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Life Arts

Complicated Bereavement: Some People Experience It But Others Don't: Why?

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 1, 2012: Why do some people experience complicated bereavement (also known as complicated grief and complicated mourning), when most people do not? Thus stated, this question sounds like a research question. The short answer is that nobody knows why this happens to certain people. As a result, based on my own experience, I'd suggest that complicated bereavement emerges in people when unresolved mourning of certain nondeath losses is reactivated in their psyches -- losses and unresolved mourning connected in certain ways with the deceased.

But if most people do not experience complicated bereavement, why should readers be interested enough in it to want to read about it? That's a good question. Complicated bereavement could probably happen to anybody. Probably nobody could rule out this possibility from his or her life. Besides, it is likely that many readers have known somebody who did experience complicated bereavement, or will know somebody in the future who experiences it.

But let's consider a different question: What happens to people whose bereavement is unresolved (i.e., uncompleted in a healthy way)? People who experience complicated bereavement are at risk of having it remain unresolved, or perhaps turn into clinical depression requiring hospitalization. However, not all unresolved bereavement necessarily turns into complicated bereavement, because unresolved bereavement can at times remain as unresolved bereavement. Puzzling, eh?

In his book BUSH ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT (rev. ed. 2007), Justin A. Frank, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, examines the life of President George W. Bush. His little sister Robin died. She died in New York, when young George was back in Texas. Her body was buried in a family plot in Connecticut. There was no funeral. Young George learned of his sister's illness (leukemia) only after her death. For reasons that Dr. Frank details, young George did not mourn his sister's death in a healthy way. As a result, his bereavement remains unresolved to this day. Perhaps it is impossible for us to say how his unresolved bereavement influenced his life and his decisions as president. However, it appears that unresolved bereavement does impact the person. Dr. Frank's discussion of Robin is the most poignant theme in his book (see pages 2-3, 14-16, 68, 84, 105, 187, 224-225, 246).

Freud's famous essay "Mourning and Melancholia" clearly describes how mourning somebody's death can at times turn into melancholia. But the term "melancholia" is no longer widely used. It has been replaced by the terms complicated bereavement, complicated grief, and complicated mourning. As Freud's term melancholia suggests, though, complicated bereavement resembles depression. But because complicated bereavement starts as bereavement over somebody's death, it seems preferable to refer to it as complicated bereavement, not depression. Indeed, it may be the case that depression occurs because unresolved mourning is somehow reactivated in the psyche.

Bereavement is an involuntary response to somebody's death, just as mourning nondeath losses in our lives is an involuntary response to our nondeath losses. Both kinds of mourning are great boons in life when they proceed in a healthy way. Blessed are those who can mourn losses in a healthy way. When we cannot mourn our losses in a healthy way, our mourning remains unresolved. It appears that people with a backlog of unresolved mourning may be at risk for experiencing flashback symptoms such as the symptoms of PTSD.

Losses in our lives are based on attachments that we have formed. No attachment, no loss. We form attachments with the loved ones in our lives. In addition to forming attachments with certain significant persons, we form a number of other kinds of attachments in our lives. So we form attachments with persons, places, and things, including things that are not necessarily material objects (e.g., our jobs, our prestige, our dreams). The involuntary response of mourning our losses involves letting go of our old attachments. To mourn our losses in a healthy way, we need to feel the feelings involved in the mourning process, and we need to work through the feelings involved. However, when the mourning process is not completed in a healthy way, then our mourning remain unresolved. Our unresolved mourning can resurface at a later time in our lives, so that it may then be completed in a healthy way and thus resolved.

Susan Anderson has written about both bereavement and mourning nondeath losses. She has written about bereavement in the essay "Suffering the Death of a Loved One" (2006), which is available at the website She has written about mourning nondeath losses in her book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).

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Next, I want to discuss further adult-onset attachments and the loss of those due to somebody's death, as distinct from attachments formed in childhood such as young George Bush's attachment with his little sister. It appears that many instances of complicated bereavement involve the death of one's spouse, which usually involves an adult-onset attachment. I am suggesting that complicated bereavement due to the death of one's spouse probably activates unresolved mourning of nondeath losses that were connected somehow with the deceased spouse.

In other words, all of us probably have really deep stuff in our psyches due to childhood traumatization. No doubt nondeath losses in our adult lives resonate against the really deep stuff in our psyches due to childhood traumatization. No doubt it would be a boon in our lives to have the really deep stuff due to childhood traumatizations surface, so that we could then work through it in a healthy way. But it is probably not necessary for the really deep stuff to surface in order for the complicated bereavement of an adult-onset attachment to be resolved in a healthy way. However, the unresolved mourning of nondeath losses connected somehow to the deceased must surface and be worked through in a healthy way and resolved.

Finally, I want to discuss what Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1931-1987), the clinical psychologist and spiritual director from India, refers to as nonattachment in his posthumously published book REDISCOVERING LIFE: AWAKEN TO REALITY (2012). In certain ways, nonattachment as he describes it would seem to caution us against forming attachments. But I don't think that is what he means by nonattachment. I think he means that we should form attachments in ways that do not leave us over-invested in the attachment.

We should avoid as best as we can making unrealistic projections in our attachments, as the Child Within us (also known as the Inner Child) tends to. The Child Within is a conceptual construct we use to personify the part of the psyche that suffered childhood traumatization. If and when the really deep stuff in our psyches surfaces and is worked through in a healthy way, then we will be working through the childhood traumatization we suffered. Until we have done this, we will be able to use the construct of the Child Within to discuss our tendencies to over-invest in certain attachments we have. Susan Anderson has published a book to guide us in recognizing when we are acting out our Child Within. She refers to our acting out as the Outer Child: TAMING YOUR OUTER CHILD: A REVOLUTIONARY PROGRAM TO OVERCOME SELF-DEFEATING PATTERNS (2011).

In any event, as a hypothesis, I would suggest that when we over-invest in an adult-onset attachment with another person (e.g., a spouse), we run the risk of setting ourselves up to experience complicated bereavement when that person dies. However, as I say, this is only a hypothesis. It needs to be investigated further.

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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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We use the conceptual construct of the Child Withi... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Jul 1, 2012 at 3:57:02 PM