Experts look at séances as therapy for dealing with the loss of a loved one

May 13, 2009

GHOST THERAPY; UNT professor, students believe contact with dead can aid  healing
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Monday, March 13, 2006

LEWISVILLE — In what can only be briefly described as a séance, about a dozen people gathered at a dimly lit church and tried to conjure up the dead. One saw visions of a man without a face; another felt a dead girl come into the room and try to tell her grieving mother that everything is all right.

The group delving into this paranormal realm was led by a University of North Texas tenured professor and her graduate students, who believe that ghosts don’t haunt, they heal.

Counseling professor Jan Holden facilitates these “induced after-death communications,” or IADCs, and said she has seen them help people deal with the loss of loved ones. She gives a sympathetic ear to people who say the dead have come back to them.

“There is just no basis to say this is not a legitimate area of research. Thousands of people have had after-death communications, and probably what’s most hurtful is a culture that doesn’t prepare people for these experiences,” said Holden, coordinator of the counseling program at UNT’s College of Education. “I have no reason not to believe it’s real.”

But Holden, who has been at UNT since 1988, said she’s more interested in the beneficial, therapeutic effects of IADCs than in ghost hunting.

Reaching a dead friend

Holden patiently watched and offered encouragement as one of her former graduate students led Elli Covelli into an IADC. The 54-year-old Dallas woman was trying to find out whether a friend, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, shot himself by accident or on purpose.

Covelli’s eyes followed as Lisa Lane’s hand moved slowly back and forth. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, just as Lane instructed, but nothing happened.

“He ain’t here. There’s nothing. I’m not getting anything,” Covelli said. “It’s going to be four years, and I don’t have any answers.”

They tried again. Nothing.

She tried several more times and started to see something.

An elevator took her up to a garden lush with purple flowers. There was a faceless man on a swing. Covelli believes it was her friend.

“I kind of think that was who was on the swing next to me because I got this warm, fuzzy feeling,” she said.

She tried again and added, “It’s him. There’s nobody else, but he’s not going to talk to me.”

Covelli tried several more times to get an answer, but she got no word from him, only a sense that he was OK and that he still had the ring that matched hers.

“He just told me, ‘Hey, the ring. I’m always with you,’” she said. “I feel like I got what I needed right now. … Oh, I got the goose bumps like crazy.”

Healing, not hypnotism

The back-and-forth hand motions, the quiet room and the instructions to take a deep breath and close her eyes might sound like hypnotism, but Holden said it’s not.

Holden said that a hypnotist would try to plant suggestions in someone’s mind, such as that cigarettes are disgusting to someone who is trying to quit smoking. But in IADCs, the facilitator tells the person to be open to whatever may happen.

“It is not meant to put the person into a hypnotic kind of state,” Holden said. “It’s meant to actually stimulate both sides of the brain equally to facilitate these kinds of experiences.”

The technique the UNT group uses, called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing,” is merely a steppingstone into an IADC, she said.

Holden, who has studied near-death experiences for more than 20 years, said she first learned of this technique and of IADCs in an article by Allan Botkin in the Journal of Near-Death Studies in 2000. She and several of her graduate students traveled to Chicago a year ago to learn from Botkin, who is pioneering the technique and emerging as something of a contact-the-dead guru.

Botkin said he stumbled upon an IADC by accident while working with a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I thought he just hallucinated. I didn’t know what it was,” Botkin said. “It healed grief in a way that I and my colleagues had not thought possible, and for that reason I pursued it.”

Covelli and other people whom Holden and Botkin have worked with may feel better, but some psychologists have doubts.

“What I object to is labeling it in such a way that they may actually be able to contact their loved one. To me that’s no different than holding a séance,” said Roberta Diddel, a licensed counselor and lecturer in the Rice University psychology department. “It’s an implied promise that you’re going to be able to connect with someone who passed away, and as far as we know that’s not possible.”

She said healthy recovery from the loss of a loved one means eventually accepting that they’re gone, not searching for their ghost.

“The way they they’re labeling it creates the false sense that you’re actually going to get in touch with that person,” Diddel said.

Before taking participants through the process at the Lewisville church, Holden told them that they might not experience anything. She said she always tells people this.

Cyndi Rowan said that skeptics like Diddel can say what they want but that IADCs help healing. The 50-year-old Fort Worth mother of three went to Holden’s meeting in search of her daughter, who died in a car accident at age 18 more than a year and a half ago.

While Covelli tried to commune with her friend, Rowan was in another room trying to reach out to her daughter.

She swears it worked.

Rowan said she saw her daughter’s leather jacket and heard the leather crackle.

“It was so real. I thought ‘Am I making up something? Am I hallucinating?’ But it was there,” she said. “I just felt like I was smiling from within my chest, just a very euphoric feeling.”

When she opened her eyes, Rowan said, she remarked to others in the room how strange it was that a car drove by playing loud music like the kind her daughter used to play in her car. The others told her they heard no such thing.

Also, a woman who had never seen even a picture of Rowan’s daughter said she saw her and described what she looked like.

“She said she felt Heather was trying to tap me on the shoulder and tell me everything was OK,” Rowan said.

After almost nonstop uncontrollable crying since the accident, Rowan said she finally felt better.

“It’s been over a week, and I feel tremendous,” Rowan said later in an interview. “I felt a sense of peace come over me that evening, and I’ve felt that way ever since.”