Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Mourning the Dead, Mourning the Disappeared: The Enigma of the Absent-Presence

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Mourning the Dead, Mourning the Disappeared: The Enigma of the Absent-Presence

Article excerpt


The loss of a beloved person through death is an inevitable aspect of life and happens to us all. Freud's interest in the impact of death on the living goes back further than Mourning and melancholia (Freud, 1917[1915][1915]); in Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1912-13), he noted the ambivalent emotions we experience in connection to the dead.1 In this paper, I will use this conception but focus on Mourning and melancholia as a landmark in the understanding of both normal and psychopathological aspects of mourning and the depressive process in human beings. Mourning and melancholia bridges Freud's first and second topographic theories of the psychic apparatus and constitutes for many authors the foundation of his theory of internal object relations. Mourning and melancholia is considered to be one of Freud's most important meta-psychological papers, not only for its remarkable conceptual link to our understanding of mourning and depression, but also because it grants a place to external reality and objects in the psychic life of the individual.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. The first part describes the contribution of psychoanalysis to the understanding of loss and the mourning process, which may either result in successful mourning or the failure to mourn. With this psychoanalytic understanding as a framework, in the second part I discuss 'special mourning processes' such as those confronted by psychoanalysts in Argentina when treating the relatives of thousands of people 'disappeared' by the military regime in the 1970s; these processes are 'special' (Braun, 2009; Pelento, 2009) in the sense that the external reality which constitutes the starting point of the psychic mourning process, as described by Freud, is absent.2

Death and the work of mourning

Death - or as Freud wrote, "the great Unknown", "the gravest of all misfortunes" - is present throughout many of his texts. However, it is important to note that in the Freudian unconscious we do not know our own death; in our unconscious, we are immortal. The question of death, in the sense that we are all subject to its enigma, is not primal for psychoanalysis. Jean Laplanche (2001) expressed this very point in his interview with Cathy Caruth:

We all know that infants up to a certain point in their development don't know death and don't have any questions about death. [...] I would say that the question of the enigma of death is brought to the subject by the other. That is, it is the other's death that raises the question of death. Not the existentialist question, 'Why should I die?' The question, 'Why should I die?' is secondary to the question, 'Why should the other die?' 'Why did the other die?'

(p. 14)

Typically, we experience the death of the other before we encounter our own. Indeed, to experience the permanent absence of the other requires us to disinvest, that is divesting at the psychic level the representation of the other as an internal possession. This process presents us with a complex and challenging experience, reminiscent of and isomorphic in structure to early developmental losses. By loss, I am referring to the psychic reality of the internal object which could be related to a real, symbolic, or fantasized loss.

Freud (1913-14) entitled the second chapter of Totem and Taboo 'Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence.' In it, he discusses how the prohibitions imposed by ancient taboos concerned actions for which there existed in humans a strong desire. Thus, in spite of taboo prohibitions, the original pleasure to do the forbidden continues in the unconscious, according to Freud, mostly as a conflict that results in an ambivalent attitude toward taboo prohibitions. Freud argued: "In their unconscious there is nothing they would like more than to violate them, but they are afraid to do so; they are afraid precisely because they would like to, and the fear is stronger than the desire" (p. 31). Later in the same chapter, Freud examines in particular the ambivalence of emotions in mourners and the cultural practices that embodied this ambivalence. …

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