Utilizing Trauma and National Grief in Therapy

By Mickey Skidmore, ACSW


This “Perspective” is a reprinted article which was originally published in the North Carolina Society of Clinical Hypnosis (NCSCH) Newsletter [Winter 2002, Vol.33, No.1].

I have heard more than one cancer patient convey something close to the following: “When I was diagnosed with cancer … my whole life changed. Now I live my life more intensely — richly.” Like it or not, the events 9/11/01 have forced all of us to reconsider our lives from a different perspective. As the shock to our national psyche begins to thaw, and the dust begins to clear from the trauma inflicted upon our country, what may be emerging is an America filled with emotional ambivalence. As we embark on a new year, we should expect an increasing number of clients with an layer of emotional ambivalence and grief underlying their presenting concerns.

If there was ever a time when we needed to better understand the emotional and behavioral characteristics of grief, it is now. Therapists have realized for some time now that grief is much more than a mere reaction to death. Rather, grief is a process of intense emotional suffering caused by trauma: death, disaster, misfortune, or loss. Such a process is difficult and painful enough without an underlying coexistence of opposing attitudes and feelings, or uncertainty as to which course to follow. As Americans grieve, we have responded to our national tragedy with a growing sense of emotional ambivalence — about many things — which will no doubt be intertwined in the clinical work we undertake with our clients.

Clinicians who employ Ericksonian methods in their therapy will recognize the parallels between such cancer patients and the growing numbers of emotionally ambivalent Americans. Both have been forced to re-evaluate a different perspective of their lives following traumatic events; both experience intense emotional suffering associated with a significant or even profound loss; and both struggle with uncertainty or indecisiveness about their mixed feelings and attitudes. Over the years, such a clinical moment has been the philosophical cornerstone of my practice. As the cancer patient implies, within such a moment is an “turning point” or opportunity for them to view their circumstances (and ultimately their live) from a different perspective.

A newly diagnosed cancer patient could emphasize being ravaged by disease, or angered by the possibility of a life cut short, or even the fear of death itself. Or they could accept such a diagnosis as a fork in the road. A chance to fight and take another path, realizing along the way a new found opportunity to treasure each day, each relationship with a deeper appreciation. As a result of 9/11/01, there is a similar duality present within our national unconscious. We can react to the tragedy with a growing sense of emotional ambivalence, or we can use these circumstances to help punctuate a new perspective for the emotional direction of our national psyche.

Those trained in Ericksonian approaches will also realize that embracing the emotional ambivalence associated with the tragedy (known as the principal of utilization), may provide natural trance induction opportunities within a therapy session, where clients can explore new perspectives and re-evaluate priorities in their lives. There has never been a greater opportunity to engage clients naturally with there own ambivalence, compared with orchestrating elaborately structured hypnotic inductions.

As we prepare for a return engagement with Steve Gilligan this spring, we might wonder about the impact of such emotional ambivalence on the relational aspects of our therapy. I suspect that following such a national trauma, Gilligan, in his unique style will remind us of an obvious truth that every competent therapist must recognize — unhappy people need to find ways to connect with people who care about them. In times of crisis, family becomes the ultimate safety net.

After all, satisfying human relationships are the most healing medications of all, and restoring human relationships that heal is the work that therapist are meant to do.


1) Skidmore, Mickey. “Grief — What is it and can it be understood.” News Argus Newspaper (p. 12-D), Goldsboro, North Carolina, March 11th, 1990. (June 1997),

2) Madaness, PhD, Cloe. “The therapist as humanist, social activist and systemic thinker.” THE EIGHTH INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS on Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and Psychotherapy, December 5-9, 2001, Phoenix, Arizona.