After Stephanie Muldberg’s 13-year-old son Eric died of Ewing’s sarcoma in 2004, she was lost in a sea of grief. Her days were long, unstructured, monotonous. She barely left her New Jersey home. When she did leave, she planned her routes carefully to avoid driving past the hospital, just a few miles away, where Eric had been treated during the 16 months of his illness, or the fields where he had played baseball. Grocery shopping was a minefield, because it was painful to contemplate buying Eric’s favorite foods without him. To enjoy anything when he could not felt wrong. And Muldberg never thought she would be able to return to the temple where he had celebrated his bar mitzvah—and where his funeral was held.
Looking back, she describes herself as not knowing how to grieve after Eric died. “I didn’t know what to do, how to act in front of people—what I needed to do privately, who I could reach out to. I was fearful of making people more emotional, too emotional, and having to comfort them,” she tells me, by Skype. “I didn’t know how to talk about what I was thinking.” Muldberg’s long, dark hair is pulled back and she’s wearing a white T-shirt. One of the things she says is that she thought if she stopped grieving, her memories of Eric would fade, and she’d lose her connection to her son for ever.
The passage of time often seems the only remedy for grief, but time didn’t help Muldberg. In the years following Eric’s death, she says, she felt consumed by grief. Then a family physician heard a talk by Columbia University psychiatrist Katherine Shear about treating chronic and unremitting grief and thought Shear might be able to help her.