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Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.

Death Don’t Have No Mercy

Death and traumatic loss are possibilities built in to finite human existing.

In my previous blot post, “On Being a Remainder” (, I described two essential features of a traumatized state—a collapse of the significance or meaningfulness of the everyday world and an uncanny feeling of alienation or isolation from that world. In Being and Time the philosopher Martin Heidegger identified these same two features as being central to the experience of existential anxiety (Angst). In his ontological account of these features, he claimed that they are grounded in what he called authentic (nonevasively owned) being-toward-death. Existentially, death is not simply an event (croaking) that has not yet occurred. Rather, it is a distinctive possibility that is constitutive of our very existence—of our intelligibility to ourselves in our futurity and our finitude. It is “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all.” Because death is both certain and indefinite as to its “when,” death and traumatic loss are possibilities that always impend for us as constant threats, robbing us of the tranquilizing illusions that characterize our absorption in the everyday world. The appearance of existential anxiety indicates that the fundamental defensive purpose (fleeing) of everydayness has failed and that authentic being-toward-death has broken through the evasions that conceal it. Torn from the sheltering illusions of the everyday world, finite human existing is inherently traumatizing (

Is there any good news to be found in this existential analysis? Yes there is. For one thing, owning up to the fact that we have only a finite stretch of indeterminate length in which to be, can free us to live according to what really matters to us—the quality of our relatedness to others, for example.

A second bit of good news can be found in a relational dimension of our experience of finitude itself. Just as finitude is fundamental to our existential constitution, so too is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as siblings in the same darkness, deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional understanding within which the devastating emotional pain built in to our finite human existing can be held, endured, and eventually integrated.

We often can find sources of such emotional understanding in music. The blues, for example, provides a visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be shared and communally held and borne. Have a listen to Rev. Gary Davis singing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and you’ll see what I mean; link:

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Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.