To know loss is to confront change.
People, pets, homes and jobs are not just things – they are the backdrop for our behavior. When we first acquire them, we are conscious of learning to adapt to their presence. Over time, those changes become automatic behaviors managed by the subconscious, woven together as a pattern for our life. Remove one element and the pattern vibrates. It may be a trivial disruption, such as when we lose a penny. Or it may be a near-collapse, such as when we lose a child.
When the loss is great, we may be overwhelmed and seek to avoid change. Most directly, we may deny the loss. We might imagine that the loved one will walk through the door any second, or that after the tornado we’re at the hotel on vacation. When denial becomes a permanent condition, the sufferer should be referred to a licensed mental health professional.
Another strategy is to cultivate dependency. We may expect other people to care for us, take refuge in pleasant experiences, or consume substances (food and drugs) that boost our energy and mood.
Healing begins when we discard denial and dependency to accept that we need to change our lives. Specializing in behavior change, a hypnotherapist can help with that journey.
The mind is always seeking health, and so hypnotherapy works with the mind. In planning therapy for loss, then, we should understand how the mind responds to loss. I cover two accepted frameworks for loss before offering my own perspective.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross broke ground with her study of how terminally ill patients dealt with loss and grief. In the popular formulation, the process follows five stages, but the middle three stages can become a whirlpool. The stages are:
We’ve already discussed denial and its helpmate, dependency.
Anger is the natural reaction to the realization that there is no answer to “Why?” It can be focused on the self for past misbehavior (such as cigarette smoking) or toward others (the tobacco companies). In the grief process, anger is important because it breaks down neural pathways. It is a mechanism used by the mind to get rid of behaviors that no longer serve us. In the context of a broken heart, this is clearly necessary: we need to stop acting like we did when we had a romantic partner and prepare ourselves to seek a more fulfilling relationship. In the case of a terminal illness, anger prepares us to accept that life as we knew it is going to end.
If the loss is due to illness, persistent anger also has dangerous consequences: it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases inflammation in our tissues. This can inhibit healing or even stimulate metastases.
Depression is a term in psychology used when we are unable to respond to the world. In severe cases, that manifests as avoidance. The highly depressed person can end up hiding in a darkened room. It is more severe than denial because while in denial we can at least function. What is different is that while in depression we are recovering from the mental disorder created by anger and gathering energy to create a new life.
After anger has softened our old behaviors and depression has allowed us to gather strength, we begin bargaining. This can take two forms. The less helpful is whining: “Dear God, what do I need to do to make this cancer go away?” Whining often loops back into anger and depression. The better is imagining: “If I heal from cancer, I will commit more of my time to charitable work.” Imagining builds new behaviors to replace those erased by anger.
Imagining prepares us to move forward to the last stage: acceptance. Acceptance is a great gift. It is the ability to take life one day at a time, savoring every moment and opportunity, while trying to enrich the experience for ourselves and others. Having achieved that wisdom, you will hear people say that getting divorced (or sick with cancer or arrested or…) was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Through his teaching and trauma response work, Timothy Trujillo has developed tools to aid those trying to recover from loss. Where Kubler’s focus is practical (“This is how people grieve”), Trujillo offers a metaphor for healing. Trujillo starts every therapy with the mind/body connection, establishing that it is possible to feel good.
The table elaborates the physical metaphor for psychic healing:
|Stage||Physical Healing||Psychic Healing|
|Hemostasis||Stop bleeding||Separation from trauma|
|Inflammation||Clear damage, fight infection||Release old behaviors|
|Proliferation||Repopulate with new cells||Evolve new behaviors|
|Remodeling||Cells organize as tissue||Reconstruct relationships|
|Adaptation||Compensate for lost function||Deal with unexpected consequences|
|Recovery||Return to normal|
The power of this metaphor arises from the fact that often recovery from psychic trauma is impeded because the wound is projected into the body, causing discomfort to persist. In emphasizing the body’s natural healing powers, the client associates increased physical comfort with psychic healing. In effect, the conscious mind no longer interferes with the subconscious effort to restore balance and harmony.
Confronted by traumatized communities, Trujillo captured this psychological transition as a hypnotic script titled “The Five-Minute Miracle” (https://timothytrujillo.com/projects/five-minute-miracle).
If we have a wonderful relationship that falters and fails, do we want to release those cherished memories and behaviors? Or do we want to learn from the failure and expand our vision of future possibilities? Not just sexual satisfaction, for example, but also children and society?
Loss and wounding both have negative connotations. We have seen that at the end of grieving, we achieve a positive resolution – but the steps along the path are dreary, to say the least. With physical wounds, we can be awed and humbled by our natural healing powers, but in most cases after recovery we are less capable than before the injury. The metaphor suggests that the mind will also lose function during grieving. Why should we accept that?
I refer a simpler, positive model. Like Trujillo, I recognize the connection between mind and body, but would emphasize that it goes both ways. The reason we say the old lover’s name is because we remember them when our cheek is kissed. We have associations between physical sensation (the kiss) and old behaviors (saying their name).
The first step in recovery from loss, then, should be creating space within the self. This can be done many ways, but all involve intense physical exertion with focused attention. Shaking our fist at the sky is one example, as is a long, wracking cry. Other methods are possible: I use Sunday dance celebrations to create space within myself; others might go rock climbing. The point is to be aware that we are consciously creating these sensations of exhaustion within ourselves.
The next step is to rest until our energy recovers. Finally we imagine what we can do with this new awareness and energy. That inevitably collides again with loss: we would like to have dinner with lost spouse, but that’s not possible. So we return to creating space inside ourselves, resting and imagining until we have established that it is myself that needs dinner.
How is this space inside created? In my view, it is from the heart. When I weep or dance, I have the sense of something inside bearing witness to me and my loss. If I allow it, it flows from that deep inner source and enters the situation as it is to bring healing – not just to myself, but to everyone that will accept it.
A Hypnotist’s Support
How is this model facilitated by hypnotherapy? When anger (or other negative emotions) are entrenched, I start with a hand clasp induction; otherwise a simple eye fascination suffices. Complete awareness of the self is built through a long progressive relaxation starting at the feet with particular attention paid to expansion around the heart to allow the emanation of light. Gathering all the resources of the being and the represented potential, the progressive passes up the neck and over the back of the head to rest over the forehead, above the prefrontal cortex where all planning is done.
From there the therapeutic strategy depends upon the specific needs of the client. Those in deep grief often need to establish resources in the subconscious landscape through free-form therapeutic imagery. That work leads to reconstruction of their self-image. Those seeking to implement behavioral changes may have fear responses to clear using desensitization.
Between sessions, breathing meditation and mindfulness reinforce personal boundaries. Dream therapy can be used to assess the readiness to change, to release resistance, and to focus subconscious attention to find constructive solutions to specific behavioral problems.