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Grieving is a normal and healthy part of life, coping with the inevitable loss we all must face. But a significant minority of people suffer from complicated grief following a major life event, which can involve prolonged and disabling grief. Grieving can also be especially difficult for children who are still grappling with basic concepts of death and loss.

Grief counseling is not always required, and may even be counterproductive. This is a complicated area of ongoing research, and at present a cautionary approach seems to be warranted – only engaging in grief counseling for those with complicated grief who seek it out themselves. Again this can be tricky in children, where their guardians must make this determination on their behalf. The bottom line is that there is potential for harm, and a cautious evidence-based approach is best. Certainly addressing grief in children should not be left to those without proper training or system of professional conduct or ethics.

This is why it is disturbing when self-proclaimed psychic mediums insert themselves into the grieving process, especially when children are involved. Alleged medium Thomas John, for example, is planning a Zoom group “spirit circle” for children who have lost loved ones. Grieving children are a doubly vulnerable population, and such an event can only be described as exploitative. There is also tremendous potential for harm.

On his website promoting the event we find the usual “quack Miranda warning”:

We ask that guardians please use your own judgment whether or not your child is mentally able to attend group as conversations about death, grief, spirits and afterlife will be throughly [sic] discussed in session.

All Sales are Final

John clearly recognizes the delicacy of the situation, or else he would not feel the need to indemnify himself from any harm his services might cause. Basically – it’s all on the parents. And in case there were any doubt what his services are all about, he also makes it clear that “All Sales are Final”.

Unfortunately there has not been a lot of direct research looking specifically at the effect of those who are grieving consulting an alleged psychic medium. A qualitative review, however, points to both potential benefits and harms. The potential benefits are the obvious ones frequently pointed to by defenders of mediums – the person can feel a connection to the lost one, resolve issues, and get some sense of closure. These benefits are speculative, but worse, they are likely to be negated by the risks involved. Psychologist Baugher lists many potential negative outcomes:

  • Confusion as to whether real contact was actually made
  • The person contacted is often not the desired loved-one
  • The medium lacks the skill to put on a convincing performance
  • Negative messages are conveyed (presumably to motivate further reading and exploitation)
  • Guilt or shame from the stigma that may be attached to consulting a psychic
  • Dependence on the high produced by the apparent connection to a lost loved-one
  • Disruption in the normal course of grieving
  • Post-high letdown after the session

In John’s video promoting the event, he signals many of these potential issues, saying that he cannot promise to connect to the desired spirit, for example. Many of these potential negative outcomes are likely to be more severe in children, who will be more susceptible to confusion and may have a harder time dealing with disappointment on top of their grieving.

The National Alliance for Grieving Children recommends as a core to the approach to the grieving child is to be honest.

Although it may be challenging to share the truth about how someone died, honest answers build trust, help provide understanding and allow children to feel comfortable approaching us with questions because they know they can trust us to tell them the truth. Children know more than we think they do and by not telling the truth, we risk leaving children to process complicated information on their own, rather than with the loving adults in their lives.

They also point out that childhood grieving is often an important growing experience. The flip side of this is that deceiving children can destroy trust, reduce understanding, and may generate new problems as listed above, such as dependence.

Context is also important – we must remember that there is no evidence that any self-proclaimed medium is legitimate. Like all alleged psychics they largely rely on cold-reading techniques. This puts the burden on the person being read to make all the connections, and they are blamed if they cannot do this. That is one near-universal feature of faith-healers and psychics – they are never to blame. If the faith healing fails, that is because you lacked faith. If the message through the medium makes no sense, it is because you are failing to see the significance.

From any reasonable perspective, offering grieving children the deception of a medium performance is exploitation of a vulnerable population with the potential for psychological harm. I would urge any parent to consider the information here very carefully, and if complicated grieving is suspected, seek professional guidance. The more complicated question is – can anything be done to stop such exploitation? Efforts to shield children from harmful practices such as faith healing or unproven alternative treatments has run up against claims of parental rights and religious freedom. Parents have successfully employed this defense even when allowing their child to die a painful and preventable death because of their personal philosophy. I would argue that the state has a superior interest in protecting children from obvious exploitation and harm, but politically the state is often reluctant to exercise that duty and instead often prefer to defer to parental rights.

Still we won’t shy away from pointing out that such exploitation is wrong.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.