I was recently asked if I wanted to contribute to a feature in a major newspaper on the topic of bereavement. At first I thought the paper was looking for different perspectives on mourning and I would have been interested to share my thoughts about it – both what I’ve learned from my personal experience and from my work as a therapist. It turned out that what they were actually offering was a paid service, more along the lines of an infomercial where I could both talk about the topic and advertise my services – not something that I had any real interest in doing. It did get me thinking about the topic however, and since I’ve been meaning to create a blog here for some time it seemed like a good opportunity to put the two together and share my thoughts about the topic here. This also gives me the freedom to be a bit more wordy than I could be if I was writing an article for someone else. To paraphrase: I didn’t have time to write you a short article, so I wrote you a long one.
It’s difficult (as a therapist at least!) to think about bereavement and mourning without bringing to mind one of Freud’s most significant papers titled ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. In this paper, he described the difference between what he saw as a normal mourning process after the loss of something or someone that was deeply important to us, and what can happen when the mourning process goes off course, leading to a prolonged depressive state. Freud described the state of mourning as being “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, (and) inhibition of all activity”. Although we all mourn in different ways, I imagine most people can relate to these ideas. Mourning in a sense takes us out of the world for a while – we feel consumed by our loss, uninterested in other people or other things in our life that once held meaning for us. It is profoundly painful, although at times we turn to distractions, substances or forced-positivity to try and avoid that pain. While this may work for a while, ultimately, it delays the process of mourning. As a psychiatrist blogger wrote about grief: “There is no shortcut to mourning, the shortcut leads to madness. When you subvert the system and offer a mourner a shortcut, you are leading them to madness.”
What, then, does the process of mourning involve? How do we come through it, and learn to re-engage in the world, to love again, to care again? According to Freud, this process involves gradually de-investing our emotional energy and attachment to the lost person – what these days would probably be called ‘letting go’. This is no simple process – early on following a loss, every part of our being screams out against the idea of letting go of that person in our minds. We often find ourselves resisting believing that they are gone, or even forgetting this fact, only to experience the pain and shock all over again when we remember that it is real. As time passes, we find ourselves being reminded over and over again of the ways in which our lives have changed because of the loved person’s absence and this becomes the real work of mourning. Every time we recall a memory of that person, we are forced to unconsciously alter it slightly to account for their absence. Memories that used to be happy recollections of time spent together become tinged with sadness. The hopes and dreams that we had about things we might do or say with that person in the future have to be amended, changed with the new knowledge that these things will never be possible. Our questions and wonderings about the person lost to us become dead ends, we are forced to acknowledge that there are things for which we will never have answers. Every thought, every feeling, every memory about the person has to be altered in our minds to account for their absence. This slow, painful and exhausting process is the process of mourning.
Our minds are equipped to do this work. Loss is part of being human – it is an experience we will all have at one time or another, and we have the tools to survive these times and become re-engaged in the world. We all mourn in our own ways. There is no timeline for grief, and nobody else can tell you how to do it. If left to mourn in our own time and in our own way, normally we will come through. What can interrupt this process are the pressures that we experience to shortcut our mourning, to return to ‘normality’ before we are ready. These pressures might come from those around us. Sometimes people will try and ‘hurry’ our grief with the best of intentions, tell us to focus on the positives, that the person who is gone would want us to carry on with our lives and enjoy ourselves. Sometimes the demands of our life require us to move on before we are ready – the financial pressures of work, the practical pressures of children. And sometimes these demands come from within ourselves. Maybe an inner voice tells us that we should ‘get over it already’, or that we ‘need to be strong’ for those around us. Perhaps we have a sense that we shouldn’t be so upset, or maybe that we should be more upset. As hard as it may be, it is important when we are grieving to try and resist these pressures to mourn in a particular way or to shortcut the process, and allow space for our grief and for our feelings of loss, anger and pain.
Sometimes getting support from others during this process will make things easier, but again it is important that we seek support in a way that is meaningful for us and that fits with our own process of mourning. Resist anyone who tries to tell you how to do it, no matter how good their intentions. If we can do this: If we can allow ourselves time to feel whatever we feel, to think whatever we think without judgement or pressuring ourselves to ‘do things differently’, then we will be able to mourn in a way that returns us to health, to a point where we can feel the pain of our loss but be able to turn our energies once more towards living, towards those around us and the things that have meaning in our lives.