter begin a reconciliation that culminates in a satisfying relationship before Joe dies. Joe crosses over into the light and in an ecstatic state is greeted by loved ones. Tom realizes that his daughter in that life is his sister, Sue. In the superconscious state he reports that that life’s lesson was to learn to treat people well, and he realizes that he was not always kind to Sue. (All this was a bit unexpected, coming from a 17-year-old cutup, not a new age yuppie type like myself!)
Regression Number Two
Very early in the 1900s, Tom sees himself in Cincinnati watching a baseball game. On the way home from the game a fight erupts involving his father and some of his criminal associates. Tom, his girlfriend, and his mother get away, but his father is clubbed to death. Tom feels guilty for not trying to protect his father. As the three of them flee by car there is a crash. Tom and his sister die instantly; his mother, who was driving, is hospitalized for a long time. Tom identifies his mother as his actual mother, his girlfriend as his sister, Sue. He sees himself crossing over with his girlfriend, happy to be together on the other side.
Regression Number Three
In the late 1800s, Tom finds himself in a military uniform, a 21-year old soldier in another country. He sees a lot of Asian soldiers and finds himself in a “scary” situation. He’s with his best friend, and they are watching out for each other. Something blows up and he dies at age 22. As he lies dying, he thinks “What’s gonna happen?” and “What are we gonna do?” His thoughts are about his family whom he knew he would miss. Tom is happy as he crosses over as he sees several other people there about his age. He identifies his friend as his father in this lifetime. His two sisters of that lifetime he identifies as his current mother and his mother’s sister.
The day after the first regression Tom’s mother called to inform me that she had finally seen a glimmer of hope, of life, in her son’s eyes. Tom was very animated and enthusiastic about his regression experience. He was amazed to experience his sister in the form of Joe’s daughter. He was particularly amazed that he could see himself on his deathbed and cross over into the light.
During the course of his regressions, Tom experienced a paradigm shift in his consciousness. He’s not cured, no one can be cured. However, he has been healed. The wound is no longer gaping. Now Tom knows that life exists beyond the five senses, that there are dimensions of existence that elude many people. He can now wake up from a deep sleep and know that his sister’s fourteen years on earth had meaning and purpose. But even more importantly, he now sees the larger picture, the ebb and flow of karmic vicissitudes. He senses that perhaps his sister had finished her life and that he needed this experience to learn about forgiveness. He has learned to surrender and forgive himself so that he can bring love into the lives of others.
In Tom’s case the adjunctive use of past-life therapy added an unparalleled dimension to therapy and to Tom’s perception of reality, and it was helpful. But several factors influence therapy with the bereaved. First is whether the client wants to let go of the pain. Some clients may get some secondary gain from the pain and hence may desire, often unconsciously, to thwart treatment. I believe that this case worked so well because Tom had no hidden agenda to stay stuck. Another important factor is the state of the therapist’s consciousness, which can alter the outcome. Therapists must truly believe that they can help. And the therapist must remain flexible and open. A mixture of flexibility and openness, coupled with psychodynamic understanding and spiritual evolvement, plus a dash of humor, will help in the face of helplessness.
I also keep in mind outside sources, such as psychics. If the client is receptive, I will recommend a gifted psychic medium. In this case, while a psychic offered no consolation to Tom, she greatly helped his mother. As with a past-life regression, a psychic exposes the client to a new perception of the world. And the more the client’s old perception is positively challenged, the greater the potential for change and healing.
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