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Freudian Psychology

How We Can Be Transformed by Loss

The loss of a cherished relationship can reshape us in significant ways.

Key points

  • Not only death, but also estrangement or detachment from a person we value may alter our direction in life.
  • Awareness of someone's absence may disrupt our sense of self, stability, and belonging.
  • A cherished relationship that is lost may be silently held.

Just as Polaris—the North Star—is a fixed destination in the northern sky, a guiding directional light for navigators and a metaphorical beacon of hope, relationships are also an anchor or watchtower that maintain our heading amid the changes that happen in life. A loss that deters us from where we are headed does not only involve death. Detachment from a significant relationship or estrangement from a person we value are losses that may dramatically alter our direction.

The awareness that someone is missing outside our being conflicts with memories of their presence that contribute to our self-definition (Singer & Blagov, 2004). Along with this loss, our identity, self-esteem, and aspirations no longer exist in relation to a familiar living being. We must change our direction.

Becoming Lost in Loss

When we are lost in response to loss, we may not know which way to go, where to turn, or what to do. We may feel vulnerable, exposed, or alone. We may yearn for the times when our path and identity seemed more defined. The pronounced awareness of someone’s absence may disrupt our sense of self, stability, and belonging. Disorientation and emptiness can result from discrepancies between memories of a loved one and their current absence (Lamia, 2022). The sense of being lost may also result from the changed meanings in our lives. The meanings have changed implicitly as well as explicitly. Explicit meanings are those within our conscious awareness. Implicit meanings are those we feel but do not have words; we sense the meanings in our bodies.

Internal Dialogues

Loss can activate creative internal dialogues. In some instances, grievers may construct fantasies that restore the lost connection, creating scenarios that the person is still with them. As we slowly adapt to life without someone’s presence, we may be prompted to consider who we are outside the context of that relationship. Yet some grievers silently keep a cherished relationship near to their hearts and do not divulge the secret ways they maintain their bonds or how, internally and in painful ways, the relationship, as well as the loss, has altered their inner experience.

A Secret: Even Freud Became Lost in Loss

Late in his life, Sigmund Freud expressed strong sentiments about his own experience of loss and how it altered him. However, many mental health professionals may be unaware of how this impacted Freud and led him to revise his theories about loss and mourning.

Freud’s (1917) early conceptualization of loss proposed that mourning is time-limited. He theorized that when a loved one dies, the mourner repeatedly confronts the reality of the loss, gradually withdraws psychic energy invested in the deceased and attached to memories and hopes related to the deceased until a final detachment enables the person’s ego to become free and uninhibited again. This was the recipe for psychoanalysts to treat grievers; namely, that the griever works through the loss and gets over it. At the time, Freud was developing his theory of narcissism, and he was exploring melancholia as a narcissistic disorder. Thus, he believed that people who experience melancholia from a current loss must have had an ambivalent relationship with someone who was lost earlier in life.

Yet loss of an emotional connection requires cognitive reorganization that will help the person find ways to connect similarly with others. However, replacing someone we have been deeply attached to isn't easy. Many studies based on attachment theories indicate that people for whom deep attachment and dependency fostered a sense of emotional security are most vulnerable to grief problems when the person with whom they were entwined dies or disappears from their life (Fraley & Bonanno, 2004; Maccallum & Bryant, 2008).

What led Freud to alter his theories involved his own experience of loss, namely the loss of his grandchild, Heinele. But preceding the loss of his grandchild, Freud’s youngest daughter, Sophie, died of Spanish flu in 1920. Freud was not nearly as attached to his daughter Sophie as he was to Sophie’s child, Heinele. So, when Sophie died, Freud applied a bit of his erroneous early theory about loss and mourning to himself. In a letter to his friend, Sandor Ferenzi, Freud wrote, “I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious, narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later” (2000a, p. 6). Freud’s comments regarding his daughter’s death are intellectualized and far removed from what one would expect from a grief-stricken parent.

Yet Freud's very strong attachment to his grandchild led him to clearly express grief when Heinele died from tuberculosis in June 1923. In a letter to Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, three years later, in 1926, Freud revealed that since his grandson’s death, he “no longer [found] enjoyment in life” (Freud, 2003). Five years after the loss, Freud professed in a letter to Ernest Jones that he “became tired of life permanently” since his grandson died (Freud, 2000b). The loss of his close relationship with the child led him to consider the extreme painfulness of mourning and recognize the endlessness of normal grieving (Clewell, 2004).

Relationships with others shape who we are, whether they are early or later in our lives. When a deep bond is severed through loss, as Freud himself experienced, it can fundamentally challenge our beliefs, understanding of ourselves, and place in the world. We do not necessarily come out of a loss experience with greater learning or meaning, although that would be our hope. Psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes (2015) described the pain of grief as “just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.”

[This post is excerpted in part from my book, Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]


Clewell, T. (2004). Mourning beyond melancholia: Freud’s psychoanalysis of loss. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 52(1), 43–67.

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XIV (1914–1916). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement, Papers on metapsychology and other works (pp. 237–258). Hogarth.

Freud, S. (2000a). Letter from Sigmund Freud to Sándor Ferenczi, January 29, 1920. In P. T. Hoffer (Trans.), The correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi: Vol. 3. 1920–1933 (p. 6). Belknap Press.

Freud, S. (2000b). Letter from Sigmund Freud to Ernest Jones, March 11, 1928. In P. T. Hoffer (Trans.), The complete correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones 1908–1939 (pp. 643–644). Belknap Press.

Freud, S. (2003). Letter from Sigmund Freud to Ludwig Binswanger, November 29, 1926. In G. Fichtner & L. Binswanger (Eds.), The Sigmund Freud–Ludwig Binswanger correspondence 1908–1938 (pp. 185–186). Other Press.

Lamia, M. (2022). Grief isn’t something to get over: Finding a home for memories and emotions after losing a loved one. American Psychological Association LifeTools Books.

Parkes, C. M. (2015). The price of love: The selected works of Colin Murray Parkes. Routledge.

Singer, J. A., & Blagov, P. (2004). The integrative function of narrative processing: Autobiographical memory, self-defining memories, and the life story of identity. In D. R. Beike, J. M. Lampinen, & D. A. Behrend (Eds.), The self and memory (pp. 117–138). Psychology Press.

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