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Life Arts

President Obama Needs to Mourn (Review essay)

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As we have seen, the Bush family experienced bereavement due to the death of Robin Bush. But we have not seen bereavement due to a loved one's death enter the life of young Barack Obama. However, as I will discuss below, young Barack Obama did experience the nondeath loss of his Kenyan father, and his mother also experienced the non-death loss of young Barack's father.

So loss = loss of attachment bond.

Whenever we experience loss (i.e., the loss of an attachment bond), we need to mourn our loss. At first blush, this sounds straightforward. But there is a serious complication. Depending on our earliest attachment bonding, we may or may not be able to mourn in a healthy way. Jeffreys refers to our earliest attachment bonding in terms of secure attachment bonding and nonsecure attachment bonding. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with both mother and father. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with either mother or father. Blessed are those who formed secure attachment bonds with other significant persons in their lives. Secure attachment bonds are needed in order to undertake serious mourning in a healthy way.

As a result, we need to speak of   (A) a healthy way of mourning, which, as mentioned, is connected with secure attachment bonding, and (B) an unhealthy way of mourning, which is connected with nonsecure attachment bonding in our earliest experiences in life.

Jeffreys identifies three patterns of nonsecure attachment bonding (pages 52-57 and 307):

(1) anxious-ambivalent nonsecure attachment bonding;

(2) dismissive-avoidant nonsecure attachment bonding; and

(3) fearful-avoidant nonsecure attachment bonding.

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Any one of these three nonsecure attachment bonds will produce the conditions for the kind of grief work that Bradshaw writes about.

From what we know about young GWB's family life, it is hard to imagine that he experienced a secure attachment bond with either his mother or his father. Of the three patterns of nonsecure attachment bonds that Jeffreys discusses, GWB most likely experienced the fearful-avoidant nonsecure attachment bond. Of the three patterns discussed by Jeffreys, this one strikes me as the one most obviously connected with megalomania.

However, from what we know about young Barack Obama, it appears likely that he did indeed form a secure attachment bond with his mother. But it does not appear likely that he formed a secure attachment bond with his father. Instead, it appears most likely that young Barack Obama formed a dismissive-avoidant attachment bond with his father. For example, Candidate Obama famously dismissed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had been a father figure in Obama's life in Chicago, and threw him under the bus when Wright proved himself to be a liability of Candidate Obama's presidential campaign. (Concerning Wright and Obama, see the index of Dr. Frank's book for specific page references.)

Dr. Frank does not diagnose President Obama as being incapable of serious mourning. On the contrary, Dr. Frank says that President Obama has got some work to do still regarding his father and mother.

People who experienced nonsecure attachment bonding in their early lives will not be able to mourn losses in their lives in a healthy way, unless and until they somehow experience what Bradshaw refers to as grief work and what Dr. Frank refers to as serious mourning and an accompanying new kind of containment experience that they had not experienced early in life. Containment experience is the opposite of abandonment experience, and vice versa.

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In the professional literature about loss and mourning, the terms "resolved" and "unresolved" are used. When the healthy mourning process has run its course and been completed, the mourning process is described as having been resolved.

However, people who are not able to mourn in a healthy way do not experience the resolution of their mourning process. As a result, their uncompleted mourning process is described as unresolved. Unresolved mourning remains in their lives -- perhaps to be resolved at a later time, if and when they later learn how to experience a new pattern of containment experience to replace their old pattern of abandonment experience.

The mourning process is work, the work of mourning. The mantra to feel the feelings applies to the mourning process. In addition to feeling the feelings of mourning, one needs to express one's feelings somehow, sharing them with others who are able themselves to serve as Exquisite Witnesses (or care providers), as Jeffreys describes them. The Exquisite Witnesses serve the purpose of containment. The emerging process of containment facilitated with the help of the Exquisite Witnesses enables the mourner to learn a new pattern, the pattern of containment, to replace the old dysfunctional pattern of abandonment. However, as Jeffreys emphasizes, there is no one right way to mourn.

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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