Mourning Is the Key
It allows us to recover from deaths, loss, trauma, and human pain.
Posted January 16, 2014
Let’s look at mourning in its conventional reference, grief, in the context of death. Let’s say a man’s wife dies. He might say, “What is the point of mourning? It can’t bring my wife back.” Mourning, of course, will not bring her back. Nothing will. Mourning is for the mourner to recover from the loss so that he can resume living. The death of his wife was a jarring trauma, an event sufficiently powerful that it wrote a new play. In this newly written play, she is dead and gone, and he is alone. This new play is discordant with the old deeply held play of their life together, where his ongoing attachment was intact. Her death did not compute in his cortical world. In his consciousness, the old top-down cortical play overrode the new one.
This traumatic loss is much like the phenomenon of the phantom limb. Despite the fact that the amputee’s arm wasn’t there anymore, it continued to live on in his consciousness, due to its activated mappings in his cortex. Despite the fact that our widower knows cognitively that his wife has died, his marriage play continued to live on in the mappings of his consciousness. Mourning her death is the process by which the older play of his wife will cease to be his activated play. The process of mourning would allow him to inhabit the new play—that she is gone. Then she will take her proper place in memory.
The basic elements of mourning a death are similar among all cultures. The specific nuances and style may differ, but the processes are universal. Cultural traditions recognize that the husband remains connected to his wife and doesn’t want to leave her. Take the rending of clothes. This is where, in Jewish tradition, the mourner rips open his clothing in a symbolic gesture killing himself. By this, he symbolically leaves his own body to be with his wife in death. This is a metaphoric act by which they continue to be together. He retains his old play of active attachment.
Right after a death, all cultures provide a circle of loving others—family and friends—who surround the widower. At the funeral or wake or sitting Shiva, they tell stories about his wife, share their feelings about her, and revisit who she was and their life with her. The major import of family and friends is to provide a holding circle around him. After this, the real work of mourning begins.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance—accurately describe the processes involved in relinquishing the old play to accept and inhabit the new one. Denial means that the widower continues to inhabit the old deeply held play, as he keeps the new traumatic play at bay. Denial can’t really work, because the truth inevitably begins to creep in. Then he attempts to hold onto the old play and toss the new one away by bargaining. He employs magical thinking as he bargains with a personification of an all-powerful fate, or God, or death. “I’ll do whatever you want if I get to keep her.” When it becomes apparent that this doesn’t work either, he gets angry at the inexorable truth that his wife has been taken from him. Eventually, this gives way to the sadness of losing his attachment. And finally, he accepts the new play of death and loss and absence. The old play finally recedes and is no longer in ascendancy, and the new play takes its place. He then carries her in memory.
In order to disconnect from the old play, the mourner must face and go through the pain of all the feelings of his attachment, in order to digest the loss. The feelings are about whatever defined the actual story of their relationship (love, sadness, anger, envy, hate—whatever it was). To face and digest their deeply held story and mourn those feelings takes a long time. Typically, with death, the major work takes a year. To lay the relationship to rest, he must deactivate the old play in his cortical theater. This allows the mourner to accept the new play, and for him to come back from the dead to go on in his own life.
Mourning is never really complete. The mappings of the old play remain in the cortex, like those mappings of the phantom limb. When walking down the street, I occasionally see a face in a crowd, or familiar hair, or a familiar gait, and I think, “Oh, it’s Karen!”—a friend who died many years ago. My benign visions of Karen reflect, with feeling, that her persona lives on as a play potential within me, and remains available to be activated as a top-down cortical projection
The mourning of trauma is exactly the opposite of the mourning of a death. Death grieving allows for the disuse of the old play in order to inhabit the new one. Trauma comes from sufficient abuse or deprivation that it writes a new play. To recover from trauma we must mourn the new play in order to relinquish it and return to the old play. Like with a death, this is never fully complete. And finally in psychotherapy, one mourns and relinquishes the old problematic play, forged in deprivation and abuse, to write and inhabit a new play from new experience of trust and responsiveness.
Robert A. Berezin, MD is the author of "Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain"