Back in 1915, Sigmund Freud wrote one of his best known papers, “Mourning and Melancholia,” and he introduced an idea that has since become common knowledge: that if a grave loss is mourned well, one can expect, in a reasonable amount of time, to get on with one’s life. But if mourning never ends, and a loss becomes a source of unending grief, then melancholia, or depression, results.
Most of us adults are mourning, at some level, for something lost. Lost opportunities and lost youth might be the most commonly mourned experiences. Though we may not brood openly or excessively, we probably all know someone who has never stopped being bitter, or regretful. There are some great examples of mourning turned to melancholy in literature – Dickens’ Miss Havisham, still in her wedding dress though she was cruelly jilted many years before; Scrooge, endlessly bitter because his one true love betrayed him; Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, who has had to bury every one of her relatives, has lost her family home, and is fast losing her youth. Fragile and frazzled, the loss of her sister to the brutish Stanley - her sister being her last family tie and the last person she had any control over -finally drives her insane.
Adults who as children were abused and neglected, often find mourning challenging. The Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn put it this way: he said that for a child who depends entirely on his parents, it would be better to feel like a sinner in a world ruled by God, then to have to realize that one is an innocent living in a world ruled by the Devil. In other words, children would rather believe that they are bad than have to believe that their own parents would abuse them. Many adults, in therapy years later, have great difficulty mourning these kind of losses – the loss of security and safety they suffered as children; the loss of ever feeling loved and cherished by a truly caring parent.
Defending against their grief and their desolation, these patients often go through life dismissing the pain of their wounds. “Yeah, so my father was a raging drunk and my mother didn’t do anything to protect us. So what? I don’t want to go through life blaming them for my problems.” I’ve heard this kind of remark many times, and I marvel at how people who take this attitude seem to be trapped in endless self- loathing and self-reproach. Not wanting to “blame” their parents, they have no problem relentlessly blaming themselves. Some will even go so far as to claim that they should have been stronger, at the age of 5, and not been so selfish, such a cry-baby. At 5, with a raging drunken father smashing dishes, screaming at a depressed, crushed mother, this child, according to his adult self, was supposed to have behaved in a way that would have made his mother happy and avoided triggering his father’s rage.
Somehow, it is easier for this adult child to loathe himself, than it is to acknowledge how profoundly his parents failed to function as parents – how unable to give and to love they really were. He cannot bear to know the depth of terror he must have felt all through childhood. He cannot bear to face the facts, because then he will feel the sting of grief so deeply that it will pierce him through and through. And he fears that once he opens up this grief, it will never stop, he will be drowned in it. He doesn’t know that this grief, if allowed to be released, can be a part of the mourning process, the process that allows us to bury the dead, to let them be at rest, and eventually to go on with being alive, and free.
Instead, the adult who was abused as a child, by holding a deep, sometimes unconscious belief in his own badness, keeps his tie to the abusers alive. Instead of denying his parents the right to define him as the bad one, and bearing the grief of having been unloved, he blames himself, as the abusers did, and keeps the abusers alive, internalized as his own self-attacking voice.
Very few people go through life without having some grief to bear, some terrible loss to mourn. Whether we mourn the loss of something beautiful, or of something terrible, our mourning is meant to restore and renew us, to allow for a letting go, to prepare us to value and cherish the life we have, to do our best to make the most of our time here. Depression can have many causes, and can be treated in many different, effective ways. For some, it will be the acknowledgment of loss, and the discovery of what it means to truly mourn, that will be the path out of depression, toward life.