The "work of mourning" is a set of mental processes, conscious and unconscious, initiated by the loss of an emotionally and instinctually cathected object. Once this work is complete, the subject is gradually able, within a period of time that cannot be shortened, to separate from the lost object.
Extreme pain, denial of reality, hallucination of the presence of the object, and awareness of the loss of the object are experienced in sequence. Eventually the mental changes occur that allow attachment to new objects to develop.
The notion of the work of mourning was introduced by Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g ). He seems to have been particularly concerned with death and mourning at the time—the middle of the First World War, when everyone in Europe was dealing with such losses—for these issues are also mentioned in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b) and "On Transience" (1916a ).
Having lost his father in 1896, Freud had himself experienced grief and mourning; his father's death is mentioned in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The long hiatus between that death and Freud's conceptualization of the work of mourning underlines the cardinal role of the passage of time in this context: Freud's own mourning preceded by far the greater part of his written work, a fact that reminds us not to confuse the psychic work of mourning with any kind of intellectual work. Talking, reflecting, or writing about a bereavement does not amount to a work of mourning. Intellectual mastery or the power of discernment are not of much help when it comes to reassembling everything associated with the lost object. Finding words to express the pain, the unimaginable distress caused by the loss, is usually an insurmountable task as much for those who seek to console as for the bereaved. On the other hand, particular words may sometimes indeed evoke the lost object or a recognizable link to that object, but the forms of such speech cannot be predicted or laid down in advance.
"What is painful may none the less be true," wrote Freud in "On Transience" (1916a , p. 305). This remark, made a few months after he composed "Mourning and Melancholia," encapsulates an essential part of his thinking on mourning. Accepting the truth of the object's disappearance involves suffering. The work of mourning is not unlike the work—the "labor"—of childbirth. Any birth takes time, and, like truth, is the outcome of a creative process. The truth of a loss acknowledged is no exception to this rule.
For Freud the pain of mourning was an enigma. What to the ordinary mortal seems obvious and inevitable posed an insoluble problem for the inventor of psychoanalysis. Viewing the cruelest of patent facts as a question to be answered exemplifies the heuristic approach of psychoanalysis, for which the patent is not the true—indeed, it may even hide the truth. Anyone agreeing to accompany the mourner during this depressive process will be obliged to experience it in himself, and for himself.
The main point of "Mourning and Melancholia" is to show how these two states have certain depressive traits in common. In addition to a highly contagious feeling of sadness, the two share three characteristics: loss of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, and the inhibition of all activity. The suspension of interest in the outside world is indicated by the disappearance, from one day to the next, of all attention directed toward the environment, close or distant. What was of the highest importance yesterday ceases utterly to exist today. The only other state displaying such a marked narcissistic withdrawal is sleep. In that case, being cut off from the outside world facilitates access to the intimacy of the inner world, of unconscious wishes, by way of another kind of psychic work, namely the dream-work. Could it be that, as in dreams, withdrawal into mourning makes it possible to organize the world not on the basis of external perceptions, but on the basis of a subjectivity turned completely inward? Inasmuch as sleep is a prerequisite of mental recuperation, a chance to start again relying on one's inner resources, it would seem reasonable to conclude that a kind of psychic restoration likewise occurs through mourning, with its deferment of all outside stimuli; that the loss of a cathected object requires a psychic reorganization so absorbing that it means confining all cathexis to the internal world. There are in fact few tasks more engrossing than taking stock of what will never again exist.
This withdrawal of object-libido, and the dismantling of all the bonds that have hitherto united subject and object, is bound to result in the second abovementioned common feature of mourning and melancholia, namely loss of the capacity to love. Exaggerated concentration on oneself prevents any consideration of others and blocks any expression of affection. For the time being, the cathexes available to the ego cannot be directed onto objects. Freud did not confine himself to this economic view, however, in his interpretation of the disappearance of all loving impulses toward objects. He speculated that any potential attachment to another object could imply the lost object's replacement. By taking care not to become attached to a new object, the subject was in effect defending himself against the charge of lethal intentions with respect to the lost one. But to imagine, as a defense, that one might have an impact on the outside world—be the cause, in the event, of the object's disappearance—is itself a way of refusing reality. For the object's finite nature exists in that outside world, irrespective of the subject's wishes; it is, precisely, what is at stake in the subject's relationship with reality.
Meanwhile, cutting oneself off from external reality paradoxically implies the necessity to acknowledge it. The psychic working out of the loss on the plane of subjectivity and object relationships leads to the subject's detachment from other aspects of reality also. From this derives the third corollary of mourning, the inhibition of all activity. Inaction and indifference to outside reality do not arise exclusively, however, from absorption in the work of mourning. Such indifference indeed includes attempts to deny the reality of object-loss by denying all reality. Oscillation between the recognition of reality and its denial accounts for the contradictory and circular tendencies often observed in this context.
The experience of mourning is paradoxical. Overcoming the loss of an object means an exaggerated presence of that object in the psychic activity of the bereaved. The work of mourning may thus be defined as an excessive attention paid to an object in order to come to terms with its definitive demise.
- Acting out
- Acute psychoses
- Allergic object relationship
- Internal object
- Mourning and Melancholia
- On Transience
- State of being in love
- Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.
- ——. (1916a ). On transience. SE, 14: 303-307.
- ——. (1916-17g ). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.