The crucial art of mourning

The death of loved ones can cause conflict as well as sadness. But practicing life's little losses can help.

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One of the things that's become clear about grieving, since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her classic book, On Death and Dying, is that the so-called stages of mourning do not occur in set patterns. Individuals are very likely to experience anger and sadness, guilt and elation, but not one after the other. They can even feel these things almost at the same time.

It's one of the reasons why death can cause feuds in families. Anger can arise from these different, conflicting feelings. It's one of the reasons that the death of a child can be such a challenge to the relationship of the grieving parents, and seem so surprising to others. When one parent is desperate at the loss, and the other is relieved the struggle is over, it can be impossible to live together.

That said, such a rational understanding of the situation is unlikely to bring about a reconciliation. Feelings are feelings. Feelings around death are particularly powerful because they are about what's absolute.

Anniversaries can also be times of eruption. They can be quite as traumatic as the actual event because at least at the time of death, there are things to do; rites of passage like funerals to help you through the empty days and long nights. A year on, there can be nothing to do but mourn. In its own way, that's just as hard - quite as painful as a open physical wound, C.S. Lewis realised, in A Grief Observed.

Time may heal divisions. The risk, though, is that the "magical thinking" - to use Joan Didion's powerful expression - takes root. Instead of mourning being an exceptional time, when as Didion noted, the left loved ones imagine all manner of bizarre impossibilities, it becomes the norm.

That's the longer term risk with mourning. An almost inevitably messy process doesn't work its way through, but gets stuck. One of Sigmund Freud's most durable insights concerns this kind of impasse. He realised that mourning can become what he termed melancholia. We would say depression - not the depression of feeling wretched, which might be a normal part of grieving, but the more lasting, listless sense of terminal emptiness.

Freud conceived of this state of mind by wondering whether the person mourning has now lost touch with what they are missing. The object of their sadness - the loved one, or whatever else has gone, perhaps public standing or religious faith - has slipped beyond the horizon in the profundity of the mood. Without an object to mourn, the grieving becomes general. The whole of life feels as if it has died. The experience now is that there is nothing good to hold onto. It feels as if the difficult period will last indefinitely.

Just why mourning can become melancholia is impossible to say in the general case. Each story will be different. But therapy can be immensely useful. Simply by being able to listen, and tolerate the pain, the therapist communicates the possibility that the loss can be survived. It doesn't actually mean life has become a living death. In time, an echo of good things can return. What's been lost can be remembered again, and so mourned.

But there's something else that can be done, though it's tricky in a culture like ours that has comparatively few sustained ways of encountering death. It's to recognise that loss is not only what happens at the end of life. It's a feature of everyday life too. There's the losses and returns of the seasons. There's the quotidian passing of day into night. Children leave home; we grow older; good books are finished. Deaths are multiform.

Wisdom traditions advise using these little deaths to practice dying. Rather than immediately seeking distraction, they suggest staying with the sense of loss; mourning what's passing. "Now, with sullen shingle beaches wearing out the Tuscan sea, practice wisdom," wrote Horace.

That doesn't just build up resilience. It nurtures the sense that death is part of life. It doesn't take away the pain. But it can place the aching in a wider context, of connection, understanding, courage, hope.

This post is adapted from an article by Mark published by The Guardian.

Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.