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Life Arts

President Obama Needs to Mourn (Review essay)

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The most famous imagery that I know of for containment occurs in the ODYSSEY when Odysseus is tied to the mast of his ship with his ears plugged as his ship navigates Scylla and Charybdis. Navigating your way through Scylla and Charybdis is a perilous journey.

In real life, President Abraham Lincoln did undertake the work of serious mourning while he was in office. But it remains to be seen if President Obama will follow President Lincoln's example and undertake serious mourning while he is in office. For understandable reasons, President Obama may prefer to work out a suitable containment pattern instead. After all, President Lincoln was assassinated. For understandable reasons, President Obama may prefer not to run the risk of being assassinated if he can help it.

Unfortunately, we do not understand how to help people experience serious mourning in a healthy way. Nevertheless, by definition, serious mourning in a healthy way is a containment experience that is comparable to the containment experiences that babies need to experience when they are distressed. By definition, containment experiences help us contain our abandonment feelings. When individual persons voluntarily seek help through psychotherapy, they are usually seeking help in establishing a containment pattern in their lives that will enable them to cope more effectively with their abandonment feelings. At times, containment is the best way to proceed, especially if containment helps the individual person develop inner strength. Serious mourning in a healthy way requires a certain amount of inner strength, because mourning can be an overpowering experience leading to a mental breakdown. Serious mourning involves what C. G. Jung refers to as legitimate suffering.


As a result of my own experience of bereavement, I started reading works by other people about their own personal experiences of bereavement such as Joan Didion's book THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (2006). In addition, I started reading works in the professional literature about loss and mourning, including Freud's famous essay "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917). Incidentally, if you are going to read only one thing about serious mourning, read Freud's essay. There's a fine mind at work in that essay.

Then I recently read the second edition of J. Shep Jeffreys' book HELPING GRIEVING PEOPLE -- WHEN TEARS ARE NOT ENOUGH: A HANDBOOK FOR CARE PROVIDERS (2011), mentioned above. In my case I am not trying to be a care provider for anybody else but myself.

Jeffreys ably covers certain works in the professional literature that I had read as well as other works that I had not read. In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, he surveys the professional literature and summarizes what each author says -- without trying to adjudicate competing claims made by different authors. But his own contribution is in the overall editorial apparatus that he uses in organizing the book and in the direct editorializing that he occasionally provides as he proceeds, most notably on pages 46-49.

As Jeffreys explains, attachment theory as advanced by John Bowlby and others dominates the professional literature about loss and mourning. Briefly stated, we form attachments, which are also referred to as attachment bonding and attachment bonds. We feel a sense of loss in our lives when we experience the loss of an attachment bond with someone or something (including the loss of our dreams in which we had invested ourselves).

In other words, no attachment bond = no experience of loss = no experience of mourning a loss.

As Jeffreys indicates, there are two broad categories of loss:

(1) loss due to the death of someone significant in our lives, which is also known as bereavement, and

(2) nondeath losses.

When we speak of the death of a loved one, we usually think of the death of a marital partner or a romantic lover or a family member, where we have established a personal two-way love relationship with another individual person. However, I would note that presidential candidates in the United States try to win our votes and approval. In a sense, they try to win our love.

When they succeed in winning our love, then we run the risk of falling out of love with them, in which case we may experience our own falling out of love with them as nondeath losses. To be healed of such nondeath losses, we will have to undergo the work of mourning our losses that Susan Anderson describes in her book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).

Tragically, at times, certain politicians such as President John F. Kennedy and other public leaders such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may be assassinated. In those cases, because of the love that we invested in the public figures, their assassinations result in our bereavement.

As Jeffreys discusses nondeath losses, it turns out that nondeath losses can include a wide range of losses, because we can and usually do form a wide range of attachments in our lives.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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President Obama should stop imagining that he is g... by Thomas Farrell on Saturday, Jan 14, 2012 at 5:25:19 PM
in couseling for depression, was that you can't sa... by Richard Girard on Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012 at 4:23:33 PM
It's not easy, as you say. But that's why some peo... by Thomas Farrell on Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012 at 5:29:15 PM