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Chapter 1: An After-Death Communication Occurs Unexpectedly during Therapy

10 Prayers You Can't Live Without: How to Talk to God About Everything
Rick Hamlin

The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. -Frank Herbert

Becky excitedly described to me what she experienced. "I saw my mother," she said, a broad smile across her tear-stained face. "I told her, 'I love you,' and she said, 'I love you too.' Then she hugged me. I could actually feel her arms around me."

But at the time of this experience, Becky's mother had been dead for five years.

Becky wasn't describing a dream. She was sitting in my office when she had the experience. She said she felt the touch of her mother's arms and was joyful to see her mother's smiling face, but only she and I were there and her eyes were closed. Her mother's warm, familiar embrace seemed vibrant and alive, but her mother was dead.

Her sense that she felt the touch of her deceased mother's arms was unusual enough, but the life change that resulted was remarkable. "I've been an atheist my whole life," she said, "but I'm sure now there really is a life after death. I used to worry about dying, and I felt so much pain when my mother died. I know now, though, that my fear and grief were based on something I didn't understand. I know that everything is OK and that I need to remember this when I feel life is getting me down." Her grief reduced dramatically and remained resolved in the months that followed.

When Becky came to my office that day for help to alleviate the deep sadness she was feeling over her mother's death, I was able to use a new form of therapy I had discovered to help reduce her grief. The method was available to me because I had learned how to use it through a long journey that began with a session in which it occurred by accident and progressed through identifying how I could help a patient experience it at will.

The story of that discovery follows.

My Skeptical Behavioral Scientist Training

The radical behaviorist movement was at its peak in the 1960s and was nowhere stronger than among a group of professors at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where I was an undergraduate psychology major. Radical behaviorism asserted that only observable behaviors are worthy of scientific consideration. The practice of inferring private, mental events in people may be appropriate for mind readers and other nonscientific thinkers, but it had no place in a science of psychology. We were confident that inferences about inner states are unnecessary because understanding the relationship between observable behaviors and environmental variables is all that is needed to understand people's problems and provide treatment.

I carried that behaviorist, scientific underpinning into my master's degree studies at Illinois State University and through my work in community mental health for three years. I became adept at counting behaviors while manipulating the environment to evaluate how the counts changed. Finally, I ended my formal studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in the comfortable familiarity of a cognitive-behavioral paradigm, the most widely accepted scientific psychological model of the early 1980s that continues to dominate psychology today.

No matter how my perspectives broaden, the instincts and skepticism of the scientist will never leave me. Anything I believe must be verifiable.

After completing my Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) at Baylor, I accepted a position at a Chicago-area Veterans Administration hospital working with post-traumatic stress disorder veterans, a focus that was to become my career. The first seven or eight years of using the cognitive-behavioral model with these traumatized vets were grueling for me and for my patients. The half-dozen professional staff on the unit all felt the same. The prevailing cognitive-behavioral model for treating victims of psychological trauma was "exposure therapy." We repeatedly exposed patients to reminders of their traumatic experiences in a safe, supportive environment so that, over time, their intense emotional responses might decrease in intensity.

While the approach made sense from a theoretical point of view, and we did get some modest results, the therapeutic changes were minimal and didn't appear to hold up over time.

A New Technique Dramatically Reduces Trauma and Grief

Then, in the late 1980s, psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., discovered a radical new therapy technique she named eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. In EMDR therapy, the psychotherapist, usually sitting before and slightly to the side of the patient, moves his or her hand, with the index and next finger extended, left and right in front of the patient on the same level as the patient's eyes. While focusing on the psychotherapist's hand and keeping the head stationary, so only the eyes move left and right rhythmically, the patient attends to a disturbing thought, feeling, sensation, or image.

During a set of eye movements, the patient experiences a spontaneous, natural reprocessing of the thought, feeling, sensation, or image. After a number of sets of eye movements, patients typically report psychological breakthroughs that normally would take months to achieve. The procedure is now being used for a wide variety of disorders, from multiple personality disorder to the post-traumatic stress disorders I worked with.

Experience has taught me that EMDR does two things better than any other approach. First, it rapidly and completely uncovers past traumatic events that are repressed or partially remembered. It is very common for a patient to say something like, "I can see the whole thing very clearly now" or "I felt like I was back there again." This experience by itself does very little to help the patient resolve the traumatic experience and, in fact, patients generally feel very distressed when they fully uncover a traumatic memory.

Once the traumatic memory is fully accessed in this way, however, the second strength of EMDR is that it allows the patient to process the memory so that the reliving component of the memory is eliminated, and the patient can then remember the traumatic event in a more abstract way. It is clear that this processing can only occur if the traumatic event is first uncovered and fully accessed.

No one is quite sure how it works, although it is apparent that it speeds up mental processing and is similar to the rapid eye movements (REMs) people experience in dream sleep. It is well known that during dream sleep, our brains process information at a higher rate than when we are awake. It has been assumed that this increased processing during sleep causes the rapid, back-and-forth eye movement. Having a fully awake person purposefully shift the eyes in the same way, as in EMDR, seems to cause the brain to process information more rapidly and efficiently. Thus EMDR draws upon the person's own natural ability to heal.

A number of studies have looked at the effects of EMDR on brain functioning. Levin, Lazrove, and van der Kolk (1999), for example, used neuroimaging to study the effects of EMDR. It was found that when subjects accessed a traumatic memory prior to EMDR, deep structures in the brain that represent the sensory and emotional components of the traumatic event were activated in isolation. After EMDR treatment, however, areas of the brain that hold the memory in a more abstract or symbolic manner were also activated. These findings support the consistent clinical observation that prior to EMDR, when people access a traumatic memory, they feel they are reexperiencing the event; after EMDR, they are able to remember the event in a more abstract and emotionally detached manner. I know of no other psychotherapeutic technique that can demonstrate such a clear change in brain function and an accompanying dramatic shift in perspective reported by the patient. ...

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