The Work of Mourning

Darian Leader on Freud’s theory of depression.

Vincent Van Gogh — At Eternity’s Gate

In recent years, it has been widely reported that the illness known as ‘depression’ has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. A 2020 report by the National Center for Health Statistics tells us that in 2018, an ‘estimated 7.2% of American adults had a major depressive episode in the past year’, while between 2015–2018, 13.2% of adults had used antidepressants in the thirty days preceding the survey. We also learn that antidepressant usage rises with age: people aged 60 and over, who are most likely to have lost loved ones and are probably closest to death, use antidepressants at more than twice the rate of young people.¹

America, it seems, is rather depressed. But what this means for the society and its people, its healthcare system, and, indeed, for the nation’s soul is not entirely clear. It is hard to say how much of its depression America could realistically eliminate; inversely, we are even less able to say how much depression America must tolerate.

Complicating matters, this disclarity is linguistic as much as it is medical. ‘Depression’, we read, is actually a ‘common destination to which many pathways lead’: it is a symptom with a wide variety of sources that can emerge from a combination of ‘one or any several of these pathways’.² The word ‘depression’ is a catch-all term for a physical and psychological symptom with a complex, varied etiology that encompasses biological, social, spiritual and psychological factors. Thus, there is not one ‘depression’ but many different ‘depressions’. To treat these depressions properly, one must account for all the relevant aspects of the patient’s life.

Of particular interest to us here is a certain kind of depression: the one formerly known as ‘melancholia’ among psychoanalysts, a forerunner to our contemporary category of ‘depression’.

In many ways, melancholia is indistinguishable from other forms of depression. It too involves a lack of energy, low self-esteem, anhedonia and a habit of self-reproach. But unlike biochemical depressions, which ostensibly manifest due to chemical imbalances, melancholia has its roots in a fundamental and painful psychological phenomenon: loss and the ‘work of mourning’ it provokes.³

‘The work of mourning’. Sigmund Freud first introduced this phrase in his essay, ‘Mourning & Melancholia’, and it signifies the most important aspect of the psychoanalytic vision of depression. When we lose someone or something we love, we must complete an arduous psychological process to overcome our grief: this process is the ‘work of mourning’. Melancholia arises where a loss demands that we complete the work of mourning and where, for some reason, that work is frustrated. A work must be completed, but it cannot proceed: thus, we get melancholia.

Psychoanalyst Darian Leader describes the work of mourning in his excellent study of depression and melancholia, The New Black. He writes that mourning ‘involves the long and painful work of detaching ourselves from the loved one we have lost.’ Leader then quotes Freud, who says the work of mourning’s function ‘is to detach the survivor’s memories and hopes from the dead.’⁴ To lose someone or something completely, their physical absence is not enough. As Leader writes, a proper mourning requires that each ‘memory and expectation linked to the person we have lost… be revived and met with the judgement that they are gone for ever.’⁵

In mourning, all our ‘representations of the lost object are brought again and again into painful focus and the memories and hopes linked to it met by the judgement that the object no longer exists.’⁶ Once our beloved has been comprehensively called to mind and judged in this way, ‘the work of mourning will gradually exhaust itself.’⁷ Both the revival of these representations and the judgement of loss are therefore essential to the mourning process. Together, they produce new and important knowledge for the aggrieved. When the aggrieved recalls their beloved and then judges that they are gone, they consciously accept their loss, allowing them to understand their love’s absence in its entirety. Once this judgement is made, the aggrieved knows on all levels that their love is gone. And once this knowledge is acquired, the beloved can be lost within our minds and vanish from our desires. We can move on with our lives.

Mourning is a kind of symbolic act whose aim is an understanding of absence. When we are bereaved, our task is to interpret the void that has erupted in our lives. This act is essential to overcome our grief. Without it, we will be haunted forevermore by someone who is lost but not gone; false hopes will litter our dreams. Moreover, where it is successful, mourning induces a kind of psychological restructuring in the aggrieved. It compels an act of neural architecture, where one designs and builds a new self around the void left by the loss. One has to ‘re-create the whole of one’s internal world with each loss’ and refashion the social world that relies upon it.⁸ Though it is time-consuming, draining and utterly painful, this structural work is necessary if one wants to live in a home where the dead have been put to rest.

According to Leader, this psychic-symbolic work of detachment proceeds in four stages. First, the representations of the lost object are ‘framed’ in the aggrieved’s mind. All the representations of the lost object are shifted into a space where the aggrieved can see their artificiality. This allows them to see that the images are no longer attached to a living, changing thing, but are the product of their imagination. Thus, their memories, hopes, and desires connected to the lost object are recast: no longer do they relate to a living, breathing thing, but an ‘artificial’ symbol created, stored and given life by their mind.⁹

Next, the aggrieved must symbolically ‘kill the dead’ to loosen ‘one’s bonds to them’ and situate them in the ‘different, symbolic space’ marked by the frame.¹⁰ To lay the dead to rest in their mind, the aggrieved must ‘banish’ them from the world of the living. Burial rituals and shocking dreams of murdering the lost loved one are signs of this step, which moves the aggrieved from an acceptance of the first ‘empirical biological’ death towards a second kind of death, which entails a complete ‘symbolic laying to rest’ of the beloved.¹¹

Once the lost object is shifted into this new symbolic space, the aggrieved can understand their relationship to what has been lost. Here, the aggrieved must reach an honest, lucid comprehension of their connection to the object. Only then can they know what they have lost. The third step of mourning, then, is to separate the image of who the aggrieved has lost from ‘what [they] have lost in them’.¹² Though it may seem pedantic, an important distinction exists between who someone is and what they mean to a person. A loved one is both an object in themselves and a thing that fulfils a function for another. There is both the loved one, and the ‘narcissistic envelope’¹³ that covered them in the aggrieved’s mind and defined what the beloved was to them. Only by recognising this distinction can the aggrieved dislodge the lost object from this envelope, making room for ‘another to take its place’.¹⁴ Essentially, they must see that the lost beloved is different from the beloved’s image in their mind, as this shows that something else can take its place and fulfil the same function for them.

Following this, the fourth step is essentially an inversion of the third. The final movement in mourning is for the aggrieved to detach who they are in themselves from the function they fulfilled for their beloved. Leader puts this plainly: giving up the beloved ‘means giving up the image of who we were for them’. This release ‘will have a profound effect on our self-image,’ for when ‘we lose a loved one, we have lost a part of ourselves.’¹⁵ To complete the work of mourning, the aggrieved must give up the part of themselves defined by the beloved,¹⁶ and lose the piece of themselves that was placed within them by the beloved. No longer subject to the beloved’s desires, they must relinquish the part of themselves defined by that desire. The beloved’s ‘narcissistic envelope’ must fall from them, freeing them to become a new object for another.

In the psychoanalytic view, mourning is essentially a process of symbolic and psychological loss. Symbols do not die like people do; thus, we mourn, producing a symbolic death that accompanies the real thing. As Leader notes throughout his book, this makes mourning a strangely creative act. Loss in the physical world appears to us as a subtraction. But within the mind, loss can only occur through a positive, interpretive action that creates new symbolic representations. Loss and mourning do not require an annihilation in the psyche but a kind of rebuilding that produces a unique knowledge. Mourning gives us knowledge of an absence represented as a positive symbol. In a sense, mourning asks us to create a new language, a grief poetry we can use to express our loss. Mourning leads us to create the original judgement that our beloved is gone.

All creative works, whether they are art or loss, demand much from their creator. Accordingly, the work requires our care and attention: Freud writes that mourning ‘cannot be accomplished immediately… [it is] carried out piecemeal at great expenditure of time and investment of energy’.¹⁷ Moreover, despite their fear and anxiety, the creator must permit the work a full degree of freedom. The work must unfold without constraints, achieving its natural tenor and final form without interference or inhibition. In this regard, it helps if the work can collaborate with the artist’s will. Yet this acquiescence to the work is not always possible: many artworks and many losses are frustrated and remain incomplete. For artworks, the consequences of this frustration are not clear: who can say what the meaning of an aborted painting is? But where the creative work of mourning is blocked, the consequences can be disastrous. The aggrieved can fall into melancholia, a hellish state that can subsist for years.

The frustration of mourning is essential to melancholia. While ‘a blocked, interrupted or failed mourning is not the same thing as melancholia,’¹⁸ all forms of melancholia involve an inability to mourn. Mourning is nearly always impeded somehow; only where the block is especially significant, or where some ‘aspect of the loss is unconscious’¹⁹ does mourning become melancholia.²⁰ Melancholia often occurs where a loss or the emotions that surround it are repressed.²¹ Hence, those at the greatest risk for melancholia, then, are the people who identify too strongly²² with the beloved object and whose own identity is therefore threatened by the loss. Where a powerful identification exists with the beloved object, the aggrieved can derive their sense of self-consistency from the other. Losing their beloved is therefore an existential threat: it literally involves the loss of themselves. The idea that they might lose on whom they depend is intolerable. Thus, they deny the loss to preserve themselves.

Consequently, they are unable to fully acknowledge their loss. Moreover, this identification’s strength can bond these people to their beloved through a potent mixture of love and hatred. Ambivalence reigns within them: they need the other, but they also hate them. Given their ambivalent attitude, they cannot consciously admit their hatred towards their beloved object. Doing so would produce an inadmissible level of guilt within them. Accordingly, their hatred remains unconscious, and they cannot produce the understanding of themselves or their beloved required to complete the work of mourning.
In short, mourning is a dangerous act for those who identify too strongly with their beloved. For the individual ensnared in identification, a complete work of mourning would lead to their psychic death. This outcome is intolerable: so, rather than mourn, they try to maintain their identification with their beloved. But the lost object is dead and gone.

Accordingly, the aggrieved has to symbolically ‘die’ with their beloved, and they begin to behave and feel as though they were already dead. Consumed by extreme accidie, they descend into ‘melancholia’, or that state we now call ‘depression’. In this languorous mood bordering upon life and death, the aggrieved lose their energy and appetite; they remain in bed as much as possible; and, they cannot bring themselves to action. Insofar as is possible, they enact their death in life: such is the only way they can preserve their bond to their lost object preserve themselves. Filled with hatred and guilt towards an object they hold within them, they try to punish the lost loved one through self-reproaches.²³

Most importantly, melancholia leads the aggrieved to transmute every present moment of their life into a testament to a single judgement. They do not adjudge that their beloved is lost, and they do not create the language they need for forgetting. Rather, they quietly judge that they must endlessly remember their painful loss.

Melancholia is thus the depression of insurmountable absence; of grief gone awry; of lives made incomprehensible through loss. It is death’s depression, a sadness of impossible love. It is the depression of men who lose their mothers; of parents whose children leave home forever; of young people displaced from places to which they cannot return.²⁴ To reiterate, not all depressions are melancholic episodes. But if Freud and Leader’s theories are correct, the more psychoanalytically-minded should view the rising rate of depression around the world with great interest. Undoubtedly, there are a host of factors that have contributed to the proliferation of this debilitating illness. Among those factors, however, we must entertain the possibility that our ability to mourn has been blocked. That somehow, we are more likely to be frustrated in our attempts to process our losses.

We ought to commit our energies to understanding our depression in this light: as a culture, perhaps we need to rethink our approach to mourning if we wish to curtail the rising rates of depression. Perhaps, as Sylvia Plath suggests, we must simply give more time to the work of mourning, allowing it to unfurl and consume us until we know our loss with all the intimacy of love: for ‘when our lives crack, and the loveliest mirror cracks, is it not right to rest, to step aside and heal?’

Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst and author of ‘Mourning & Melancholia’


¹ See
² The Noonday Demon, p. 302.
³ Even Freud distinguishes melancholia from other types of depression. In ‘Mourning and Melancohlia’, he writes: ‘Melancholia… appears in various different clinical forms; these do not seem amenable to being grouped together into a single entity, and some of them suggest somatic rather than psychogenetic diseases.’
The New Black, p. 25.
⁵ Ibid, p. 26.
⁶ Ibid, p. 101.
⁷ Ibid, p. 101.
⁸ Ibid, p. 107.
⁹ Ibid, pp. 105–106.
¹⁰ Ibid, p. 124.
¹¹ Ibid, p. 117.
¹² Ibid, p.128.
¹³ Ibid, pp. 134–135.
¹⁴ Ibid, p. 135.
¹⁵ Ibid, p. 149.
¹⁶ Ibid, p. 168.
¹⁷ ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in The Future of an Illusion, p. 75.
¹⁸ The New Black, 168.
¹⁹ ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in The Future of an Illusion, p. 76.
²⁰ The New Black, 168.
²¹ Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar presents an example of a character whose mourning is repressed. Esther Greenwood’s father died when she was young, and her mother never allowed the family to mourn his absence: ‘I thought it odd that in all the time my father had been buried in this graveyard, none of us had every visited him’, Esther says at one point. ‘My mother hadn’t let us come to his funeral because we were only children then, and he had died in hospital, so the graveyard and even his death, had always seemed unreal to me. I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect… and it seemed fitting I should take on a mourning my mother had never bothered with…. I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death. My mother hadn’t cried either.’ (p. 161) After Esther sinks into melancholy as a young adult, her recovery depends on her a) expressing her grief for her lost father, and b) expressing her hatred towards her mother (p. 195) which was partly caused by the repression of this loss.
²² It is the strength of the identification, not the identification itself that is the issue. As Leader says on p. 49, identification with the lost loved one ‘is present to some extent in every mourning process’, as identification is part of every human relationship.
²³ The New Black, p. 55.

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