by Steve and Connirae Andreas
We have been teaching the grief resolution process in Master Practitioner trainings ever since we developed it over fourteen years ago. Heart of the Mind (1, Ch. 11) provides an introduction to this process, and a videotaped demonstration Resolving Grief (2) by Connirae provides an example of it. This process is quite often very useful, since the grief response of emptiness and sadness in response to the loss of a loved person is something that everyone will experience at some time in their lives, and many people experience many significant losses. Unresolved grief is often a major unrecognized factor in a wide range of other difficulties that bring people to seek therapy, including lack of motivation, depression, chronic illness, and mid-life crisis.
When we first decided to model the grief response, we contrasted the experiences of people who were particularly resourceful in dealing with significant losses, with the experiences of those who were still experiencing sadness and grieving, and who had difficulty getting on with their lives after a loss.
We found that those who were grieving, whether long-term or short-term, did something that could be described in one of two ways:
1. Recalling the ending.
Often they made the mistake of recalling the ending of the relationship, rather than the loving connection itself. For instance, they might recall the last heated argument that led to the breakup, or the ugly divorce process, the horrible terminal illness, or whatever other unpleasant events resulted in the ending of the relationship, rather than the loving relationship itself.
Even when they recall this event in a dissociated way, as if seen on a TV screen, the feelings are of unpleasantness, rather than loving connection. Many people recall these events as if they were happening here and now, with the full intensity of the unpleasantness of the original event. This ending of the relationship is not the precious experience that the person is grieving for, and this common mistake makes it impossible to experience the special loving feelings that they had with the lost person.
When someone recalls the ending, one of the first steps in the process is to ask them to think of what they loved and appreciated about the lost relationship, rather than the end of the relationship. This is a request to the client to change the content of their representation.
Others do recall the loving relationship, but in a way that is distant, separate, absent, or unreal, resulting in a feeling of emptiness, rather than the fullness that the person experienced in the loving relationship. There are a variety of ways to internally represent separateness or dissociation. You can make an image of the person at a great distance, or you can see yourself with the lost person, so that you can see the two of you enjoying each other over there. You can see a dent in the bed but see that there is no one in it, or the image of the loved person may appear transparent, fuzzy, or ghost-like, etc. One person had a relationship that had occurred mostly on the telephone, and after the person died, he could still hear her voice, but it had a tinny quality as it it were a recording, signifying that it was unreal.
With all these different ways of representing the person as distant and separate, the good feelings of being with them are lost. There is only a feeling of emptiness, and this causes the sadness and grieving.
When we interviewed people who said that they had dealt with their loss successfully, we found quite a number of people who had gotten on with their lives, but often with a sense of resignation or quiet defeat. When we asked them to think of the lost person, they would often sigh, their shoulders would slump a little, and their breathing would become shallower. Some would then say, “OK,” but in a somewhat high and strained tonality. While this is somewhat better than breaking into uncontrollable weeping, it was clear that their grief was not resolved. It was dealt with only to the extent that it was controlled so that it did not often intrude into their ongoing experience.
Resourceful Response to Loss
There were others, however, who had dealt with their losses in a much more positive and useful way. When we would ask them about a loss, there would often be a smile and softening of the face, and a gentle lift of the shoulders, and deeper breathing. They could speak about the lost person with softness, caring and happiness. One woman said, “When I think of Joe, as if he is right here with me. If I’m in the supermarket picking out oranges, he is right there with me helping choose the best ones, just like he used to.” This kind of response is clearly much more enjoyable, and provides easy access to all the special feelings that they had with the person who is now gone. These were the people that we studied to find out how they could be congruently happy about a significant loss.
When we asked them how they thought of the lost person, we found that they literally thought of them as if they were still present, and this gave them access to all the good feelings that they had during the actual relationship. There are a variety of ways to do this. Often people will simply think of the lost person as if s/he is nearby, life-size and three-dimensional, moving and breathing, and able to offer both verbal conversation and nonverbal response, as if s/he were physically alive and present in the real world. Some represent the lost person as if s/he were physically present in their heart, or chest area, or present in their whole body in some way. One person felt the lost person as if he were a comfortable close-fitting sheath embracing her whole body. Others had different ways of representing the lost person, but all of them resulted in a strong sense of the person being fully present with them in the moment, and easy to contact.
When we thought about this a bit, we realized that this way of recalling the lost person is really no different from what most of us do when someone we love is physically absent for a short time. Think now of someone who is very special to you in an existing relationship, but who is not physically near you at the moment, and notice how you represent that person in your mind. What images, sounds or voices, and feelings do you use to think of that person?
When I (Steve) do this with Connirae, who is in town on errands at the moment, she is standing by my left side, life-size and breathing, and she feels present with me, as if she were actually in the room, so the good feelings that I have had with her are readily available to me. Even though it is possible that she was actually killed in a car accident, or ran off with another man, I can represent her as if the relationship still exists, and enjoy all the warm feelings that are part of that relationship. Psychologists have called this ability “object constancy,” and the principles used in the grief resolution process can also be used to teach this ability.
Object constancy is a skill that smaller children have not yet learned. When mommy leaves, it is as if she is gone forever, and the small child will weep inconsolably, in what is often called “separation anxiety.” Luckily, most small children are also unable to keep the image of mommy leaving in their awareness for very long, and are easily distracted by other events. It takes some time for the child to learn how to keep an associated image of mommy with them, so that they can retain the feeling of the comfort and security of the relationship when she is gone for a while.
As the foregoing shows, whether or not a person thinks of someone as absent or present is independent of “reality,” and whether an outside observer would say that there is an ongoing relationship or not. It is only dependent on how the person represents the loved person in their mind, and this is the key to the grief resolution process.
The essence of this process is to teach this important skill to someone who is grieving about someone who is now represented as separate and gone. Since there is a great deal of variation in exactly how an individual person represents someone as either lost or present, we first have to gather some information to find out exactly how this particular person does it.
We ask someone who is grieving to first think about someone special who feels present in his/her life (although they are not physically present at the moment, and may be dead or gone permanently), and then about the person they are grieving about. Then we ask them to think of the two people simultaneously, and ask them to notice the submodality process differences between them. The loss will typically be represented as distant and separate in some way, and with a feeling of emotional emptiness, while the existing relationship will be represented with a sense of presence and emotional fullness.
There will typically be very important differences in the location of these representations in personal space. For instance, one may be close, to the left, and larger, etc. while the other is farther, to the right, and smaller, etc. There are usually many other differences. One image may be brighter than the other, or more colorful, or moving, one may be silent while the other has sounds or voices, etc. These are all differences that are completely independent of the content of the representations. Once these differences are known, it is a fairly simple process to transform a situation of emptiness and grieving into one of fullness and rejoicing.
Usually taking the image of the loss experience and moving it to the location of the experience of presence is all that is needed to transform the loss into an experience of felt presence. Typically the other differences in brightness, color, movement, etc., change spontaneously when the location is changed. If these other parameters do not change spontaneously, we simply ask the client to change them until the loss experience is fully transformed into an experience of presence.
When this transformation is complete, they will recover the good feelings that they had with the lost person. When this occurs, the client will often cry, but these tears are very different from the tears of loss. These are tears of reunion with the lost feelings, and it is important to allow the client to take time to experience them fully.
Most people are quite happy to be able to transform their grieving to a reconnection with the lost experience, but some will have objections. Before proceeding, it is very important to respect these objections, and find out what the positive outcome of each objection is. Once the outcome is known, the task is to find a way that the the transformation will either not interfere with the outcome of the objection, or even support it better than the grieving does. Here are a few examples:
“I don’t want to say goodbye.” I agree with you completely. Many people have the mistaken notion that they have to say goodbye in order to stop grieving, but that is exactly backwards. What is necessary is to say hello again and reestablish the loving connection that you once had with that person.
“If I experienced the lost person as being here with me, people would think I’m nuts.” We certainly don’t want that to happen. But I think that could only be a problem if you talk to others out loud. Throughout your life you think of other people, and perhaps even have internal conversations with them, I know I do, without others having any idea what is going on in my head.
“If I experienced the lost person as being here with me, it might interfere with my relating to other people in reality.” We certainly don’t want to do anything that would interfere with how you relate to others in the present. I think that you would agree that your preoccupation with grieving for this lost person has been greatly interfering with your relating with other people. On the other hand, the way that you think of your friend gives you a felt sense of connection that actually supports your connecting with others when that’s appropriate, and I can promise you that thinking of the lost person will work in the same way. And of course if I am wrong, we can always change it back to the way it is now.
“Grieving is a way to honor the dead.” I completely support your desire to honor the lost person, and grieving certainly is an expression of the depth of your feeling. On the other hand, what better way to honor this person could there be than to carry him joyfully with you in your heart for the rest of your days? If you died tomorrow, would you want your loved ones to grieve and be unhappy, or to remember you joyfully with full feelings of love and appreciation for your special qualities as they move on with their lives? Which way do you think the person you have lost would prefer?
“Well, I guess it would be fine for me to do that, but if I were happy about the person who is gone, my family and friends would think that I didn’t care about her/him.” You want to be sure that those around you don’t misunderstand you. You can either explain in detail what you are experiencing, and offer them the same kind of choice that I am offering you, or you can simply put on a sad face at appropriate times, to fit their idea of how you should be reacting.
Whatever the objection, we assume that it is based on a positive and worthwhile outcome that the person is concerned about, and our task is to find a way that the person can proceed with the grief resolution process, confident that the objection will be fully respected, and its positive outcome preserved.
Resolving Grief Outline
Part I: Reunion with the lost experience.
Someone who is grieving typically represents the lost person as separate from them in the past. Part I of the grief pattern recovers this lost experience so that it becomes an associated resource that is fully experienced in the present. The following steps are written as instructions for you to learn this process, either with yourself, and/or working with someone else.
1. Find a “break state” stimulus If the person is crying or depressed, etc., you need to find a way to change this state to a more useful state before you attempt to begin the process. Even if the client starts the process in a good state, s/he may slip into grieving as you go through the early stages of the process, so you may need to be able to break state later. Asking the client to stand up and walk around, introducing a startling distraction, or asking the client about an experience of resourcefulness or competence, etc. will usually be sufficient to break state.
2. Loss (absence/emptiness). Think of an experience of one of the two following options:
a. An actual loss that you are grieving about and about which you feel a sense of emptiness or absence, or a loss that you haven’t fully dealt with yet. “Think of someone you are presently grieving about, or an unresolved loss that makes you feel uncomfortable when you think about it.” Make very sure that your representation is of what you valued and didn’t want to lose, not the loss of the relationship. For example, if your child died of cancer, and you recall the child as emaciated and comatose shortly before death, that is probably not what you are sorry you no longer have. What leads to grieving is what you valued and now miss the child’s laughter and play, special qualities, future promise, etc.” If the person just sees the ill child or a coffin, ask “How do you know something valuable was lost?” or “How do you know this is worth grieving over?” until s/he thinks of the valued experience, not its negation. This step is extremely important; the pattern will not work without it, and any attempt to proceed with the process will plunge the client into unnecessary unpleasantness.
b. A potential loss that you hope never happens, but if it does, you’d like to be prepared for it. “Think of someone who is very precious to you and represent this special relationship, but as forever lost and gone.” You can imagine that you have just been told that s/he recently died in a car accident, and use that representation. If you choose this option, you will be doing “pregrieving,” programming in a useful coping response to a possible future loss.
As the person accesses the experience of loss, notice all the many nonverbal responses that you can observe in their breathing, posture, facial expressions, etc. so that later in the process you can recognize when it is changed, and notice if this state recurs.
Presence (fullness). Now think of an experience of one of the following:
a. A loss experienced as presence. Think of a positive experience of an actual loss that does not feel like a loss. Even though s/he is actually dead or gone, you experience the lost person as being ‘still with you’ in a positive and resourceful way. You can still feel all the good feelings that you had with that special person. You have a vital sense of presence or fullness when you think of this person, as if s/he were not lost to you.
b. Someone you care for who is not actually present. Think of someone who you typically have available to you in your life but who is not physically present at this moment as you think about him/her now. For example, you have a loving friend, a spouse, or a child who is actually distant at the moment. Yet when you think about this person, you experience him/her with you as a present resource. Most people can easily think of an example of this. Even if someone is very socially isolated, there will be some brief experiences of a warm relationship. (And if you can’t find one, you can help them create one.) Warning, if you use this option, be very cautious about presuppositions that may be linked to this experience that may not be appropriate, such as that the person could always be contacted again in the real world. You can say, “We are using this experience only to find out how you already know how to represent someone as present with you so that you can learn how to regain the feelings that you had in that loss experience. You and I both know that you won’t be able to contact that lost person in real life in the future, the way you can with the person who is still in your life.”
Notice all the nonverbal responses that distinguish this state from the previous experience of loss. Later you will use these responses to verify that the loss has been successfully transformed into presence.
4. Contrastive Analysis:
Compare these two internal experiences of loss and presence, in order to notice the process differences in how you think of them. When you think of the loss experience, what do you see/hear/feel (tactile)? When you think of the presence experience, what do you see/hear/feel (tactile)?” The location of the two representation in the person’s personal space is particularly important, and may be all the information that you really need. (If the person is in considerable distress, move directly to the “Congruence check” below.) Make a list of all the submodality process differences between the two. For instance, the loss may be a dissociated, still, black and white photograph, while the presence is an associated color movie, etc. Especially note differences in movie/slide, association/dissociation, and transparency.
5. Testing Submodality Differences (optional).
Usually all you actually need is the location of the two representations in space, but sometimes it is useful to know about other differences, and they can give you useful information for checking later, as well as a valuable experiential basis for working with others.
Try changing each of the submodality differences on your list one at a time in order to modify the loss experience and make it similar to the experience of presence. For instance, “Watch the still photograph, and allow it to unfold into a continuous movie of what happened before and/or after the still photograph. When the still has become a movie, notice to what extent that changes your feeling of loss into a feeling of fullness. Change each submodality back before testing the next one. In the example given, you would make the movie of loss back into a slide before changing the black and white into color. Find out which submodalities are most powerful in reducing the kinesthetic feeling of loss and increasing the sense of presence. If you find that changing one submodality automatically changes some other submodalities on your list, that is an indication that it is one of the more powerful ones, what we call a “driver”).
6. Congruence Check:
“Do you have any objections to changing your experience of this loss, so that you experience that person as being a present resource? Would any of your family members object if you stopped grieving now?” Satisfy any/all objections before proceeding, primarily through content reframing, as discussed earlier.
7. Transformation (Mapping Across).
Change the experience of loss into one of presence and fullness, starting with the most powerful submodalities you have identified. Usually changing the location of the loss image to the location of the presence image will be enough, and all the other differences will change spontaneously. “Allow that image of the lost person to move over to the location of the presence image.” But occasionally it is helpful to also suggest making other changes. “As that image moves into that other location, you will probably find that it also becomes life-size and three-dimensional, and the color will change to pastel hues,” etc. Usually the content of the representation remains the same. However, at times the content may spontaneously change, or need to be adjusted in order to match the structure of presence.
As the person makes the change, there will usually be a softening and relaxation of posture and facial features, and often tears. These will usually be the soft tears of reunion, and this is a very good sign that the transformation of the loss experience has occurred in a powerful way. However, It I can’t always tell the difference between the tears of reunion and the tears of grief, so I always ask to be sure. “I need to check on something with you. There are tears of sadness when something is lost, and there are tears of reunion when something is regained. I think that what you are experiencing now are tears of reunion; is that correct?” If they are actually tears of sadness, it means that something was missed in earlier steps, and it’s necessary to back up one or more steps to determine what is incomplete, and finish it before proceeding.
“Think of the loss experience now. Does it feel like a resource to you in the same way as the original presence experience? Is the new representation of the loss now the same as the presence, in terms of the submodalities?” Observe the person’s nonverbal responses to see if they match the calibration you did in the original “presence” experience (step 2). Direction of gaze is usually a very good indication of whether s/he is thinking of the loss or presence experience, but there should be many other differences that will give you the same information. If there are still differences, identify them and use them to complete the change. Occasionally a few differences will remain between the original experience of presence and the new representation of what had previously been a loss. As long as the person feels it as a fully resourceful presence, it does not have to be a perfect match.
Part II: Reengaging With the World
Part I utilizes whatever internal resources and codings the person already uses in order to transform an experience of something lost in the past into a resource experienced in the present. Some people’s natural strategies for getting over loss don’t include programming them to seek out appropriate nourishing experiences in the real world to replace the lost ones. It’s possible that they could feel good about their internal resources, and just sit in a closet for the rest of their lives. Part II is derived from the most effective strategies for getting over a loss, and makes sure that the person will actively seek out appropriate new experiences in the future.
1. Access the Valued Experience:
“Take the valued experience that you just transformed from a loss into presence and fullness, and represent it in whatever way is natural and easiest for you now.”
2. Identify Values/Outcomes:
“Keeping that representation in mind, identify and represent in a different location the qualities, aspects, values or outcomes of that experience that make it valuable and special to you. For example, if you lost a good friend, perhaps you valued that friendship because you felt that you could just be yourself with that person, or you enjoyed the particular bizarre sense of humor that s/he had. Think of the special qualities of the relationship you had with this person-the love, comfort, stability, tenderness, humor, spontaneity, or whatever else was very special to you about the experiences you shared with that person. I want you to think of these qualities that made that relationship valuable. Ask yourself the question, ‘What did that relationship provide for me that was valuable?’ ”
As these instructions are given, it can be helpful to gesture first to the location in space where the person represents the presence, and then to a separate location, in the quadrant of the visual field in which the person constructs images (usually upper right).
“If this kind of experience, with these qualities were to occur in your future, what form might it take? How could you experience these qualities and satisfy these outcomes in different ways with other people in the future, considering your present age and living situation, etc.?” Preserving these qualities, values, or outcomes, allow additional representations to form (gesturing to yet another location, also in the visual construct quadrant) that are appropriate to who you are now and into the future. These representations will likely be somewhat different from the experiences you had in the past, in order to be congruent with who you are now and what is realistically available to you now and into your future. These representations should be attractive and convincing, but like other future representations, they should not be too specific; they should be somewhat vague and unclear, allowing for a variety of possibilities, and the inevitable uncertainty of the future.
4. Congruence Check:
“Do you have any objections to having these kinds of experiences or directions a part of your future? Would anyone else in your life have any objections to this?” Objections at this point are infrequent, but if there are any, simply back up to adjust the representations in an appropriate way, and/or reframe to satisfy any and all objections before continuing.
5. Placing the New Experiences in the Future:
“Next I want you to take this picture and first make it glow, and then multiply it into a stack like a deck of cards. As the cards multiply, each one will spontaneously become somewhat different, each one a different possibility for having that kind of experience in the future. Then cast these cards out into your future so that they spread out and fall into many different places. When you have finished, you will see lots of little sparkling dots of light that indicate where each card landed in your future, drawing you forward.” (Thanks to Robert McDonald for this special embellishment.)
Commentary and Other Applications
Traumatic Losses: Some losses are mingled with the traumatic shock of a sudden car accident, or the unpleasantness of a terminal illness. In this case it is crucially important to separate the valued experience that was lost from the traumatic way that it was lost, and treat these two experiences differently. “Look, the loss that you experienced is quite different from the way that the loss occurred. You are grieving for the person, not the car accident that caused his death. Now I want you separate the loving relationship from the way that it ended into two different locations” (gesturing in two different locations in space).
First use the phobia/trauma cure ( 1, Ch. 7 ) with the unpleasantness, and then use the grief resolution process with the loss.
Anger or Resentment: If there is significant anger or resentment, this will interfere with the grief resolution, so it is important to first resolve this using the forgiveness pattern. (3)
Different Content: Although grief is usually thought of in relation to the loss of a loved person or relationship, losses can also involve the loss of a thing, an activity, a location, or information (the other four categories of what has been called “meta-program content-sorting”) For some people the loss of a cherished ring, the loss of the ability to play a life-long sport, the loss of a family home, or the loss of special memories or other information can be as severe as the loss of a loved person. Often a loss involves several of these simultaneously; the loss of a person can also result in the loss of the activities and the things that were shared, the location in which those activities occurred, etc. The same pattern works equally well with any such loss, as long as the principal content in the resource of presence matches the content of the loss.
Loss of Self: Whenever a loss occurs in the world, there is also the potential for the person to experience a loss of self. Someone who loses a job may also lose a sense of herself as a valued employee, and someone who loses a child, may lose a sense of himself as a parent and caretaker. The grief pattern works equally well with this kind of loss, but it is respectful to acknowledge this aspect of a loss, which can sometimes be more important than the others.
Loss of a Dream: Some people will grieve as deeply for something that they never had as for something that they actually did have and then lost. A woman who has dreamed of having children who finds that she can’t, or a man who has dreamed of corporate success who finds himself in a dead-end job, may grieve as severely as someone who loses a child or a top job that they actually had. Even though the person never had the content of the dream in reality, it was so real in their mind that the realization that it will not occur can provoke severe grief. Even someone who actually achieves their dream of success often finds that it is not at all what they expected it to be, and may still experience this kind of loss. Often this loss of a dream is described as a “mid-life crisis.” A dream is usually thought of as being in the future, but it can also occur in the past. Someone who has had an abusive childhood may vividly imagine the loving and secure family life that they never had. The grief resolution process also works very well to resolve this kind of loss.
Pregrieving can prepare you for a future loss. You imagine that you have lost a present relationship, and go through the same process. This is particularly useful for the friends and relatives of people with a terminal illness. Often the friends of a dying person are so upset over the impending loss that they can’t make good use of the little time that they have left with the dying person. And sometimes the dying person finds himself emotionally taking care of the healthy people around him! Pregrieving is also very useful for relationships that are overly dependent. It can release an ongoing relationship from the clinging behavior that is often based on the fear of future loss. The pregrieving process is also particularly appropriate for “ambiguous loss” in which someone has disappeared and is presumed dead, but could still be alive.
The grief resolution process is useful in a very wide range of situations, far beyond what it was originally created for. Many people are troubled by unresolved losses, and may have no idea that these losses are involved in the problems that concern them. The results of using the grief resolution process can be profound and surprising, affecting a great deal of someone’s life. It can be useful to simply ask a client about unresolved grief and deal with it, even when the presenting problem is quite different, and apparently unrelated to a loss.
This method is quite easy to learn and use. The “Resolving Grief” DVD (2) provides a clear demonstration, and the book, Heart of The Mind, outlines the steps in a way that is easy to follow. We hope you find it useful in your own life, and/or with your clients.
1. Andreas, Connirae and Andreas, Steve. Heart of the Mind, Real People Press, 1989
2. Andreas, Connirae. “Resolving Grief” (DVD) Demonstration with a man who lost a child, Lakewood CO, NLP Comprehensive.
3. Andreas, Steve. “Forgiveness” (free online article) “Anchor Point” May 1999, pp. 5-16.
©2002 by Steve and Connirae Andreas—used with permission
To purchase these and other books, CDs and DVDs by Steve Andreas, Connirae Andreas, and Tamara Andreas, visit Real People Press.