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Hope for Those Coping with a Child's Death

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When I was in graduate school studying depression, I recall with uncomfortable clarity a comment made by my professor.

sad woman sitting in the dark

Dr. Wendy Walsh: When asked if all depression was curable, he nodded, and then added, "except perhaps depression associated with the loss of a child." That's exactly what Stephanie Muldberg of Short Hills, N.J., experienced. In 2004, she lost her 13-year-old son, Eric, to Ewing's sarcoma, a bone cancer, and for four years, she thought she was doing okay. "I didn't do a lot during the day, but I managed to get dinner on the table and drive my daughter to her classes. But I was putting on a big show. I was a zombie."

When her daughter finally brought her sadness to her attention and a friend severed their relationship, saying she was "no fun anymore," Stephanie found Dr. M. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia. Dr. Shear administers a 16-week experimental kind of therapy specifically designed for something she calls "complicated grief" -- acute sadness that lasts for more than six months.

Shackled with survivor's guilt and fear of letting go of her precious son, Stephanie's grief had become a preoccupation that hung out in the background of her day, yet it was also something she had avoided facing head-on.

Dr. Shear's treatment, a technique borrowed from treatment for PTSD, involves a revisiting exercise that focused on pleasurable experiences Stephanie had with Eric to help reactivate pleasurable memories, memory work sheets, and eventually tape-recorded stories about the trauma of his death. She was instructed to play the tapes every day at home as a way to teach her brain how to compartmentalize. It taught her she could turn off sadness. "My grief became more comfortable, less shocking. It's like you get used to it. I had been afraid that if I let go of the grief, I would be letting go of Eric. But the opposite happened. I remembered him more and was able to hold onto him as a positive memory rather than a chronic grief."

The therapy also showed her she could turn on pleasant memories of Eric without feeling guilty. Another part of the exercise involved letting go of survivor's guilt. Dr. Shear asked her to imagine a conversation with her son and ask him questions she needed answers to. Then she was told to construct his answers. For Stephanie, the questions were simple: "I wanted to know if I had been a good mom. And I wanted to know what he wanted to be in his life. His future."

Today, Stephanie feels she has her life back. She can experience joy without guilt and have pleasurable memories of Eric without debilitating sadness.

Each year, two-and-a-half million people die, and at least four other people (per death) are severely affected. For some of these people, the pain does not go away and becomes complicated grief, something that Dr. Shear says is now treatable.


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