So many of us have been confronted by the enormous loss and pain caused by the death of a loved one. How can we continue living a meaningful life after loss? What does it mean to mourn and what interferes with healthy mourning?
Patrick Casements believes that “ How well, or how poorly, people cope with bereavement may mark all of the life that remains to them. Some, if they have had no help, may never quite recover.”
We all have to negotiate the process of mourning at some stage of our lives and the capacity to mourn a loss is vital in the ability to move on. Mourning can result from the death of a loved one, but also from other losses. When a next sibling is born the first born has to mourn the loss of having the parents all to her/himself. When a young adult leaves home they often have to deal with the loss of childhood. When a woman had an early hysterectomy she has to mourn the loss of never being able to have children.
At the time of a loss it can feel as if life itself has come to an end and it may be very difficult to find meaning in life. We invest such a lot of ourselves in the relationships with the people we love that me often feel that we have lost a part of ourselves when they die. How do you continue living after a part of you have died? If we do not mange to find a way to mourn loss and regain our sense of being alive we could live our lives in a state of being like the walking dead. Our lives can be totally engulfed by unbearable pain or we can feel numb and dead in an effort to protect ourselves from the pain. It is essential to find ways of mourning loss so that we can live creative and meaningful lives.
Because loss through death can be so undescribingly painful and leave such a sense of emptiness and loneliness, there is the risk of trying to find a way to replace the person that is lost in order to avoid the painful period of mourning. Sometimes after the death of a spouse the wife or husband may very quickly enter a new relationship. I know of cases where after the death of a baby or child the parents had a child very soon after that (at times even giving the new born child the name of the deceased child). For mothers who have lost children there is often guilt that they feel about not being able to keep their children alive or about having made decisions that could have indirectly led to the death.
When we are faced with the unbearable agony of loss in ourselves or in others it often feels as if we need to find a way to avoid the intensity of our own or other’s distress. For human beings it is emotional pain that cannot be shared and tolerated by others that end up feeling unbearable. Patrick Casement stresses that it is therefore vital for someone in the midst of mourning to feel that there is another person who can bear the intensity of their pain with them ( so that they can eventually bear it themselves). Pain that is carried alone can end up feeling intolerable and lead to enormous suffering or ways to avoid that suffering (denying the pain of loss, replacing the dead person, using alcohol or excessive work to avoid the pain). Thus, in order to later be able to bear the pain on their own people who experience enormous loss need to experience being with somebody who can tolerate their pain. We often try and make the pain of someone who suffered loss better by saying things that we think might help, but we generally do this to alleviate our own distress and feelings of helplessness. It is enormously difficult to stay with someone who is suffering and bear the pain with them, but that is what is most needed to truly mourn.
When the process of mourning fails it can greatly impact on the quality of the rest of the person’s life. Why does mourning fail? Some people fear to feel the intensity of their pain and deny their suffering, sadly this unconscious pain will affect them indirectly. Patrick Casement describes how some people grieve deeply, but are not able to mourn because they fight against letting go of the lost person. Freud also described a situation in which mourning turns into melancholia (when mourning seems to go on indefinitely). The way Freud understood this was that the relationship with the deceased was marked by loving and hating the person. When such a person (who was strongly loved and hated) dies the bereaved tend to deny the hate towards the deceased and idealize the deceased. All the anger and negative feelings are then directed towards the self of the bereaved. Therefore there is often a lot of self-destructiveness, self-attack and self-criticism by the bereaved. It is only when the anger towards the deceased can be acknowledged and dealt with that the process of mourning can continue in a healthy way.
Sometimes, in certain situations we wish someone would die. Then when they do die we feel in some way responsible and might struggle with enormous guilt. I do not believe that the bereaved person should feel guilty in such a situation, this guilt is irrational. Yet, guilt can lead to conscious or unconscious self-punishment. Such people need to be helped to realize that their guilt feelings are not rational.
When there are previous losses and pain that has not been successfully mourned it can cause the new loss to feel totally unbearable.
Although mourning is about letting go of the external person, the bereaved needs to find an internal relationship with the person who has died. Recovering memories can help in finding a sense of internal support from the memories after having let go of the external person through the very painful process of mourning.