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The therapeutic power of discourse with the dead

One pioneering doctor helps trauma victims cope with their grief by utilizing a most unusual technique

Sitting in an auditorium in West Virginia, almost 2,000 miles from her Arizona home, Diane Greer knew she would be chosen.

"It was like some voice said, 'You need to do this,' and I knew it — it was like the universe was in charge," Greer recalls.

It was June 8, 2013 — a few days after the 35th anniversary of her father's sudden death from heart failure at the age of 58, an event that still haunted her decades later. A friend had told Greer about the conference on dealing with the grieving process. Greer felt she had to attend.

When a psychologist called for volunteers to demonstrate a relatively new form of grief therapy called induced after-death communication, Greer says she instinctively knew that the therapy would finally help her put the grief around the loss of her father behind her. Soon she found herself sitting on stage, wearing headphones that played something called "hemi-sync" music, which combines instrumental and wave sounds that get louder and softer, in and out from ear to ear. Then the therapist, Dr. Gregg Unterberger, used a pointer to direct her eyes back and forth repeatedly while simultaneously asking her to visualize the saddest part of her father's death. She says it only took five minutes of this before she started crying and screaming in front of a room full of 120 strangers.

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Greer lived in the same town — Warren, Pennsylvania — for the first three decades of her life. But when she was 29 years old, the year before her father died, she moved away for her husband's career. By the time she returned to her hometown after her father's death, his body was already at the funeral home. His untimely passing remained a constant presence in the back of her thoughts — culminating when she turned 58 herself. Greer became paranoid that she was going to die — and she ended up in the ER with a sudden hypertensive crisis (a rapid rise in blood pressure). Eight days later she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

"I was afraid I was going to die and I almost did," Greer says. "I don't think a lot of people have that reaction to a parent dying, but for some reason I did — I don't know why."

After the cancer diagnosis she started reading books about alternative grief therapies. As a hypnotherapist herself (mostly practicing just on her friends), she was inclined to believe in non-traditional forms of healing.

"I tried to deal with it — but then the anniversary of his death came around and I was down in the dumps again," Greer says. When her friend, a therapist in Maryland, told her about the conference, she thought it would be worth it to travel to West Virginia if there was any chance it would help bring her out of her depression. Greer says the technique she encountered did just that.

"It got me to another state very quickly — and so you start experiencing the trauma all over again," Greer says. "Once you start feeling that again you start crying and sobbing and screaming. To me the audience was not even there."

On stage, Dr. Unterberger — a professional counselor trained in induced after-death communication by its pioneer, Dr. Allan Botkin — asked Greer to describe in detail all of the pain of the event. Shortly after her sobbing began, he told her to close her eyes and fully relive the worst moment of her father's death.

Greer started yelling "I didn't know you were going to DIE. How could you die?"

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They took a break, then Dr. Unterberger brought the pointer back and returned Greer to the height of her grief. Her stomach cramped up as she sobbed again, letting out a scream. They took another break. Although she felt more and more of the raw pain associated with her father's death, once she experienced it she started to feel a release. For about an hour and a half, the therapist brought her in and out of her grief — until she started having a hard time going back up to the previous pain level. When Dr. Unterberger asked her to find the picture of her father's death she reported earlier, she could no longer find it.

Then the therapist proceeded to guide her through yet another set of eye movements with the pointer. Greer looked up and found what she calls "a happy space, so that you're feeling good instead of feeling bad." She claims he took her higher and higher into a mental space where she was meant to meet the soul of her father on the other side.

"I actually ended up seeing my father and his twin brother," says Greer.

After her father appeared to her, she says her mother, who is still alive but has had Alzheimer's for 20 years, also came to her and "said she was looking for a way to show me it was all okay." Just when she thought she couldn't have more closure or peace than meeting with her deceased father and dying mother, her three most beloved dogs "all came in and were jumping all over me."

Although Greer knows no one else in the room could see their spirits, it didn't just feel like a vision or hallucination to her. She's still very certain that she literally met face-to-face with her deceased family members, right in the center of the auditorium.

It may sound like Greer is the type of person who seeks out the spiritual, the paranormal and things such as after-death communication — and that's not an incorrect assumption.

"I know that there are people who can talk to the dead, and I did go to an angel reader one time where my father communicated with me," Greer says.

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But the form of therapy Greer encountered has been embraced by some people perhaps less likely to believe.

Induced after-death communication, or IADC, is derived from a well-respected therapy recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Defense as an effective form of trauma treatment. In 1989 psychotherapist and researcher Francine Shapiro pioneered eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — a new approach to treating PTSD. Rather than engaging only in standard talk therapy or medication, she offered patients an opportunity to allegedly work through emotional trauma in record time by accelerating their thought processing. Although EMDR is a multi-step procedure, it basically comes down to following a therapist's hand back and forth, mimicking eye movements that are believed by some therapists to initiate processing similar to the REM sleep cycle (which happens when we dream), while simultaneously focusing verbally and mentally on the strongest image or negative thought associated with their traumatic event.

Studies on EMDR boast miracle results. The official website for the EMDR Institute cites studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that show 80 to 90 percent of civilian patients indicated they were essentially cured of their PTSD in as few as four sessions of EMDR (with a few more sessions on average for patients who were veterans). While other similar studies back up these findings, some articles, like a 1997 piece authored by Ulrike Feske and published by the American Psychological Association, argue that while EMDR therapy improves symptoms temporarily, the effects are not lasting.

In the late 1990s, psychotherapist Dr. Allan Botkin, who now has his own practice based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, saw these results and thought he could make the procedure even more efficient and effective. At the time, he was primarily treating severe cases of PTSD at the North Chicago VA hospital. Botkin made five or six changes to EMDR that he believes revolutionized the treatment. Primarily, he added an extra set of eye movements to the treatment, and decided to focus only on the "core emotion" behind the trauma. He says the root cause of trauma is usually sadness or fear — and his brand of therapy ignores "secondary emotions" that Botkin says come about as a result of sadness, such as guilt. He claims that his changes make the therapy more effective.

Botkin explains that the issue with severe trauma is that patients don't just remember what happened, they relive it. "Even if it's 40 years ago they feel like it's happening all over again," he says. "But after the eye movements the emotions [related to pain] fade away." EMDR practitioners claim that the sleep-like eye movements trigger high-speed processing of emotions in order to speed up recovery from trauma. Dr. Botkin claims his IADC therapy concentrates and intensifies this treatment even more by dealing with one emotion only.

It was after he started using this modified EMDR therapy that Dr. Botkin first witnessed a patient communicate with the dead.

In 1995 Dr. Botkin was working with a Vietnam vet he calls Sam — whom he describes at length in his book, Induced After-Death Communication: A New Therapy for Healing Grief and Trauma. Sam spent a good part of his time during the war at a camp where there were orphaned Vietnamese children. He became close to one little girl, Li, eventually developing a father/daughter-like relationship so close that he planned to adopt her. One day he got word they were taking all the children to a distant orphanage. They packed the kids into a truck and Sam said goodbye to Li, promising he'd come find her. But just then a sniper attacked — and when he found Li she was laying face-down with a bullet through her torso. She was dead.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of Time's 50 Best Websites of 2013.

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