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Clinical Depression Following
the Death of a Parent

By Ron Soderquist, PhD, MFT

A fellow church member whose husband died 10 years ago called out of concern for her 30-year-old daughter, Amy, who had never gotten over the loss of her father. The woman said, “I think Amy’s depression is affecting her health and her marriage.”

“Haggard” would not be too strong a word to describe Amy when she entered my office. She looked much older than her years. Tears began flowing down her face even before she sat down. The visual evidence of depression was so dramatic, I could understand why her mother reported that it was taking its toll.

As Amy told her sad story, it was obvious that she had told it many times before in the last decade. She began: “I was in training as a student nurse in the local hospital where my father had had heart surgery. One day he came in for a post-surgery check up. I was in the midst of my normal nursing duties when all at once I heard alarms. Staff were rushing around. A nurse said she heard a patient had collapsed and died, and it might have been due to a nursing error. Then, a fellow student nurse came in, put her arms around me and told me it was my father who had died. My first thought was, ‘I should have done something to save him.’ I berated myself for not doing something. Ever since then there has been a voice in my head saying, ‘You could have saved his life.’ I can’t stop thinking about him dying and the funeral and that I could’ve done something.”

I asked her if it was like a movie running in her mind. Amy agreed that a movie of her Dad’s death played over and over in her head. I began by acknowledging her grief. “First, Amy,” I began, “I am so sorry for your loss—a deep tragic loss. And when we have an intense experience like yours, the brain often makes a movie like the one you have been looking at over and over. It’s like the brain gets stuck on that movie.”

“Yes, that’s me,” she replied. “My brain got stuck on that awful moment when I was told my father had died.”

“I wonder if before your tragic loss if you had happy experiences with your father, perhaps family activities or special times with him.”

“Oh yes, I have many beautiful family memories, and also, my father and I used to play tennis together. we had a special warm relationship.”

“I wonder, when you close your eyes, if you could turn on some of those sweet memories, and as you visualize your father, ask him if it would be all right with him now, after 10 years of grieving, for you to switch channels in your brain; if it’s okay if you switch to the Happy Memories channel. And because your father was a Christian, would it be all right to imagine him in heaven smiling when he sees you remembering those happy times? Perhaps you can see him smiling and nodding his head about as you switch to this channel.”

“I can see him saying he wants me to enjoy our happy memories,” Amy said. “And he wants me to enjoy my dear family instead of obsessing about his death.” Then, she added with deep feeling, “I didn’t know I had a choice.”

“Yes, what a relief to discover you have a choice. Just imagine you have a remote control in your hand and you switch to the Happy Memories channel. That’s right, along with a deep relaxing breathing, switch to the memories he would like you to share with your children, his grandchildren.” With a sigh of relief Amy did that easily. We practiced tuning into the Happy Memories channel for a while until she felt relaxed and confident doing it.

The following week, Amy called to report she no longer felt depressed, and, in fact, was now enjoying showing photos of her father and sharing happy memories with her children. It’s been three years now since our session, and the Happy Memories channel is still “on the air.”

Commentary

By Eric Greenleaf, PhD

Ron Soderquist shows us the simple elegance of human relationship – the basis of all psychotherapy, and the heart of Dr Erickson’s hypnotic approaches to helping people. Soderquist listens with compassion to Amy’s story of suffering. Then, thinking like a competent hypnotherapist, he helps her to dissociate – to tune into the Happy Memoirs channel with“sweet memories,” rather than re-experiencing abject grief in a sad movie that plays in a loop.

Utilizing both her love for her father and his heavenly presence in her experience, Soderquist elicits Amy’s realization that she actually has a choice. She can continue to grieve, or she can switch to the Happy Memories channel. The goal of eliciting positive memories over traumatic ones is helping the client recognize that there is a choice. Amy’s grief and torment over her father’s death could be replaced with memories of all the happy times she once shared with him. Soderquist’s ability to transform Amy’s grief was beautiful, brief, direct, and compassionate.

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