Should mediums play a role in grief counseling?

This question is going to be a thorny one for those who do not subscribe to supernatural beliefs: If belief is a natural human condition, is it wrong to work within a supernatural-belief framework to achieve health benefits?

I contend that if the goal is to truly help people, we should consider what is in the best interests for those that do hold different worldviews even if it makes us uncomfortable and feels inherently wrong. In this case, I’m talking about mediums as grief counselors.

I came across an interesting piece in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research by Dr. Andrew Powell of the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists called The Healing Potential of Anomalous Perceptual Experiences (2017 81:1, p 26-31) who provides four clinical examples of anomalous perception and described how he worked with the patient’s related perception to help them cope with troubling and disruptive feelings about a close person’s death. In each case, Dr. Powell contends that he helped the patients cope with “ghosts” (in a general sense) of the dead by guiding them in conversing or imagining contact with them.

Dr. Powell is not some street psychic, though. He is a qualified mental health professional bound to standards. However, he might turn some readers off by railing against “material realism” and scientism that he sees as rampant – not an uncommon position for modern parapsychologists. Anomalous perceptions, he notes, are so common but are over-pathologized. It’s true; lots of people claim to have paranormal experiences. Are they mentally ill? Considering the percentages, this is not so reasonable to say. There are plenty of normal psychological and environmental conditions that are conducive to people having strange experiences. How we interpret those experiences is based on our worldview which is not always rational. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to vanquish all irrational, non-scientific belief in the world. In the 21st century, popular belief in all sorts of irrational stuff, like psychics, ghosts, and hauntings, is still very strong and not diminishing soon, I’ll bet. We might advance socially with attempts to understand and temper it, not with Sisyphean efforts to eradicate it.

There has been a late 20th-century resurgence of interest in the use of mediumship in coping with the loss of a loved one. It’s an incredibly attractive option to turn on a TV show or read a popular book by a celebrity psychic and have a comforting view of life after death reinforced. Is it dangerous to use mediums as a counseling measure? If a person sinks money into readings by psychic mediums or holds onto the idea that the dead are open to endless communication, then, yes. There is an argument to be made that this “grief vampirism” by high-priced charlatans is detrimental to society. Many people are sucked in and sucked dry. It can (and does) go too far, notably when belief drowns out science-based medicine options.

But what about in a clinical setting or as part of professional grief counseling? I’m not sure. Are there other unintended effects? Does the benefit outweigh the potential harm?

We can get through life believing a lot of wrong things. Is it going to ruin a person’s life if they believe in an after life? Probably not. The alternative to this belief seems to make little relative difference in this particular context. I am unaware of any studies that compare the outcome of those who undergo medium-facilitated grief counseling versus those that go through a conventional grief process (with its associated psychological effects). There is one ready to start but I don’t know how rigorous it will be. I’d be curious to see the results.

Obviously, we all deal with grief in our own way and for some of us, sitting with a medium and talking to the dead just isn’t going to work. But is emotional counseling dependent on an empirical view of life and death? Hardly. Here is a case where the hard facts of science just won’t help most people.

I suspect that going to a psychic to deal with grief may be a replacement for religious counseling. More people these days don’t have a church or don’t trust priests anymore, or maybe the church’s idea of heaven is not as attractive as that of the ghost of Grandma being invisible but present, standing close and watching over you. I don’t know. I don’t think there is a right answer to this. But the thought of paying someone who says they are a psychic medium but lacks qualifications as a certified psychotherapist is unsettling.

Regardless of whether it’s “right” or not, and in whose context it is or isn’t, I break with the debunkers in this particular subject by seeing a potential value in the real world effects of belief and weighing the pros and cons. There are certainly “cons” in grief counseling through mediumship, but for some people, it may be a viable and direct route to reclaiming their own lives.

Note: I wish to clarify this explicitly so I’m not misunderstood. The abundance of evidence over centuries strongly suggests to me that no one can communicate with spirits and there is no afterlife.

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7 thoughts on “Should mediums play a role in grief counseling?

  1. Sharon, please check out “Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for An Afterlife” by Leslie Kean sometime. This work was published in 2017 and is referenced and cross-referenced with scientific studies from essentially a non-believer’s perspective.

    Would like to someday hear you (and Torkel’s, and the other guy who suddenly disappeared from the 15 Credibility Street podcast with zero explanation’s) review(s)/thoughts of that book.

    I would hope that all of you aren’t overly consumed by scientism so much so that you don’t have open minds, although scientism is clearly just as dangerous as being a religious zealot. It’s the same principle, just applied the other way.

  2. I would defend the role of religion in grief counselling, but draw the line at mediums. I read this piece and find myself still of that view, but it is difficult to articulate why, which means I don’t fully understand my reasons. A part of it is undoubtedly the fraudulent nature of some psychics, and especially my personal abhorrence of those who purport to give information in missing persons cases.

    One key difference between religious and psychic approaches to grief if the degree of specificity. Priests will rarely say that the deceased is definitely in the fifth circle of Hell, or any other destination, but psychics will give quite specific answers which are objectively indefensible. People may take definite actions based on that specific fiction. Granny would have wanted you to do X. Religious people will not normally give that kind of advice.

  3. ” The abundance of evidence over centuries strongly suggests to me that no one can communicate with spirits and there is no afterlife.” I leave room for the fact that there well may be an afterlife. We can take an approach, with a scooping of confirmation bias, and start from the premise that mediumship is impossible. Having read Dr. Julie Bieschel’s work, I am not so prepared to rule out the possibility.

    In addition, there was Dr. Ian Stevenson, a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. Dr. Jim Tucker continues to perform research with children apparently recalling memories not their own.

    Now, do we have unresolved problems? Sure we do. What is the mechanism if people reincarnate? If mediums are really communicating with the diseased, why does there seem to be a lack of useful, specific, helpful and practical information coming through?

    Well, in any case, I agree that some mediums do seem to help, but training in therapy would be the absolute best practice.

    A good read from a fellow Skeptic.

    1. I’m familiar with Stevenson’s work and don’t find it impressive. Also Bieschel, whom I’ve heard speak and who informed me about modern mediumship research. However, the evidence isn’t getting better. And a few who remain pursuing it does not suggest there is anything more to it. The results are not robust. It’s my opinion the reality of life after death has been examined to death. But that’s not really what I was going for here. Because, for many, truth doesn’t necessarily matter as much as belief. many.

  4. Yes, your theme was about belief. I am with you there. Sorry for steering off course a bit!

    Dr. Bieschel has published on the positive impact of mediumship readings upon the target group. One of her conclusions is to include traditional therapy in addition.

    Since a medium is unpacking trauma and certainly dealing with intense feelings, the medium I think could strongly benefit from ethics trainings – and have clinical supervision for their needs and issues that can arise.

    Thank you for posting this thought provoking piece. Your suggestions would help those who are already seeing and seeking mediums.

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