Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Counselor's Tests Are Not Reliable

The reason counselor's tests are not reliable is that reliability is a property of scores not tests. This isn't a matter of semantics. Think about it this way.

Give all the students in one school an achievement test. The test items don't change so they appear stable, consistent, and reliable. However, when publishers report reliability values, they calculate the reliability statistics based on scores. Scores vary from one administration to another. If you ever took a test twice and got a different score, you know what I mean. Individuals change from day to day. And we change from year to year. Also, even a representative sample of students for a nation can be different each year.

Everytime we calculate a reliability statistic, the statistic is slightly different.

Reliability values vary with the sample.

Reliability values also vary with the method used for calculation. You can get high reliability values using coefficient alpha with scores from a one-time administration. This method is common in research articles. But you will see different values from the same research team in different samples in the same article.

If we use a split-half method, which usually calculates reliability based on a correlation between two halves of one test, then we can get a reliability value based on one administration. But that's only half a test! Researchers use the Spearman-Brown formula to correct for the shortened half-test problem- but that's just an estimate of what the full test could be.

There's also a test-retest reliability method. Give a test one time, wait awhile- maybe a week or several weeks, then retest. That gives you an estimate of stability. But if you have a good memory, you can score higher on the second test on some tests like intelligence and achievement.

By now you get the point. Any one test can be associated with a lot of reliability values. The problem is not with counselor tests. The problem can be understanding that tests do not have one reliability value. As with many things in science, there are many variables to consider when answering a question.

Reputable test publishers include reliability values in their test manuals. Counselors, Psychologists, and other users ought to know about test score reliability.

Learn more assessment and statistical concepts in

Applied Statistics: Concepts for Counselors


Monday, June 5, 2017

Understanding Human Nature: The SCOPES Model

Mike Schmidt where Greensburg KS Tornado took his house 2007
What I call the SCOPES model is an organization of and an elaboration on the way many psychologists conduct comprehensive assessments for patients. I find the approach helpful because it guides us in thinking about ourselves and others in terms of multiple dimensions rather than just one or two labels that can lead to misunderstanding or worse.

SCOPES is an acronym for five dimensions of human nature within a social context. 

SCOPES is also a metaphor for looking with an intent to carefully observe people in a richer and more diverse way than we do with a cursory glance. Once I name the six dimensions you will see how they reflect the common ways we speak about ourselves and others. What makes this aapproach uncommon is that it takes effort to look beyond that which is immediately evident and consider multiple dimensions before making “snap” judgments.

A camera metaphor may help. People are like cameras operating on default settings. Modern cameras have multiple settings but usually come with defaults. Once given life via a charge, the camera is ready to use in auto mode. In sophisticated cameras, various settings are adjusted in response to a button press, screen input, or other environmental information such as location and what’s in front of the lens.

By the time we reach elementary school age, our biological “hardware” has been modified by our experiences resulting in customized settings that enable us to adapt to our environments. Some adapt better than others. Parents, teachers, friends, and others work to “shape” us—adjust our settings throughout life. But we are not left out of the process because we too attempt to change many settings—including some over which we have little control such as date of birth.



Spirituality includes religious and other ways people find meaning in life. Most organized religious faiths include specific beliefs and practices but these are integrated with each person’s experience. For example, a person’s dreams and visions or culture influence how they pray and what they identify as right and wrong. Atheists and those with nontraditional spirituality may describe meaningful experiences in the beauty of nature and music. For some, the spiritual dimension is so vital to their identity that it dominates their clothing, communicated beliefs, daily practices, interactions with others, and what they eat.


It doesn’t take long to form an impression of a person’s general intelligence. Sometimes we are awed and sometimes—not so much. But there’s more to cognition than solving problems on intelligence tests. We can include many neuropsychological processes such as memory, attention, language skills, visual-spatial skills as well as cognitive biases and prejudices. 

Some aspects of cognition have a huge impact on identity such as extreme deficits in attention span, incredible ability to solve complex problems, or persistent declines in memory for self and others.


I used the letter O so it works with the acronym. Essentially, people may be described in terms of a few or many durable traits like the famous Big Five: 
Openness: intelligent, imaginative, insightful
Conscientious: organized, thorough, planners
Extraversion: talkative, outgoing, energetic, assertive
Agreeable: forgiving, sympathetic, kind, affectionate
Neuroticism (v. stability) tense, moody, anxious

There are other traits or characteristics that may be added like dominance and psychopathy. People are different. We usually act in fairly predictable ways--habit patterns and traits that are part of who we are.


We all come with bodies and many of us with less than culturally desirable bodies protest that we are more than mere bodies. We want to be known for what’s inside. Nevertheless, our physiology is a critical part of who we are. Drives for hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex vary from person to person and those biological factors vary for each of us during a day, week, or year. Measures of biological status can change and influence other aspects of who we are- height, weight, blood pressure and more. Biology shapes our identity and we influence our biology and that of others.

We know that despite protests, people think of others in terms of a biological factor like blindness or deafness or another challenge. Some have a mental health diagnosis and are referred to by that diagnosis such as alcoholics or Schizophrenics. Some are known by a disease they have or survived such as cancer. One aspect of our entire personal identity can be a physiological status that is defining or confining. We know that we and others are more than a biological fact but somehow, we often fail to think beyond the “P” dimension.

E   EMOTIONS or feelings

Our emotions influence our identity and our judgments about others. There are many ways to show our emotions. Psychological scientists disagree on what may constitute core emotions. As a psychologist, I was tuned in to sadness, anxiety, and anger as well as joy and a sense of calm. More common emotions include fear, worry, hate, guilt, and that complex we call love. Feelings are critical to understanding who we are and why people do what they do.


The people in our lives and where we live out our day-to-day existence influences who we are even as we influence others. Our personal timeline is a factor too. We and others see common threads of who we are since childhood but we also see changes. Looking back, we may see events, people, or places that resulted in major changes in who we are today. Like many immigrants, the move from one country to another was a big deal for me and my parents.

Our relationships matter. Relationships affect our spiritual faith, thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns and even our health. A recently divorced cantankerous fifty-year old man with a history of alcohol abuse may feel anger, distress, and worry. A 35 year-old woman may feel happy and enjoy a sense of freedom as she boards a cruise with a friend. People are different in their relationships. Some feel liberated by divorce whilst others feel devastated. Some worry about finding a mate whilst others intentionally live a single life. Some prefer frequent interaction with friends whilst others require large periods of aloneness.


The SCOPES model is a way of organizing information about ourselves and others. It is a way of recognizing we are complex beings who change in many ways. We respond to others and our environments in ways that change us. And we have an effect on others and our environment. At any given point, a few dimensions may be more important than others such as when we feel depressed at the loss of a loved one or celebrate a birthday.

We should also be aware that activity in one or two dimensions affects the other dimensions even when we are not aware of the effects. A loud noise like a gunshot can produce fear, thoughts of safety, memories of past terror, crouching, increased heart rate and even a cry for divine intervention.


I have applied this model to moral-social judgments in A House Divided and elsewhere.
Those familiar with psychology will recognize the common Cognitive-Affective-Behavior constructs in Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy and attitude theory. Most clinicians have coursework in the biological basis of behavior. Some, but not all, also consider spirituality as relevant to understanding people and their well-being. Many will also recognize the importance of the environment, which I include in the Social dimension. I have also been influenced by the BASIC-ID of Arnold Lazarus—a part of his work in Multimodal Therapy and Kurt Levin’s field theory or concept of lifespace.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

Is Your Moral Lens in Focus?

I used Autofocus to capture this tiger in India

News reports documenting the killing of children tug deeply at our most basic impulse to care for the young and vulnerable. Many of us identify unfair treatment and at least give a nod of support to those who seek to remedy injustice. It is no secret that people disagree about the right way to solve social problems. Matters of right and wrong are the stuff of morality. And matters of right and wrong often connect people with similar religious and political beliefs.

I have drawn upon the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues when writing about moral perspectives as formulated in moral foundations theory. The six moral foundations provide a useful way to consider various social-moral issues. In this post, I review the six moral foundations. In A House Divided, I applied these six foundations to show how different tribes of Christians argue about such divisive issues as birth control, abortion, and sex education.

I begin with a metaphor. The human moral response is like setting the focus on a digital camera. Many of us view life using autofocus. That works most of the time when we live in the culture where we were raised. But at other times, we need to reset the focus to a particular option or do the hard work of manual focus.

It turns out that most people draw upon a few options when arguing about morality. People have their favorite settings. Some use more than others. According to Haidt and his colleagues, liberals tend to rely on two or three settings—Care/Harm, Fairness, and sometimes Liberty. While not excluding these two or three options, conservatives may select from another two or three—Authority, Loyalty, and Purity.

Unlike cameras, when it comes to humans, we have powerful emotions like love, fear, and anger driving the arguments for right and wrong. Some of us hammer away at one or two points regardless of what others say. Unfortunately, when people latch on to a reason or two, they don't let go. Once committed, other reasons are ignored.

The Six Moral Foundations

1. Care/ Harm
Caring is motivated by the complex emotion of love and affection. Loving parents also become very angry when perceiving threats to their families and loved ones. The natural love that embodies care and protection for children can be expanded to kinship groups and cultures. It is not surprising that family metaphors arise in religious and political writings.

2. Fairness and Justice
We learn about playing fair as children. Those who break the rules are punished in various ways. Most learn it is wrong to cheat. Cheating and discrimination are close. People who seek justice may often use peaceful means yet righteous anger can flare and motivate more aggressive action.

3. Authority/Rebellion
Respect for authority is not only a strong moral impulse but it can be foolhardy to rebel in some settings. For some, the moral value of respecting those in authority is a core value. Feelings of respect for authority can be increased by feeling fear and awe. Disrespect can lead to powerful and destructive righteous anger toward the disrespectful. Look for words such as respect, deference, arrogance, pride, awe, humility and authority.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal
Loyalty is motivated by love and betrayal by hate. Some people constantly test the nature of their relationships in terms of loyalty and betrayal concerns. At the national level, betrayal is treason.

5. Liberty/Oppression
People are motivated to be free, independent and unbound. Laws, policies, and unwritten social norms can restrict where certain classes of people can live and what they can do. People celebrate the joy of freedom following oppression. Righteous anger leads to overthrowing oppressive regimes.

6. Purity, Sanctity/Impurity, Disgust
Children learn early in life to clean up and avoid germ-infested matter. We humans have a built-in yuk response to various bodily fluids and other substances. It isn’t long until lessons about being physically clean generalize to call certain behavior or activities dirty, filthy, perverted, disgusting, and unclean. And it is not much of a leap to label people who engage in such behavior or activities as unclean, unworthy, disgusting, perverts, and so on. Religious and social rules as well as laws banning certain activities can be the result of motivations to purify a culture. In the extreme, righteous anger using the language of cleansing is a thinly veiled way of disguising the killing of people as a moral duty.

To find how we agree or disagree we must listen to the reasons given and pay attention to the power of emotion. But then we will still need a way forward by relying on principles and weighing consequences.


Haidt, Jonathan. The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review 108 (2001) 814–834.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

Read a review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.

Find more about examining cultures at this website 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Holy Mother’s Day: How do YOU Honor Her?

I’ve had some time to think about honoring mothers on Mother’s Day. My mother lived until she was 93. And my wife has been a mother and grandmother for some years (I'm being careful here).

I’ve written about Mother’s Day before (20142015) but this year I have been asked to talk about Ephesians 6 the week after the US Mother’s Day so I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day from the perspective of this text about honor.

One of the interesting things about this well-known phrase, “Honor your father and your mother” is that it appears eight times in the Bible (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4 & 19:19; Mark 7:10 & 10:19; Luke 18:20; Ephesians 6:2). Apparently, it was important to repeat this command. People over a span of centuries needed reminders. Maybe we do too.

Here are my thoughts on this ancient text codified into a cultural norm for several decades.

Words Aren’t Good Enough

Christian honor required children to use their resources to care for their parents. The lack of government social programs for the elderly meant mothers and fathers were left without assistance when they were no longer able to care for themselves. In Pauline morality, the church ought to care for widows unless they had a relative (1 Timothy 5).

In western cultures, there are social programs but nothing replaces the loving care adult children can provide to their parents. Parents vary in needs as children vary in resources, so the application of loving care will vary. Some will benefit from a visit. Other’s need a ride. Some will enjoy a time to share old stories. Others need financial support. The principle of honor is carried out in loving and caring relationships.

You May Reap What You Sow

Grace is in need of support in caring for her husband who has Alzheimer’s disease. She is elderly and busy 24/7. Fortunately, her children take turns stopping by to lend a hand. I like to think her children are honoring her and their father because these elderly parents set such a caring example during their years as parents and grandparents. This is a real story but her name is not Grace.

My point is, each of us sets an example of how to honor parents by what we do as parents and grandparents. Adult parents provide examples to their children by the way they honor their elderly parents and relatives. One can always hope that a positive parent example will inspire their own children to be loving and caring when another generation reaches old age.

Mother’s Day Ought to be Personal

If you go to church on Mother’s Day you’ve probably heard all the common sermons and advice. In the US, mothers may receive a flower or some trinket. Some church leaders fret about leaving out women who are not mothers. There’s no easy way to avoid offending women who are mothers and resent the dilution of Mother’s Day into “Women’s Day” or hurting all those women who wanted to be mothers but for various reasons are not mothers. And of course, there are people who are biological mothers but have not been nurturing and loving toward their children. People hurt in different ways. Mother’s Day is not always a happy day.

My thought—church leaders ought to encourage people to honor their own mothers and to make a special effort to honor those mothers who do not have children around to honor them. A meaningful Mother’s Day ought to be personal and relational—between mother and child or children—not between an organization and a mother or a woman.

If Possible, Avoid Materialism

I don’t like the fact that corporations have hijacked Mother’s Day and Father’s Day creating a demand by shaming poor families into showering mothers with exorbitantly priced cards, flowers, dinners, and so forth. I realize that many will not have an easy way out of this commercial trap without feeling like they are not doing enough to honor their mothers. And mothers are not immune to the culture in what they expect as a minimum of honor.

I think it better to follow the cultural norm if possible unless all parties agree to bypass excessive commercialism in favor of a more personal honor. People have different values. I’m not opposed to enjoying the good things in life. I just don’t like to see people feeling trapped by social expectations designed to drain excess family resources in support of high paid CEOs. Of course, situations are so different in terms of resources, work demands, distance, and so on. We must all use wisdom.

Whether nearby or far away, a clear and loving expression from a child to a mother on Mother's Day goes a long way to maintaining or re-creating a strong relationship.

The Mother-Child Relationship is of Critical Importance

The quality of the relationship between a mother and a child is a building block for personal and family identity and well-being. Quality relationships are the building blocks of society as well. There are many good reasons to honor one’s mother. In addition to loving and caring for her, we bless ourselves and our society. A family structure built on honor, respect, love, and care is surely a good home. And a society built on honor, respect, love, and care is surely a good place to live.

Related Posts

Friday, February 17, 2017

Insecure Love of God and Christian Morality

Christians are commanded to love God with all their being. Psychological scientists interested in religious studies have examined the idea of loving God in several ways, including measures of attachment.

Attachment researchers have long examined the relationship between parents and children. Two components of the relationship are security and closeness or their opposites- anxious insecurity and distance or avoidance. These same dimensions have been found in the relationship between religious adults and God- especially when God is viewed as a person as in Christianity.

Understanding attachment to God is one important aspect of Spiritual identity. And it is also related to morality. In this post I look at a study by Thomas Fergus and WadeRowatt at Baylor University.

Morality and scrupulosity

Some people experience extreme concerns about their sinfulness and have a strong sense of urgency to do something to rid themselves of their sin. This particular pattern of obsessions and compulsions is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD known as scrupulosity. 

It appears that some people perform ritual behaviors to heal what they perceive as an impaired relationship with God.

Common distressing thoughts include blasphemies, impure thoughts, committing sin, and worries about going to hell.

Prayer has been specifically identified as a compulsive behavior in some persons attempting to rid themselves of intrusive and stressful thoughts. Other actions include frequent confessions, seeking assurance from clergy and other leaders, cleansing and purifying rituals, making deals with God, re-reading or repeating scripture verses.

The study sample

The investigators obtained responses from 450 adults using the internet. On average, they were age 34. Most were women (59%). Most identified themselves as Caucasian (79%). A few religious groups were represented:

 “In terms of a current religious affiliation, 20.7% of the sample self-identified as Protestant, 16.5% as Catholic, 1.6% as Jewish, 1.6% as Buddhist, 1.6% as Hindu, 0.2% as Muslim, and 14.9% as “other” religious affiliation. Approximately 41.9% of the sample reported having no current religious affiliation.”

Key finding

There was a strong relationship between high levels of anxious attachment and high levels of scrupulosity.

My Thoughts

1. The key finding makes sense. The distress experienced by people experiencing scrupulosity is an anxious condition thus we can expect religious people to experience an associated anxiety about their relationship with God.

2. The authors appear quite familiar with attachment research, including studies involving attachment to God. You have to read footnote 3 to understand the significant relationship between avoidance of God and scrupulosity. The authors note that when they controlled for religiosity, there was no significant relationship between avoidance attachment and scrupulosity. High avoidance attachment is linked to low levels of religiosity.

3. The authors appropriately acknowledge the problems of self-report measures and the sample. In my view, it would be more valuable to examine the issue in specific religious groups such as Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims and so forth.

4. In the research and in clinical experience, scrupulosity is difficulty to treat. Mental health professionals follow treament approaches that follow guidelines for other OCD conditions. These include identifying and attempting to correct disturbing thoughts while being sensitive to a person's faith. Treatment may include limiting repetitive actions through response prevention strategies. The use of medication (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) also helps some people. See also Webmd.

Related Post

Research reference

Fergus, T. A., & Rowatt, W. C. (2014). Examining a purported association between attachment to God and scrupulosity. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, 6(3), 230-236. doi:10.1037/a0036345 Link to Abstract 

Read more about Moral Psychology and Christian Cultures

Friday, December 30, 2016

WELFARE CULTURE Thinking about myths

The article named above was shared by my friend, Donna Washburn. It caught my eye because several people offered comments of support.

The author, Danica Johnson, offers some insights into the US welfare system that are probably not known to many. Unfortunately, some of her comments have a slant that could prove off-putting to some as noted by another friend, Brandon Schmidly. Johnson's ideas are worth examining with a critical eye—at least by those of us who care more about understanding our world and helping people in need than we care about advocating for one political agenda or another.

1. As noted, welfare is not one program but a general term for a group of programs designed to meet the needs of people with different needs that cannot be met in other ways such as employment or relying on a family or church for support.

This is important. Criticizing welfare makes no sense. Criticizing a specific program or components of a program might make sense. And it matters what you include under the label welfare. For example, working Americans pay into social security. Collecting social security when you become too disabled or reach retirement age is not the same kind of assistance as that which comes from programs designed to help people who have never worked because they too young or because the wages they earn are not enough to cover expenses.

Also, as noted, some programs support the working poor. Try to live on minimum wage as a family of one parent and three children. It’s pretty hard to make it financially, let alone cope with the emotional stress of parenting. Not every parent can go to college and obtain a degree that leads to higher paying work.

2. The myth of laziness is a good one to mention because it is a common insult levied against people who do not work but accept government support. There is little doubt that some people get by with as little as they can in life. There are people who take advantage of others, including taxpayers. Some get caught and some don’t.

If you work or attend school, you know there are people who don’t do their fair share but seem to get by. Perhaps they are lazy- but perhaps not. But to believe that most people who get some sort of government help are lazy is ridiculous, as the author illustrates. Besides, how exactly do you define laziness? How can you tell what a person can or cannot do?

3. There is a problem with undocumented immigrants. Some place a burden on some community resources. Some are children who had no choice in coming to America. Some were victims of deceitful scams. Some work hard, do jobs many citizens do not want, and some pay taxes. As noted, by Johnson, some get emergency medical care. Americans are often the beneficiaries of their hard labor.

4. The myth of high substance dependence among those on government programs deserves a careful look. Substance abuse is a problem for many people regardless of their use of government programs. Some people receiving government support have substance use problems that make matters worse for them. But it does not mean that if they stopped using a substance they would be healthy and able to earn a living. Some might be able to work but some will be disabled for life regardless of using or not using a substance.

5. The myth of the welfare queen from Chicago is a damning image. Setting up a false image to garner support for cutting services to the poor is appalling and antichristian. Confronting people who defraud taxpayers is important to a just society. We won’t catch them all but we do need to fund fraud units. Keep in mind that some folks who cheat tax payers run corporations and serve themselves as public “nonservants” in government positions.

6. The effectiveness of welfare programs should always be a matter of concern. Some programs keep people alive. Some help the poor obtain skills that allow them to earn a living. Some help people maintain employment. Some programs probably have minimal effects or may even produce harmful effects.

It’s important to evaluate programs and make wise decisions. Let the data drive decisions rather than politics. And keep in mind that we should critically evaluate all expenditures of tax-payer money. We need watchful eyes examining military expenditures, the high cost of homeland security, people who bill us (tax-payers) via the government for health, medicine, and education. And of course, not all people who take tax-payer funds to pay rent and buy food are playing fair.

7. Even if you never need government assistance, chances are someone you care about will. Attitudes matter. What’s the point of making people feel bad about getting help? Rarely do we know all the details of a person’s life that accounts for their lack of resources.

And why not give our fellow citizens some credit for assessing the needs of those who seek help? The people in our government agencies serve all Americans. They may make mistakes like everyone else. But I’ve worked with many counselors and social workers for years and find so many try to make the right decision. They don’t like scammers any more than the rest of us. Some are burned out. Most try to do what’s right.

Some of our agency workers go out of their way to raise funds from their fellow co-workers to help a family in need—beyond the small payments they may get from government. I’ve seen government workers collect funds to purchase gasoline for patients who needed out-of-town cancer treatment. I’ve seen them collect donations to buy clothes and necessities for a family who lost all in a house fire. I’ve seen them pile up toys and clothes for poor families at Christmas time. Do you think they would part with their meager government salaries to help people who really didn’t need help?

The author of the article didn’t address religion. But I will. What does your faith teach about caring for the poor? I’ve heard Christians tell me they don’t support government programs because they want Christian programs to provide services. That might be a good idea if Christians could cooperate and meet the needs of all Americans in need. But that has never happened. Some churches do more than others. And there are Christian organizations as well.

Christian programs constantly appeal for funds. If their appeals are genuine, and I assume that they are, then tax-payer support and or wages are too low to meet the needs.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Death at Christmas

Creating Good Memories After a Loss

I knew something was wrong when my dad came to take me out of fifth grade in the middle of the day. In the old grey ’49 Plymouth, mum was crying. Soon we were at Idlewild for my first flight back home- London, England.

For days, my aunt Joan’s home in East Finchley (North London) was a grand central station-- family coming and going. Funny old stories repeated. Newfangled Lego blocks were really cool. A visit to Aunt Lilly and Uncle Jack’s sweet shop (actually a small grocers- I focus on what’s important). Then there were trips to old friends. The lights of Oxford St and Regent St. A walk with dad by the Thames whilst mum grieved with her sisters and her dad. Good memories amidst the sorrow.

Today, 5th December, marks the anniversary of my maternal grandmother’s death and a special memory.

I’ve lived more than six decades. My wife and I have known many losses. And some of our loved ones died very close to Christmas.

I’ve learned people cope in different ways when someone’s missing from a chair.

An annual trip doesn’t happen anymore.
A Christmas card is missing.
A present bought remains unopened.
An old story lingers untold.
A photo album triggers tears.

I was only 11 when me gran died. For me it wasn’t a sad memory because my relatives were somehow able to balance their grief with a focus on the children and the joy of seeing each other again.

Life draws us forward if we let it. I’m fortunate to have grandchildren. Highly active and enthusiastic lives keep us anchored in the present and set up markers for a hopeful future—birthday parties and such.

Christian and secular cultures support the living-- drawing us toward giving, singing, laughing, hugging, celebrating. And seeing nostalgic films.

Death can’t steal Christmas when the past is sealed with a kiss.

No. It’s not all Merry Christmas.

There are times I’ve felt alone in a crowd.
Times when memories brought anger rather than sadness.
Times when those absent were more prominent than those present.
And strangely, times when death meant guilty relief.

For me, remembering a death at Christmas is like a car journey across my timeline. Heading back in time I look for those good people and places. I know the way back home. I know how to avoid the dangerous parts of town. My mental seatbelt anchors me to the present. And on my return to the present, the past recedes like an image in a rear-view mirror. Somehow, I’ve learned to look forward to the past and the future.

If you struggle with a loss at Christmas or any other family holiday, I hope you quickly find a path to happiness again. And that you share your path with others feeling the pain.


As a psychologist, I know memories are dynamic and that people present at the same event will have different memories of the event. It's important to cut people some slack rather than argue over details. Recalling and sharing memories with others can help us heal.

The Pan Am flight was fantastic- glad dad captured a moment. I recommend someone capture the moment. It makes the journey back in time much easier. Even my mother could smile in this photo.

One nice thing about old photos is seeing things you didn't see before like all the other groceries at my Uncle Jack Timms' shop (pictured below). We naturally pay attention to the people in photos. That's great-- but I also enjoy the snapshot of culture in anyone's photo-- this is in North London December, 1961.

Forgiveness is a blessing. Letting go of slights and harsh memories allows me to remember the good things about people. Forgiveness is a virtue for people of most religious faiths and those without faith. For Christians, forgiveness is a command that brings life.

Coming together as family can be very supportive when there's closeness. Fortunately, my father lined up some family members. I understand my mother's closeness to her dad and sister when I see the photo (my mother is in the middle). Many of us can do more to support family in times of loss.

The recent surge of interest in ancestry caught my interest a few years ago. I do not have an exhaustive list of connections like some do. I think the ancestry quest a fine way to soothe painful memories by somehow connecting the living with the dead in one grand family tree.

For example, I came across my grandmother's death certificate in my mothers files when looking for old photos. Somehow it helped anchor my memories in reality. A real, kind-hearted woman, lived for nearly eight decades and survived two World Wars. I could go on- you get the drift-thinking about the life and times of our relatives can be rewarding.

In some ways, I just created an online tribute to my grandmother, Louisa (New) Clayton 1884 - 1961,  of London England. Creating online tributes to our loved ones is a way to externalize losses.  And sometimes it may help others as well.

Some find solace in more explicitly religious ways to cope that are unique to their faith. For example, some think about the deceased relatives in heaven or imagine them looking down upon them. Those ideas do not help me but I am glad they help others. It's best not to assume all religious people cope in the same way.

Prayers can be helpful to people of many faiths. But be mindful that some aren't in the mood to pray.

Some like to light a candle in memory of their loved one. And some don't grieve that way.

Skipping Christmas is a book by John Grisham. But the book title represents a way to cope with loss. If feeling overwhelmed, skipping Christmas or a holiday celebration may be the right thing- there will be more. On the other hand, many benefit by investing themselves in a holiday routine. Sometimes routines can be less stressful than figuring some alternative.

Realize that family and friends may not have a clue about the way each close family member copes with a loss. It's best to avoid harsh judgment of others and focus on what we need to do to get along.

Children respond to a family loss in different ways. Some may be more affected by the response of their parents than by the loss of the loved one. Obviously it matters who died and the connection of the child. Children can be forgotten or smothered in uncomfortable ways.

Getting Help: For Oneself or a Friend

Sometimes grief become severe.

Psychologist locator:
NAMI for questions about mental health: 1-800-950-6264;
Call your physician

Focus on the Family Counseling Line 1-855-771-4357;
Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS)
American Association of Christian Counselors
See if your pastor provides counseling or referrals

Emergencies: In the USA call 911

Crisis: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
     Crisis Text to 741-741

Read more about grief

APA (American Psychological Association)
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Idlewild was the common name for the NY International Airport, renamed JFK on 24 December, 1963
Legos came to Britain in 1959. The first set I saw belonged to Cousin Terry. I didn’t play with them again until my son had some.

Grey- both spellings are acceptable but gray is more common in the US and grey in the UK. Grey and other basic words messed up my spelling as a lad in the US.

Grocers- English for a convenience store with food and other items. I choose to remember the best things about a place so, chockies and chocky biskits (have a gusess)
Sweets- American candy

Me Gran- London speak for My Grandmother. I don’t know but I was raised saying "me" for my- thanks to me dad. Some other, but not all, English use "me" for "my." in informal coversation.

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Note: I no longer provide counseling, psychotherapy, or personal consultations.