How is mourning possible?

This was the title of an article written in 1966 by psychoanalyst Martha Wolfstein. It is considered a classic. I have an old and faded copy of her paper in my files, a copy on which I wrote extensive notes, and that years ago I heavily underlined. I can't say that I can immediately remember much of what she wrote, but I have always clearly remembered the title.

Wolfstein's focus was on the bereavement process in children and the observation that until children reach certain developmental stages, they may actually not be capable of mourning successfully (i.e, without suffering enduring emotional harm). While she was focused on grief in children, what always struck me was the question in the title: how is it in fact possible to suffer the loss of a loved one and to survive psychologically? In the face of great loss, how is it even possible to return to a normal state of well-being?

The process of grieving is familiar, and much of what can be said about it is reflected in the ancient proverb: "time heals all wounds." But there must be something more involved, some psychological process by which time works its wonders on the ailing heart. The death of a loved one is the most painful and grievous emotional wound that we can suffer as human beings. How does it come about that this wound can, over time, turn into just a scar on the psyche?

Our most essential and enduring insights about the bereavement process can be found in Sigmund Freud's famous paper, Mourning and Melancholia. Summarizing Freud's analysis, Wolfstein wrote that grieving involves "a painful and protracted struggle to acknowledge the reality of the loss, which is opposed by a strong unwillingness to abandon the libidinal attachment to the lost object."

Freud's formulation requires some explanation.

First, the term "libidinal" is used here to refer to psychic or emotional energy. When someone is important in our lives, there is a whole range of thoughts, feelings, passions, memories, associations and experiences that are attached to their existence and their presence in our life. Imagine one who is used to waking in the morning with their lover next to them in bed. The simple act of waking and rising involves a series of thoughts and feelings connected to the expectation that this person will be there next to them. That is the reality that they have come to know, and it is a reality to which they have attached their psychic energy.

The loss that one feels when someone close has died is not insignificant or inconsequential. The feeling is not just that someone is gone, but that someone has been taken. In its original use, the word "bereaved" means to be deprived. It means that death has stolen from you.

The task in mourning is to acknowledge that reality has changed and to free up one's psychic energy to invest in new experiences and relationships, or in the new realities of one's life. That energy is needed to connect to the world in new ways, and to the new reality that has been created by the absence of the loved one.

Freud described this process as a struggle, acknowledging that it is painful to let go and (in the words of author Michael Kahn) to "retrieve the psychic energy" from every object, memory and experience associated with the lost person. At the breakfast table, there are memories and feelings associated with the chair in which he sat. Her favorite coffee cup is still filled with the words that she spoke, the way she smelled and the sound of her voice.

In every encounter with a sound, a smell, a word, an image or an object that brings the loved one back to mind, there is an intensification of the feeling of their presence, and also of their absence. This is what prolongs the process. You look at their picture or recall that vacation and you are faced with an intense desire to relive and recall and recover the lost reality. The natural human tendency is to deny the new reality and to infuse the memory with enough feeling so that the loss is undone and the world returns, for a moment, to the way it was. The pain is recalled as you hold the object they touched in your hand and long for them to return.

The process of grieving involves touching the memories, bringing the memories and the person back to life, and gradually connecting to the awareness that in reality, it is something of the past, not the present. Wolfstein described the process by saying that it is a matter of "separating memory from hope."

What we have learned is that it is time, and the repetition of these painful experiences that gradually allows us to attach our thoughts, feelings and psychic energy to new memories, new events and new experiences. In order to "retrieve" the energy invested in the past, one has to suffer the loss over and over again in a number of small ways, prolonging the process each step of the way.

Acknowledging that mourning is possible, Freud said that: "normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless, its orders cannot be obeyed at once. (Those orders) are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and psychological energy."

In his description of the grieving process, Freud also introduced the concept of "introjection of the lost object." What he meant by this was that in order to fend off the pain of loss and to keep the person alive, people seek to believe that the person has become a part of them, a part of who they are and how they think and feel. Originally, Freud described this as a process motivated by a desire to resolve unfinished business with the one who has departed, and he described it as an unhealthy adjustment. Viewed in this way, it would be said that the survivor was haunted or possessed by the deceased.

In later writings, Freud recognized that it is actually healthy, normal and natural for the one who was lost to inhabit a space in the identity of the survivor. Indeed, "introjection of the lost object" may be a universal mechanism for achieving positive psychological adjustment through the grieving process. Viewed in this way, it is a matter of retaining images and memories of the departed, or retaining beliefs, understandings or fantasies about their continued presence in one's life. This process is an explicit part of many religions, Christianity being just one. The idea that someone lives on somehow, or somehow within you, is an entirely healthy and adaptive response. It allows those who survive to call up the internalized images and to take comfort from them. The images can comfort and also guide one along the continued path of life.

Beyond knowing that mourning is possible, it is widely understood by psychology that the process is necessary. Emotionally and psychologically, one cannot survive if their libido or psychic energy is not released from the dead and applied to the reality of life. One cannot be healthy if the internalized images of the departed are allowed to consume all of one's thoughts and feelings. Painful as it may be to endure and to accomplish over time, the goal is to achieve mourning and to avoid melancholia.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.