Lawrence D. Blum M.D.

Beyond Freud

Are You Grieving Yet?

Some ways of grieving are more adaptive than others.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

Are you grieving yet?  If you aren’t, you will be soon.  Many Americans know someone who has the coronavirus, and as the crisis worsens, many will have family, friends, or acquaintances who have died of it.  Many of us long for normal social life, before the suspended animation of quarantine, and for warm hugs and intimate conversations that are now unsafe and irresponsible.  And everyone will know someone who has lost his or her job or who lives in terror of losing it.

How we mourn matters, individually and collectively.  Healthy mourning, unfortunately, is painful.  It is highly individual, but it is painful enough that every society tries to ease the pain by making it at least partly collective.  A shocking tragedy often evokes denial, which can provide a useful bit of temporary anesthesia.  But more than brief use of denial, although it can be very appealing, interferes with the necessary painful adjustment to the new reality.  Mourning begins only when denial ends.  If we can’t acknowledge what the coronavirus is doing to us, we can’t respond usefully.  We can deny the loss to our way of life, but we can’t adapt. 

We have other ways of trying to mitigate the pain of mourning.  One usually benign method is to picture the continued existence of, and potential reunion with, our lost loves in an afterlife, such as heaven.  More problematically, we can keep a lost love alive with anger, perpetually seeking vengeance.  We can try to keep a lost love alive by attempting to reverse time and return to idealized days of a newly re-written past.  (Think of the reaction to the loss of white male hegemony, or of the days before plutocrats made it so difficult for a working class parent’s salary to feed a family.)  Alternately we can try to protect ourselves by denying any mutual responsibility and endorsing the follies of libertarianism.  We can adopt the fantasy that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” – sometimes it may, but often it just leaves us broken.  And as Freud noted a century ago, if we can’t separate from a lost loved one, and are overtaken with anger and guilt, we get depressed and remain passive and withdrawn.

All of these are individual responses, but they are not made entirely alone.  They are made in interaction with other people and every one adds a thread to the complex social fabric in which we are enveloped.  Some people have a great deal of influence on the feeling and use of this fabric.  One of the sad duties of the President of the United States is to be Mourner-in-Chief.    This, of course, requires a president who can feel and bear the pain and suffering of others, who can ease the pain of others’ losses by collectively sharing them, who can be the soft shoulder and sympathetic ear of the nation.  Not to have such a president is itself a further loss.

Of course even with the support of family, friends, or nation, mourning is sad and painful.  But it is not optional, and is likely part of our evolutionary heritage.  It appears that elephants, dogs, and birds can mourn, and so must we.  Only if we acknowledge our losses can we clearly assess our new reality.  Only if we accept our losses and at least partly release our old loves can we prepare for the possibility of new ones.  With or without leadership at the top, we can work together to recognize, endure, and ease the pain of the present, and to keep in mind there is a future.  We can try to make our personal decisions in a way that will suit ourselves yet are also considerate of our fellow citizens.