"Now Go Paint the Rest of Your Life"
A traumatic event sometimes has the effect of putting life on hold for
an extended period of time. Trauma can trigger grief because of a tangible
loss or because of the shattering of a belief. A number of years ago
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross helped define six stages of grieving. She noted that
the stages do not move sequentially, but more like waves, where at any
given moment the next wave may land at a different place on the shore. The
six components: denial, anger, bargaining, depression/sadness,
acceptance/resignation and growth occur over time naturally and
idiosyncratic to the person and the event. If a person gets stuck in a
particular aspect of the grieving, it can be like driving a car with the
parking brake not fully released: it puts a drag on the ability to move
forward with life.
One client, "Dorothy," who had been through such a traumatic
event was referred to me because of some lingering symptoms secondary to a
car accident which had occurred some 18 months before. She had been a
passenger in a car which was unexpectedly hit from behind. The impact
pushed the car into the car ahead of her. For at least a year following
the accident she was unable to drive because of dizziness which would
occur at unpredictable times. In addition to this and other unpleasant
neurological symptoms such as periods of confusion and being easily tired,
she had classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Her neurologist sensed
that these had not fully resolved and referred her to me.
Over a period of several months she had a series of waking dreams which
incorporated symbolic aspects of how the accident had impacted her life.
The first several of these each included a sudden death. In one at the end
of a long, simple life the man (Harry) died suddenly of a massive heart
attack. Greeted by relatives who had died before him, he was aware of both
wanting to be with them and of being anxious to go back to another
existence. At a symbolic level his wish could be understood as a metaphor
for Dorothy’s wish to be able to go back to the way things were and have
another chance at life.
In a second waking dream as a young widow (Anne) during World War II,
she was struck and killed by a car while crossing a street as a
pedestrian. As she floated above the body I asked her to notice her final
thoughts. Speaking about Anne in the third person she told me:
She’s confused. She didn’t know, didn’t really know what
happened and why it happened so quickly. She knows she was hit by
a car, but doesn’t accept that her life is over. It was too
This matched Dorothy’s own experience following her car accident.
Prior to that she had led an independent life as a single woman running
her own small business, a business which required considerable time spent
in the car. Suddenly she had found herself totally dependent on others for
such simple things as getting to a grocery store. She had found it quite
difficult to accept such basic help from other people. In the waking
dream, Dorothy first helped Anne resolve her confusion and disbelief. Then
she helped Anne reunite in the light with her husband. In exchange, Anne
offered to return the favor.
She wants to help me. She sees my cloudiness, my confusion. She
doesn’t think she can clear it all by herself. She’s touching
my head, giving peace and happiness. She keeps embracing me,
telling me to be strong, to keep working at it....She wants to
keep helping me. I see her saying she’ll be with me, watching.
She’s extending her hands, touching my head to try to make
things better. I feel calmer when she touches me. Almost like we’ve
gone from being friends and companions to her watching for me, her
taking care of me. ["Is that okay with you?" I asked.]
Yes. I trust her.
At this point I helped her create what psychologists call an operant
conditioning cue as discussed in chapter three. In its basic form, if
A happens it will trigger B to happen. In this case I helped her anchor
Anne’s calming touch (B) as a response to future feelings of cognitive
cloudiness (A). Then I built on the idea of Anne as a resource by inviting
her to notice if there were others who could help.
Schenk: Then in the future if you are feeling some of that
cloudiness, can she come and touch your head to restore that
sense of calm and peacefulness?
Dorothy: Yes. I was there for her to help her; she’ll do
what she can to help me. Now our roles are reversed. She’ll
help me find a way back as much as she can.
S: As you helped her to find her husband, can she bring others
to you who may also help?
D: Yes. There is an aura of purple around her helping her. I
don’t see anyone behind her but I feel tremendous help through
her for me. I catch glimpses of my father (who had died a decade
earlier) now and then; the rest is just an energy or aura around
her. It’s very big. It’s all very positive, very loving, very
warm. They want to do all they can....I feel she and everyone with
her will really be there for me. They won’t be able to do it
all. She’s telling me she won’t do everything, but will always
be there whenever I need her. They’ll be there to give me
strength, guidance, the capacity to go forward.
Then as the images drew to a close she commented:
I don’t see the purple any more. It’s just all lighter.
There is a warmth around her that comes into me through her hands.
Another application of an operant condition cue created during trance
occurred a few months later when she was driving home one evening after
dark. Three weeks before we had done some trance work recalling a
multi-state car trip she had driven solo during her early twenties. She
had begun that trip with some doubts about her ability to complete it. I
had helped her anchor her emerging confidence with a visual image that was
to re-emerge on this night-time drive home from another part of the state.
She noted that she had begun to have problems with the oncoming headlights
and the white lines in the road beginning to visually cross. She reported
a sudden shift in experience as she heard my voice (from the earlier
session) telling her that the center line was her anchor and the stars
were her guide. She reported that she immediately relaxed and did much
better the rest of the drive home.
Like watching a good movie several times and noticing things that were
overlooked before, Dorothy returned to the theme of sudden loss in her
next waking dream. In this one she was again a man (George) who had
married and raised two children. In his later years he suffered a stroke
which left him unable to speak for the few days before he died. She noted
that "he didn’t feel robbed because his life ended early. He’s
just sorry he couldn’t talk with his family at the end." That led
into a dialogue between Dorothy and George in which he cautioned her:
He’s telling me to not let that happen to me. To always
express my emotions and feelings every day, because you don’t
know if you’ll have a next time to talk with people....Again he
expresses sorrow at not being able to express himself at the end.
He tells me to really work at what I’m going through now so that
I don’t have to go through these limitations.
Following up on the neurological implications of a stroke in her dream
symbolism I asked her to scan her own body for parallels. She commented:
That’s what he’s telling me. This (the stroke) happened to
him, not to me. It’s all his, not mine. He’s telling me to put
all those thoughts and confusions behind me.
I see George and Anne now, both there to help me. What happened
to them is not to be reflected in me....I feel like they’re
telling me there are other lives. They are happy I’ve recognized
in my own experience the value of what’s important and what isn’t
– the people we love and not possessions, not work. An
understanding of the value of life. They’re saying it will
enrich my relationships with family and friends. This deepens them
even more than before. I’ve learned to give up fear by being
willing to ask for help. It’s sharing of help whenever anyone
needs support. They say I need to get more rest so my brain can
heal even more.
At the end of that session she commented again how difficult it had
previously been for her to accept help. The clear message she heard from
Anne and George went in at both the literal and metaphorical level:
"It’s okay (to ask for help.) We’re happy to do it. You’ve done
it for us." In the time since that waking dream she has confirmed
that it has become easier both to ask for help and to accept it when
Three months after her waking dream as Anne, Dorothy returned for a
second look at Anne’s life. She focused on the time period between her
husband’s death and her own death. We followed that with a "what
if" sequence in the dream. The potential usefulness of this was
embodied in the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie the main
character finds himself in a time warp in which it is the same day every
day. However, he is able to change anything he wants about his own
behavior. As he pays attention to the results of his actions, he slowly
learns about the kinds of behaviors which produce desirable results in
relationships. For Dorothy, this meant allowing herself to play out in the
dream the "what if" had Anne not been killed in the accident.
Because, by definition, the "what if" is rarely possible in real
life, sometimes a person can get stuck fantasizing about it, often in the
form of, "If only..."
feel like she was really kind of lost after he (Anne’s
husband) died. Not knowing what to do with her time or what
direction to take. Not long after she learned of his death she
was still making plans to go back home; to go back to her family
for the healing process from his death. She’d never really
worked because they had married and she did volunteer work
there. But I feel she was a very independent person. She would
have made it, pulled life together. She was going back home to
Schenk: Consider playing out Anne’s life in a "what
if" had she not died.
D: (Pause.) I see her working with children in an orphanage or
school or charity hospital because the children affected her so
deeply. She would have lived at home with her family. She would
have married again. I really do see she would have taught young
children. She was involved beyond just being a teacher. I think
she would have had a happy life.
S: Then when you’re ready, moving to the end of her life,
into the light, pausing to reflect on these choices.
D: I see she did have a happy life with children of her own and
another loving husband. I see how different one moment can make in
a life. Like, one turn in the road, how different one path would
be as opposed to the other.
S: Notice any parallels between Anne’s life and your own
situation now of a different path. You might ask Anne for
suggestions she may have.
D: I feel she’s touching me again. She’s saying she didn’t
have the choice. I’m grateful I did; I still have my life. It
can still be good. This can be dealt with. Maybe it will go away;
it will be dealt with. She’s saying, "Enjoy the gift of
life." (Pause) She’s leaving me now. I feel better though.
She’s not here with me but is looking down. She’ll be with me
when I need her. I feel better just having been with her.
S: If it’s important, confirm that you can call on her.
D: Yes, she’ll always be near.
This dream sequence helped punctuate a theme which was to re-emerge in
other dreams: this accident didn’t kill you. You still have the option
to go forward with your life. Similar to Anne’s "what if"
scenario, Dorothy had enacted her own "what if" change of
direction since starting therapy. She had sold her business and joined
with several others in starting up a new business which did not require
her to be out on the road.
In the dream sequence presented below, she and the woman in the dream,
"Claire", have a lovely dialogue about this notion of moving
forward. The catalyst for the dream was to explore hypnotically some ways
to strengthen her visual processing skills. Certain kinds of tasks had
continued to be difficult for her since the car accident.
S: As I was rereading some of my notes this morning, I
remembered that the first time we used hypnosis we began with what
for you was an image of your home as a child, and that soft green
color that embodied that wonderful sense of safety and comfort
and, of course, at later times we have used the beach imagery. So
I invite you to pick one of those – or a different image – as
a place to once again let the body remember that wonderful sense
of comfort and relaxation, and to call on the remembrance of those
we have met on other journeys, in other stories, whether Anne or
George or your Dad or all of those and more, as we look today for
a story from another time and place where the kinds of things that
you were so good at serve as a reference point, a kind of
prototype, that we can draw on today as a means of rebuilding
(neurological) pathways for anything which may still have been
impacted from the accident. And so, as we do, to move easily
across time and space surrounded by a beautiful beam of light,
traveling safely at the speed of thought and touching down into a
place and time where the story that emerges … the life of one
who is central to the story, contains those elements that are
right on target with the goals of today’s session.
D: I see myself just being drawn up and out of my room when I
was a teenager, last living at home, up into the air and crossing
a body of water … again, it feels like going back to the British
Isles. I see the surf crashing against rocks and the shore. Again,
I feel myself walking on a hilltop away from the shoreline. It’s
a sunny day. It’s not a lush landscape, there are just a few
trees here and there … tall grass blowing in the breeze. Almost
feels like I’m a child. I go there with my father … just
dancing around as he’s walking. We’re going back home. It’s
just a happy day. I see myself just laughing and playing around as
he’s walking us back. I see a girl in a long dress … eight
years old keeps coming to mind.
S: And as always you can move forward or backward in time so
that you can become familiar with each point that would be useful
D: I was just seeing myself back at our home, inside the home.
We’re cooking dinner, other children around. Now it feels like I’m
a teenager in that same home. But still there are other children ,
other brothers and sisters. It’s like we’re talking about me
going away to school somewhere. It feels like London and I’ll be
staying with relatives. I see horse-drawn carriages in the
streets, cobblestone streets. It’s like it would be unusual for
me to go to school, but because I really want it so much, the
family has made special arrangements. Now I can see myself walking
in the streets with long dresses, a long coat, some kind of a hat
or bonnet tied around my neck, carrying a large portfolio kind of
thing under my arm.
S: And how have your studies been going?
D: I’m very happy. I see a drawing class. I see myself taking
off the bonnet, spreading out my pencils, charcoals. There are
mostly men in the class, just a few girls. Looks like we’ve gone
through all kind of different lessons with objects and dimensions
and landscapes and nudes. Now it’s more still life … seeing
the shading. I’m really happy. There’s a group of students
with several people and we’re all very close and help each
I see one young man I’m getting especially close with. Now it
seems we’re married and we’re in the south of France, just on
those cliffs together drawing. Feels like watercolors. Yes, I like
watercolors and he likes working with oils. I like the softness of
S: Does this also serve as a way that the two of you can enjoy
doing something that on the one hand is the same and yet not
really competing with each other because the medium is different?
D: Yes, I guess it could be that way. Sounds right in that we
like feeding and interacting with each other with the different
mediums we’re interested in, critiquing each other’s work. But
we are never upset with the suggestions of the other. I see it as
happy discussions. He just called my name. It’s Claire.
S: And just for fun, at some point you might hear yourself or
someone else saying his name.
D: Yes, I was saying "Joseph" as if I use his full
name when I’m teasing him. We have a small bungalow. We do a lot
of our work there but we like going out and doing landscapes. I
see one room in the bungalow that’s really bright, with lots of
windows, and it’s where we have the easels set up.
S: I don’t know if it matters whether the painting that the
two of you do is how you support yourselves or whether there is
some other way that the two of you derive the funds necessary to
take care of the cost of living.
D: I see us painting all the time. We’re comfortable in our
living, not wealthy, but have plenty of money to live a nice life.
I see myself pregnant now, but still painting. I see how funny it
looks to be pregnant in those big, long dresses! They are very
comfortable dresses for being at home and working. I have a
daughter. We’re all so happy.
S: What name did the two of you choose?
D: Beth … Elizabeth, but we call her Beth. We’re still
doing our painting together. She’s a toddler now, just running
around with us. We enjoy our days of going out to the fields
whether it’s to paint the landscapes, or the sea, or the fields
of flowers … and the fact that we can all be together while we’re
doing this. I see a little gallery where our work is. We’re
taking in some new paintings. It’s just a small, little shop in
the village …white walls, cobble streets again.
S: Is this down in France or back in England or somewhere else?
D: No, we’re still in France. Still feels like the south of
France. We are near the ocean – not the ocean, the
S: Does that mean that the two of you have learned somewhere
along the way to be conversant in French?
D: Yes, it’s our home now.
S: Out of curiosity, check back and notice when you first began
learning French and what age.
D: It feels like when I met Joseph at school. He was from
France. That’s why we went back there.
S: Learning a foreign language as an adult is very different
than being bi-lingual during early childhood. If it would be
important or useful, you might replay some of what that experience
was like as the interest and motivation to acquire a second
language – a second way of communicating with words – came to
be, and how you learned to develop all that is associated
linguistically with being able to store and retrieve information
from two languages, stored in one place.
D: I knew just a little French before meeting Joseph and he was
very fluent in English because he had planned to go to the school
in London, so he had learned English early. Then as we became
serious, that’s when he began teaching me French. He teases me
about my accent. I feel I was a very bright person so that
learning it was not that difficult and the fact that once we were
engaged, we mostly … he would speak mostly French with me, so it
would be an everyday thing … exposure to it.
I see myself still thinking in English but having to convert it
to the French. I’m happy that Beth will grow up with both
languages. We speak mostly French, predominately since we’re
living there. But I do want her to know English and as she’s a
little older, I start teaching her. I didn’t want to confuse her
so much when she was very young, learning to talk.
S: And as you’ve done each time that we visit the life of
another and her story, in the time that’s left, if you would
move across the rest of Claire’s life, taking in and
understanding once again all the meaning and richness and
significance of things that take place during the remaining years.
D: We have another child, a son.
S: And his name?
D: I keep getting different names. First I was going to say
Daniel, after my father. Then I see French names coming up. I
think it was Daniel. I don’t see that Joseph’s ancestry was
French – that somehow he came there, his family did when he was
very young. So, yes, we did name him Daniel. They’re adults now
with children of their own. We’ve had a happy life, a successful
life. We were never wealthy from our paintings, but we were happy
and had plenty.
S: That’s sounds like its own kind of wealth.
D: That right. We’re slowing down now, as we’re older. We
still enjoy just walking in the countryside, whether it’s just
for the pleasure of the walk or to do our painting again. But now
it’s just for our own enjoyment – the painting is.
(Her face flinches.)
S: What just happened?
D: I see myself stumbling. We’re out on one of those walks.
It’s very rocky, big rocks. I fell. Joseph is over me … to see
if I’m okay. I don’t know. I’m hurt from the fall but I don’t
know how badly I’m hurt. I’m just lying on the ground. I can’t
walk so Joseph is very torn whether to leave me and get help or
stay there. (Again she flinches.) I feel myself … fading away
… it’s all getting purple now. I feel above it.
S: As you look at Claire’s body, do you see any indications
D: I know the legs were injured or broken because she couldn’t
walk. That’s why Joseph didn’t know whether to go get help. I
see my head on a rock. I don’t feel that I’m totally dead,
just sort of coming and going. One minute I’ll feel myself and
the next I feel I’m looking down on it. I’m trying to speak to
Joseph but the words won’t come out. He’s very upset. He’s
picking my torso up and holding me, rocking me in his arms. I’ve
died now. I see him just sitting there rocking me, holding me. He
doesn’t want to go for help right away. He just wants to spend
some final time with me.
S: (Pause) When you’re ready, I’d like to invite you, if
you haven’t already noticed the light, to perhaps turn around
and let yourself become aware of what is available to you in this
time of transition, and would like to invite Claire and Dorothy to
take this opportunity to meet. And as we have done before, to take
advantage of this time to exchange even further observations,
D: I see Claire was allowed to look quietly down at Joseph for
awhile in the afternoon light, to give her time to say goodbye to
him. She loved him deeply. When she’s ready she turns around.
I’m waiting – just quietly waiting until she’s ready. We
embrace. She’s sad to leave her life. But on the other hand, she
had such a full life she doesn’t have regrets. Now she’s
showing me where she fell and the back of her head that hit the
rock. It’s almost like she’s saying it’s the same place I’m
hurt but she died from hers.
I see she’s sorry she wasn’t able to speak to Joseph after
she hit her head. I see she was in and out of consciousness as she
died … trying to fight against it to come back to him. When she’s
conscious that she’s dying, things will just get grayer for her
and darker as she lapses back into unconsciousness.
S: If we might, let’s check with her and if this needs the
confirmation of others who may be in the background ready to
assist her. Let’s check to see if she would like to double-check
what she brings with her from this life just completed and what
she leaves with the physical body, so that she may choose clearly
and wisely what she brings with her and what she leaves there with
D: She does bring with her her sorrow at not being able to
communicate and sorrow that she died as quickly … that she didn’t
have time for her goodbyes.
S: Did she make any decisions about that … about what she
would do different next time, if anything?
D: No, she doesn’t feel she needs to do anything different.
They were a very loving family. It’s just her sorrow of leaving
them so quickly…and unexpectedly.
S: Would you check with her to make sure that in some way that
in bringing that sorrow with her, which would certainly seem to
make sense, that she is able to leave behind in the physical body
those things which happened to it because of the fall, so that
there with you her legs work well and she can walk freely with
complete balance, even as she did in her youth and throughout so
much of her adult life? (Pause.) And that she checks to make sure
that with the sorrow that she brings with her…and that ache…that
she leaves the physical injuries that occurred to the physical
body there with that body. Bringing with her the clarity that she
used in her paintings, the clarity that she used in developing her
skills in being able to communicate in two written languages, as
well as through her painting, so that in the body in which she
stands there before you, she can know how free she is to retain
all of that clarity and wisdom and ability to communicate in so
many different ways, whether with movement, the brush on the
canvas and the paper, or with words, or with images, so that she
is both able to take in that which she sees, that which she hears,
and the sense of movement, the body in space, and then use all of
that information with such ease and speed and balance…leaving
with the physical body that which belongs with the physical body.
Just as surely as she would have washed out her brushes to remove
all the residue of paint when she was through at the easel so that
the brush was clear and soft and flexible and clean and ready for
its next use, so, too, with your help and those who are available
to her, she can in this time enjoy washing the soul’s body
clean, so that at its deepest levels it is clear of any pigment
from an earlier project that might impede its freedom in the
future. And having assisted her in whatever way makes sense, if
you are willing to invite her and all of those who are here for
you also, to assist in a similar process…washing out all that
has served its purpose, cleaning the brush of this body, checking
each fiber, each connection. And perhaps as a way of comparing and
knowing how well that has been done…that even when it is time
for her to head off into the light for her own rest and to await
the time when Joseph likewise makes his transition, that the two
of you before she departs might embrace once again…and in that
way that these things are able to be…to take in all of the
clarity and ability to think and process … taking in and giving
back, with her eyes, with her thoughts, with her words, with her
movements … that with that embrace and each breath in, to accept
that gift from her as a remembrance of another time when your soul
celebrated all that is possible using physical form … just as
she celebrated through her life what is possible with watercolors
and Joseph with oils and knowing that she can look forward to the
joy and creativity that your own way of expressing yourself has
taken place and will continue to manifest in your own life. And,
as always, to enjoy any gifts of her own observations that she may
have for you.
D: I see her telling me to start with a clean page … to paint
my own life and my own beauty … with the softness and colors
that I want. To go with my feelings … to go with the happy and
bright colors: the yellows and the blues, greens … just a bit of
purple. To feel free … to express myself freely. It doesn’t
matter that I don’t have her techniques … just to paint what I
feel …that it doesn’t take talent; it just takes emotion. I
see her showing me the colors and shapes I would want, saying,
"Just enjoy." It’s like I see her sweeping her arm to
the page I’ve painted that’s now big and large … covering
our whole view … saying, "Now go paint the rest of your
S: Any other messages that she has for you or those who may be
there with you before she takes her leave today?
D: I do feel others around. I feel she was taking her leave as we
were looking at this painting …at my painting of my life. That she
was leaving me as she was saying, "To paint my own life ahead
… to paint it as I want it to be … to be happy."
S: She seems to have understood how happiness is a by-product of
D: Yes. Yes, I feel that just in the choices I am making in my
own life today how much calmer, happier, at peace I feel. Glad I’ve
taken control again.
S: So allowing time for any additional messages and with each
breath in taking in all that is true about this for you now,
(pausing to pace her exhale) with each breath out releasing all that
has served its function, all that is no longer true … like washing
the residual pigment from the brush, leaving it clean for the next
time at the easel, choosing whichever color, whichever shape,
whichever content and topic is right for that time … each time …
and when all of that is stored deeply within, and the feelings
associated with that radiate throughout your truth …with that
clarity of thought and mind and body and soul, becoming clearer with
each breath, each moment, let your eyes open again.
Dorothy’s series of waking dreams correlated with a marked shift in
her mood. Her depression was gone and she felt much more optimistic about
her ability to deal with her life. She had also become more comfortable
allowing others to help her at times. Her sense of autonomy no longer
precluded asking others for assistance. At a follow-up nearly two years
after her first appointment she noted that her neurological symptoms
continued to be much improved. Perhaps even more importantly, she again
commented on the enduring qualitative changes in her life. She continues
to draw on the love and support from Claire and George and her father.
Whenever she pulls back too far into her shell, they are there encouraging
her to keep reaching out to those around her.