This is a guest post by Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, the online grief support group for atheists and other non-believers.
A lot of people think professional “psychics” are harmless. (Please henceforth assume that any time I use the word “psychic” it is in quotes.) Especially if you are sophisticated enough to understand the learnable skill of cold reading, you may simply chuckle at the gullibility of an audience gasping in awe as a celebrity psychic seems to “know things she couldn’t possibly know” about some stranger’s dead mother or grandfather or dog. Most of us even know otherwise intelligent people who believe that they or others have supernatural powers beyond their human powers of observation, insight into human nature, and a knack for the educated guess.
It wasn’t until I began grieving myself that I started seeing how psychics and mediums manipulate and profit from the bereaved. They can be particularly dangerous to — and particularly exploitive of — those experiencing the more complex, more painful and often longer-lasting grief that results from a traumatic death, a suicide, or the death of someone with whom the bereaved had a conflicted relationship. And boy, can they milk the heck out of the grief of parents! A friend for whom I care deeply has spent literally thousands of dollars on psychics since the drowning death of her toddler.
Some might still wonder, “If it makes her feel better, where’s the harm? It isn’t hurting anyone else.” I thought that too, until she began encouraging another grieving mother — a vulnerable younger woman — to seek help from the same high-priced psychic to contact her own baby who had died just days after birth.
Others might point out that not all self-declared psychics are out to make money. Some honestly believe that they can communicate with the dead, and are just trying to help people feel better, as we do at Grief Beyond Belief.
Just a week after my son died, my coworker tried to offer me that kind of “help.” She told me she had been in touch with my son, could “see” him. She told me he had told her why he had died. She told me that he hadn’t wanted me to suffer the pain of taking care of such a sick child.
As if there was anything I would not have been willing to suffer to keep him alive.
I left the room before I could start screaming at her. She thought she was being kind and supportive, so much so that she told me the same thing again a few weeks later. Her belief in her own psychic powers gave her permission to say something that as a friend and a counselor she would never have said otherwise.
Celebrity “psychics” such as Theresa Caputo, aka The Long Island Medium, present their own dangers. They do make money from private and group readings — a 30-minute session with Caputo is reported to cost around $400 to $500 — but most of their work is as performers, doing live shows, TV talk shows and their own “reality” programming. People who watch purely for entertainment or to admire the trick, as one would watch a magician or a hypnotist, are unharmed. But for those who are themselves grieving, the credulous crowds and fawning talk show hosts give undeserved weight to the promises that our loved ones still exist, still love us, and can be sought and found. Psychics — like preachers — tell believers that that death is not final, and that grief can be addressed through faith in a continuing connection with the immortal soul or spirit of the deceased. In other words, psychics, celebrity and otherwise, tell us that facing the reality of death — the first of psychologist J. William Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning” (Worden, 2009) — is unnecessary.
It’s a load of crap and a harmful one. The psychic — also like the preacher — profits, while the bereaved pay to delay exactly what is necessary for their healing. Psychics dine off the pain of the grieving, and celebrity psychics dine very well.
This is why I am joining Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson in beseeching Ellen Degeneres to end her willing participation in Theresa Caputo’s exploitation of the grieving members of both her live and television audiences. Ellen is an intelligent woman, and should know better than to support this type of manipulative, deceitful bullshit. Perhaps she thinks she needs to sink to this level to compete with her fellow talk show hosts, but she is mistaken. Truly great hosts have always displayed respect for the minds of their fans, not just played to their emotions. They have challenged their guests, not just enabled them. Great hosts offer their audiences wisdom and compassion, not false empathy and false hope.
Charlatans of Caputo’s ilk have existed for millennia, around the world. For one talk show host to deny one such charlatan one audience does not solve the problem of this particular brand of grief exploitation. But, as the song goes, “it’s a damn good place to start.