Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Fingerprint of Grief

The varieties of grief and keeping the dead present.

Key points

  • Grief is individual and its journey cannot be prescribed.
  • There is a necessary balance between individual and collective mourning.
  • Our national response to the pandemic has left us isolated and dislocated.

It is uncanny that, in an age of much greater psychological sophistication, we still have to remind readers and clients that each individual’s experience is unique. This Sunday, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode, the editor of The Meaning of Mourning: Perspectives on Death, Loss, and Grief. This book is dedicated to exploring the varieties of the grief experience as well as the importance of keeping the dead present in lived experience—a topic that this blog has long been focused on.

All psychological theorists generalize human experience, including Sigmund Freud. As Slawkowski-Rode indicates, “His innovation was to view mourning as a matter of individual psychological health, as opposed to the final stage in the relationship we have with someone.” In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud argued that the inability to overcome loss and finally lay its object to rest was pathological.

Edgar Levenson, a contemporary psychoanalyst, has pointed to the limits of theory in understanding ourselves and others. He notes, "From the early Greeks on, science has always dealt with commonalities, with an attempt to find principles and rules, laws which govern and order natural phenomena. Aesthetics was permitted its eccentricities, but science was expected to conform to the canons of logic and reason" (Levenson 1980).

Andre Frueh / Unsplash
Andre Frueh / Unsplash

Talented clinicians, no matter what their theory, are always able to sustain both a theoretical position and a specific empathy and connection. One of the ways that patients can determine whether they’re in good hands therapeutically is by asking themselves whether their therapist seems too wedded to abstract or evidence-based suggestions, rather than being able to identify with their unique struggles.

But there is a difference between believing that you have to join the right protocol and do grief correctly, versus being embraced by a community that recognizes grief as organic to life’s flow and meaning. Excessive emphasis on the individual versus the community has always been a problem of Western psychology and philosophy. Many writers, in considering our national psychology, have lamented the absence of a shared purpose and willingness to self-sacrifice for the larger good.

Other cultures are much better at supporting individuals experiencing challenges such as grief. For example, many cultures incorporate timeless rituals that absorb a substantial amount of pain. There is little concern about whether individuals are behaving "appropriately" or "healthily", as long as they participate in the rituals.

COVID is an example of a vacant grief “holding” community. As a nation, we suffered a collective loss during the pandemic—in education, health resources, and political unity. Individuals suffered catastrophic loss through unexpected deaths, as well as isolation and disorientation both professionally and personally. I think many individuals are confused about whether they have "recovered” from COVID.

Concerning the psychological community, it is unusual (but positive) that mental health experts have not yet identified what a healing process might look like. However, we have also not specified collective rituals, with very rare exceptions. One of these exceptions is the installation by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg of more than 700,000 white flags planted on 20 acres of federal land between September 17 and October 3, 2021—each commemorating a COVID death. For the most part though, in the absence of collective rituals, each individual has been left to struggle alone, processing loss and wondering about the normalcy and adequacy of coping.

There's a balance between recognizing our needs as a human community and as individuals. We have to keep working at it.


Freud, S. (1953). Mourning and Melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14). essay, Hogarth Press.

Hauser, C. (2022). How We Mourn Covid’s Victims.

Levenson, E. A. (1980) More Different than Alike—Speculations on the Uniqueness of the Psychoanalytic Experience. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 16:1-15.

Slawkowski-Rode, M. (2023). It’s OK to Never “Get Over” Your Grief.

More from Mary-Joan Gerson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Mary-Joan Gerson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today