OPINION

How the empty chair method can help

How the empty chair method can help

When I was a PhD student, a therapy instructor did something that I will never ever forget.

First, she told us students that she had decided not to have a second child.

Then she talked out loud as if she were speaking to that never-to-be child.

The instructor explained her reasons and talked about her related emotions.

It is was a uniquely odd and poignant lesson showing a way to use the empty chair therapy technique.

This is where a client speaks to an empty chair that represents an important person who is not present.

I gave no thought to the technique after the course ended.

Years later I gave a sermon on death at a church service, and afterwards a tiny elderly woman came up to me.

She said she was a professor at the local university where I also worked.

She told me that years before, her husband of many decades had suffered a heart attack and she had gone to the hospital with him.

After some time, a physician came out and told her the husband was not going to survive.

The doctor invited her to go to her husband in his room to say goodbye.

She was so struck with emotion that she could not move.

She just shook her head no. Then her husband died.

For years since then, the professor had felt guilty about being too afraid of seeing him die to go in.

I put aside my own feelings of empathy for her as I listened and said: "You have unfinished business with him.

"Imagine that he has been listening to you right now, even though he is dead. You knew him well. What would he say to you in response?"

She replied that he would tell her not to be silly - that she had done so much for him for so long that the one moment was unimportant. It was the years together that mattered.

She added that he would say he wanted her to feel happy, not guilty or sad.

She looked perkier when we finished our adventure into the world of the empty chair. I had used the right method at the right time.

Do you have something you would like to say to a person who is not available for a real conversation?

You now have a new option: Expressing yourself in imagination and, perhaps, imagining a response.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.