Mourning and Melancholia
Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud The Hogarth Press: London. Vol. 14, pg 239-260.
In his essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”, Sigmund Freud sets out to clarify the difference between mourning and melancholia. Although these states are often triggered by the same circumstances he discusses what conditions need to be present for the two states to progress along their varying paths. While some statements are based on observations much of his writing on melancholia is conjectured, and Freud continues to remind the reader of this by asking questions of his own theories throughout the essay.
“Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which had taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (243). Mourning is not associated with pathological issues because it is a normal reaction to events and generally is overcome with time. During the mourning period the person realizes that the loved person or object that is lost is truly gone and turns away from reality. This turning away from reality is marked by dejection, loss of interest, inability to love and inhibition of all activities. These same symptoms are present in melancholia, however, in mourning reality eventually wins out and slowly the person returns to their normal state.
Mourning is a conscious response to something, a specific death, whereas melancholia is often unconscious, resulting from a loss that cannot be physically perceived, like love. Melancholia is more puzzling because of this absence of a loss that can be observed. Also in melancholia exists the additional symptom of a lowering of self-regard. “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (246). The person believes that they are inferior and despicable and have always been that way and will tell others about their inferiority. The fact that they feel comfortable enough to tell people how awful they are is unusual because most people who are ashamed or feel remorse for something do not feel comfortable in sharing that.
Freud follows this with observing that the characteristics that a patient suffering from melancholia will chastise themselves for having do not actually apply to them but will often be characteristics of a person they are close to. Because they are actually debasing someone or something else they do not have a problem with sharing those criticisms even though they apply it to themselves.
Freud describes the internal work of mourning:
… each single one of the memories and situations of expectancy which demonstrates the libido’s attachment to the lost object is met by the verdict of reality that the object no longer exists; and the ego, confronted as it were with the question whether it shall share this fate, is persuaded by the sum of the narcissistic satisfactions it derives from being alive to sever its attachment to the object that has been abolished (255).
Slowly the libido withdraws from the lost object and finds a new one to replace it with. In melancholia, however, the libido withdraws into the ego and identifies itself with the lost object. This would make sense in ambivalent relationships where the love/hate relation to the object simultaneously wills it to stay and leave at the same time. This identification with the object can become dangerous when the melancholic desires the object to disappear enough to harm him or herself.
With time melancholia can also pass as it does in mourning alternatively melancholia may also shift towards mania. Freud questions why this is more prone to happen in melancholia than mourning. His initial reasoning is that in mourning the libido’s disassociation with the object is so gradual that there is never a large about of cathetic energy being displaced. Whereas in melancholia when the ego finally has overpowered the object that it has identified with all of its cathectic energies that had been entangled are free and this sudden release throws the individual into mania.
Freud reminds his audience that “the interdependence of the complicated problems of the mind forces us to break off every enquiry before it is completed—till the outcome of some other enquiry can come to its assistance” (285). With mourning being such an integral part of human life it is much easier to attempt to explain how the mind adapts to a sudden change such as death. When the mind takes similar events and alters that process it becomes more difficult to explain and therefore, until other aspects of the mind have been made clear, we are left only with hypotheses.