Psychics and Bereavement: A Consumer’s Guide
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Each of us has our own personal beliefs about what happens after death. In addition, some people believe that, if we have the right means, we can contact our deceased loved ones. Others contend this is impossible and still others just don’t know. I put myself in the latter camp. Part of the pain of the death of someone we love is the realization that we will never interact with this person again. Many bereaved people talk to their loved one everyday. But, beyond this, most of us wish that we could really know that our loved one is OK. This, in the face of the tragedy of their death, would give us some comfort.
There are some people out there – call them psychics or mediums – who claim they can contact the dead. They say they have special powers, a gift that enables them to do what few people can: reach the other side and communicate with those who have “passed over.” Is this possible? Are all who claim these powers capable of doing what seems to be beyond normal human ability? Are some or all of these people knowingly deceiving the most vulnerable group: the bereaved? Or are there a few true mediums who have bridged the gap between life and death, heaven and earth?
This article is designed to offer guidance so you can assess for yourself those who claim to have this special gift. Several years ago I was contacted by the producer of a locally-based TV talk show. He was searching for a person with a dual background as a bereavement counselor and skeptic/researcher to provide a balance for a self-proclaimed medium nearing completion of a 20-city tour. Typically, the psychic would be invited to appear on a TV show, ask for audience volunteers who wished to contact their deceased loved one, and do a 2-3-minute reading. He would tell participants what appeared to be amazing, not to mention, comforting, information about their loved ones. Many of these people would be quite moved as they listened to him.
In my research to prepare for this program, I learned of techniques often used by those claiming to be psychic. It is call Cold Reading. Look it up. The medium makes general statements that appear to connect with the bereaved person. He or she is excellent at reading body language and is an expert at asking probing questions.
My job on the program – as it is in this article – was not to say “don’t believe,” but rather to encourage the audience to ask questions. For example, I stated to the audience, “My mother died many years ago. If my mother wanted to contact me, she would make sure that I would get specific information so I would have no doubt it was she. In her love for me she would not send vague messages, but rather she would offer very specific pieces of information that only she and I would know. For example, I might ask her to tell me her middle name, the nicknames she used to call my sister and me, the first car she ever owned, her mother’s maiden name, and so on. I asked the visiting psychic to tell me my mother’s middle name, but he quickly declined. Such a small request that might give me some comfort and the psychic wouldn’t go there.
Psychics typically provide convenient arguments that make such rigorous, but necessary, testing impossible to do. They argue that you cannot command the dead to do or say what you want; and if you question, your doubt may cloud or disrupt the lines of communication. On the program, the psychic stated “If you’re skeptical, you set up a block.” My response to this was: My mother would want me to do everything I could to make sure I knew it was she. As you might guess, the majority of the audience listened to what I said, but apparently wished to believe the psychic they had come to see, rather than question.
The moderator asked me, “Bob, even if this is not for real, what harm is there giving bereaved people some comfort, if they choose to believe?” I responded that as time goes on and these persons understand the techniques psychics use to convince people, they may be harmed if they previously believed they had spoken with their loved one and now realize that they had been deceived.
The question comes up, “But what if I considered visiting a medium who is legitimate?” My answer is, “It is not my job to suggest that you not go or that this person is not for real.”
My only request is that you follow the suggestions below:
• Record everything.
If you call, tell the person that you are recording your phone conversation and that you would like to record the meeting. Typically, people who call or visit psychics forget how much they have told this person ahead of time and later are quite amazed at how much the psychic “knows.” Recording everything you say to this person clears this up. If the person declines your offer to record, find someone else.
• Don’t do it alone.
Consider telling at least one other person of your intent. Take this person with you and preferably have them in the room (and/or on the phone) with you in order to have their input. If you are reluctant to tell another person, ask yourself, “Am I afraid this person will try to talk me our of going?” Consider bringing this up with another bereaved person, because it is common for the bereaved to have considered this option.
• Prepare questions.
Begin with five no-doubt questions you will ask. Decide ahead of time, “If my loved one cannot answer all five of these very simple questions, then it puts doubt into the validity of the medium’s claim of contact.” Try to avoid choosing your five questions with answers that could have been previously investigated, such as, “How did she die?”
• Watch for tricks of the trade.
Be prepared for statements that sound like “hits”, but are actually techniques designed to make you believe. Examples are:
Putting the statements in question form that could generalize to most anybody, such as, “Was there a drug or alcohol problem?” This could mean anyone – the deceased, you, a relative. Almost all families have someone with this problem.
Widening the waste basket. If you said “no” to the previous question, then you might hear, “I’m getting some sort of abuse, maybe not alcohol, maybe physical or emotional or abusive words.” See what happened? The waste basket began with alcohol, widened to drug – and when that failed widened even more to physical and then even wider to emotional abuse. Then, just to make sure, to abusive words of anyone related to the deceased.
Another tactic is “letter” or “name” fishing, such as “I’m getting the letter ‘S’. Who is this?” Or “Who is Mike? Or Mark?” Most people know someone with these names.
The bereaved often wear jewelry and clothing of the deceased. Psychics often ask such questions as “who is wearing this shirt” or “where are the earrings?” Such statements are often met with tears.
• The psychic is never wrong.
If he says, “Have you lost something?”, you’ll search your memory to support this claim and if you respond “no”, he’ll make you feel as if you were wrong for not remembering. Or if, for example, he says, “Was it your sister who died?” and you say, “No, it was my daughter,” he’ll still be right when he says, “OK, I see a female standing there.”
I’ve only listed a few suggestions for you to keep in mind. No list can cover the multiple techniques that are used. If you wish to contact a medium, you have only two paths to take in your search for contact with your loved one. One path is to believe and to accept what you are told at face value. The other is to prepare yourself with tough questions and to be cognizant of alternate explanations for what you observe. Don’t be scared off by the warning that, “If you doubt, you’re out.” Your child or sibling would want you to have a healthy dose of skepticism in considering any attempt at communication.
When I initially considered writing this article, I hesitated because of my concern for your reaction to what I had to say. My intent was not to change your beliefs, but instead to give you additional tools to cope with your grief. I hope this has helped.
This article was originally published in the magazine of The Compassionate Friends (TCF), We Need Not Walk Alone.
Bob Baugher is a psychologist and certified death educator who teaches courses in Psychology and Death Education at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington. He has presented more than 800 workshops on grief and loss during the past several years.