“I had just learned your grief process in 1990 when my father had a heart attack. I was with him in the hospital for three days until he died. He was already brain dead when I arrived at the hospital, and the process of his death…I’ll simply describe as horrific and gruesome. Nonetheless, I utilized your grief process the entire time and the experience was transformational for me. I never lost my connection with what I’ll call his soul, and still sense him. I’m very grateful to both of you for your work.”
We have been teaching the grief resolution process in Master Practitioner trainings ever since we developed it over fourteen years ago. Heart of the Mind (1, Ch. 11) provides an introduction to this process, and a videotaped demonstration Resolving Grief(2) by Connirae provides an example of it. This process is quite often very useful, since the grief response of emptiness and sadness in response to the loss of a loved person is something that everyone will experience at some time in their lives, and many people experience many significant losses. Unresolved grief is often a major unrecognized factor in a wide range of other difficulties that bring people to seek therapy, including lack of motivation, depression, chronic illness, and mid-life crisis.
When we first decided to model the grief response, we contrasted the experiences of people who were particularly resourceful in dealing with significant losses, with the experiences of those who were still experiencing sadness and grieving, and who had difficulty getting on with their lives after a loss.
We found that those who were grieving–whether long-term or short-term–did something that could be described in one of two ways:
1. Recalling the ending. Often they made the mistake of recalling the ending of the relationship, rather than the loving connection itself. For instance, they might recall the last heated argument that led to the breakup, or the ugly divorce process, the horrible terminal illness, or whatever other unpleasant events resulted in the ending of the relationship, rather than the loving relationship itself.
Even when they recall this event in a dissociated way, as if seen on a TV screen, the feelings are of unpleasantness, rather than loving connection. Many people recall these events as if they were happening here and now, with the full intensity of the unpleasantness of the original event. This ending of the relationship is not the precious experience that the person is grieving for, and this common mistake makes it impossible to experience the special loving feelings that they had with the lost person.
When someone recalls the ending, one of the first steps in the process is to ask them to think of what they loved and appreciated about the lost relationship, rather than the end of the relationship. This is a request to the client to change the content of their representation.
For some people, shifting attention from the ending to a special memory of the lost person is a complete intervention, and they don’t have to go through the rest of the processes below. When they remember the good times as if they are happening again, they no longer feel any loss. As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over; be glad that it happened.”
If their image of the end of the relationship continues to intrude and trouble them, you can use the NLP phobia cure in order to resolve it, and you could also use some other intervention that examines the ending in order to learn from it, and then applies those learnings to future scenarios, so that they are prepared for any potential repetition.
2. Dissociation. Others do recall the loving relationship, but in a way that is distant, separate, absent, or unreal, resulting in a feeling of emptiness, rather than the fullness that the person experienced in the loving relationship. There are a variety of ways to internally represent separateness or dissociation. You can make an image of the person at a great distance, or you can see yourself with the lost person, so that you can see the two of you enjoying each other over there. You can see a dent in the bed but see that there is no one in it, or the image of the loved person may appear transparent, fuzzy, or ghost-like, etc. One person had a relationship that had occurred mostly on the telephone, and after the person died, he could still hear her voice, but it had a “tinny” quality as it it were a recording, signifying that it was unreal.
With all these different ways of representing the person as distant and separate, the good feelings of being with them are lost. There is only a feeling of emptiness, and this causes the sadness and grieving.
When we interviewed people who said that they had dealt with their loss successfully, we found quite a number of people who had gotten on with their lives, but often with a sense of resignation or quiet defeat. When we asked them to think of the lost person, they would often sigh, their shoulders would slump a little, and their breathing would become shallower. Some would then say, “It’s OK,” but in a somewhat high and strained tonality. While this is somewhat better than breaking into uncontrollable weeping, it was clear that their grief was not resolved. It was “dealt with” only to the extent that it was controlled so that it did not often intrude into their ongoing experience.
Resourceful response to loss
There were others, however, who had dealt with their losses in a much more positive and useful way. When we would ask them about a loss, there would often be a smile and softening of the face, and a gentle lift of the shoulders, and deeper breathing. They could speak about the lost person with softness, caring and happiness. One woman said, “When I think of Joe, it’s as if he is right here with me. If I’m in the supermarket picking out oranges, he is right there with me helping choose the best ones, just like he used to.” This kind of response is clearly much more enjoyable, and provides easy access to all the special feelings that they had with the person who is now gone. These were the people that we studied to find out how they could be congruently happy about a significant loss.
When we asked them how they thought of the lost person, we found that they literally thought of them as if they were still present, and this gave them access to all the good feelings that they had during the actual relationship.There are a variety of ways to do this. Often people will simply think of the lost person as if s/he is nearby, life-size and three-dimensional, moving and breathing, and able to offer both verbal conversation and nonverbal response, as if s/he were physically alive and present in the real world. Some represent the lost person as if s/he were physically present in their heart, or chest area, or present in their whole body in some way. One person felt the lost person as if he were a comfortable close-fitting sheath embracing her whole body. Others had different ways of representing the lost person, but all of them resulted in a strong sense of the person being fully present with them in the moment, and easy to contact.
When we thought about this a bit, we realized that this way of recalling the lost person is really no different from what most of us do when someone we love is physically absent for a short time. Think now of someone who is very special to you in an existing relationship, but who is not physically near you at the moment, and notice how you represent that person in your mind. What images, sounds or voices, and feelings do you use to think of that person?. . .
When I (Steve) do this with Connirae, who is in town on errands at the moment, she is standing by my left side, life-size and breathing, and she feels present with me, as if she were actually in the room, so the good feelings that I have had with her are readily available to me. Even though it is possible that she was actually killed in a car accident, or ran off with another man, I can represent her as if the relationship still exists, and enjoy all the warm feelings that are part of that relationship. Psychologists have called this ability “object constancy,” and the principles used in the grief resolution process can also be used to teach this ability.
Separation anxiety Object constancy is a skill that smaller children have not yet learned. When mommy leaves, it is as if she is gone forever, and the small child will weep inconsolably, in what is often called “separation anxiety.” Luckily, most small children are also unable to keep the image of mommy leaving in their awareness for very long, and are easily distracted by other events. It takes some time for the child to learn how to keep an associated image of mommy with them, so that they can retain the feeling of the comfort and security of the relationship when she is gone for a while.
As the foregoing shows, whether or not a person thinks of someone as absent or present is independent of “reality,” and whether an outside observer would say that there is an ongoing relationship or not. It is only dependent on how the person represents the loved person in their mind, and this is the key to the grief resolution process.
The essence of this process is to teach this important skill to someone who is grieving about someone who is now represented as separate and gone. Since there is a great deal of variation in exactly how an individual person represents someone as either lost or present, we first have to gather some information to find out exactly how this particular person does it.
We ask someone who is grieving to first think about someone special who feels present in his/her life (although they are not physically present at the moment, and may be dead or gone permanently), and then about the person they are grieving about. Then we ask them to think of the two people simultaneously, and ask them to notice the submodality process differences between them. The loss will typically be represented as distant and separate in some way, and with a feeling of emotional emptiness, while the existing relationship will be represented with a sense of presence and emotional fullness.
There will typically be very important differences in the location of these representations in personal space. For instance, one may be close, to the left, and larger, etc. while the other is farther, to the right, and smaller, etc. There are usually many other differences. One image may be brighter than the other, or more colorful, or moving, one may be silent while the other has sounds or voices, etc. These are all differences that are completely independent of the content of the representations. Once these differences are known, it is a fairly simple process to transform a situation of emptiness and grieving into one of fullness and rejoicing.
Usually taking the image of the loss experience and moving it to the location of the experience of presence is all that is needed to transform the loss into an experience of felt presence. Typically the other differences in brightness, color, movement, etc., change spontaneously when the location is changed. If these other parameters do not change spontaneously, we simply ask the client to change them until the loss experience is fully transformed into an experience of presence.
When this transformation is complete, they will recover the good feelings that they had with the lost person. When this occurs, the client will often cry, but these tears are very different from the tears of loss. These are tears of reunion with the lost feelings, and it is important to allow the client to take time to experience them fully.
Most people are quite happy to be able to transform their grieving to a reconnection with the lost experience, but some will have objections. Before proceeding, it is very important to respect these objections, and find out what the positive outcome of each objection is. Once the outcome is known, the task is to find a way that the transformation will either not interfere with the outcome of the objection, or even support it better than the grieving does. Here are a few examples:
1. “I don’t want to say goodbye.” “I agree with you completely. Many people have the mistaken notion that they have to say goodbye in order to stop grieving, but that is exactly backwards. What is necessary is to say hello again and reestablish the loving connection that you once had with that person.
One way to convince a client of the value of reviving the positive lost experience is to say to them, “I’m sure you have heard about amnesia, the forgetting of past events. If I could give you complete amnesia for all your experiences of the lost person, it would be as if you had never known them, so you wouldn’t grieve their loss. Now I want to ask you a question, and I want you to give it careful consideration before answering. ‘If I offered you complete amnesia for ever having known this person, would you accept that solution?’ “
Of all the people I have said this to, not a single one has said, “Yes,” driving home the value of remembering the treasured experiences that have been lost.
2. “If I experienced the lost person as being here with me, people would think I’m nuts.” “We certainly don’t want that to happen. But I think that could only be a problem if you talk to others out loud. Throughout your life you think of other people, and perhaps even have internal conversations with them–I know I do–without others having any idea what is going on in my head.”
3. “If I experienced the lost person as being here with me, it might interfere with my relating to other people in reality.” “We certainly don’t want to do anything that would interfere with how you relate to others in the present. I think that you would agree that your preoccupation with grieving for this lost person has been greatly interfering with your relating with other people. On the other hand, the way that you think of your friend gives you a felt sense of connection that actually supports your connecting with others when that’s appropriate, and I can promise you that thinking of the lost person will work in the same way. And of course if I am wrong, we can always change it back to the way it is now.”
4. “Grieving is a way to honor the dead.” “I completely support your desire to honor the lost person, and grieving certainly is an expression of the depth of your feeling. On the other hand, what better way to honor this person could there be than to carry him joyfully with you in your heart for the rest of your days?”
“If you died tomorrow, would you want your loved ones to grieve and be unhappy, or to remember you joyfully with full feelings of love and appreciation for your special qualities as they move on with their lives? Which way do you think the person you have lost would prefer?”
5. “Well, I guess it would be fine for me to do that, but if I were happy about the person who is gone, my family and friends would think that I didn’t care about her/him.” “You want to be sure that those around you don’t misunderstand you. You can either explain in detail what you are experiencing, and offer them the same kind of choice that I am offering you, or you can simply put on a sad face at appropriate times, to fit their idea of how you should be reacting.”
Whatever the objection, we assume that it is based on a positive and worthwhile outcome that the person is concerned about, and our task is to find a way that the person can proceed with the grief resolution process, confident that the objection will be fully respected, and its positive outcome preserved.