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President Obama Needs to Mourn (Review essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 14, 2012: What difference does it make, if any, if the president of the United States is incapable of serious mourning? What benefit, if any, is there to being capable of serious mourning? With the presidential election coming up later this year, I want to explore these fascinating questions.


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Justin A. Frank, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. As a psychoanalyst, he follows Melanie Klein's approach to psychoanalysis, using her model of our psychological condition.

I read Dr. Frank's book OBAMA ON THE COUCH (2011) before I read Dr. Frank's earlier book BUSH ON THE COUCH (2004; rev. ed. 2007). In his book about President Barack Obama, Dr. Frank sets forth a far more lucid explanation of Melanie Klein's thought than he does in his book about President George W. Bush (GWB). In addition, Dr. Frank's book about Obama includes a helpful glossary of psychoanalytic terminology toward the end of the book.

Dr. Frank suggests that GWB probably suffers from the kind of learning disability known as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But Dr. Frank's most important diagnosis of GWB is that he suffers from megalomania (pages 200-206, 231).

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However, the most moving and at times poignant part of Dr. Frank's book is his recurring discussion of the death of GWB's younger sister Robin in October 1953, when GWB was about seven years old (pages 2-3, 14-16, 68, 84, 105,187, 224-225, 246).

Evidently, GWB's mother and father did not themselves mourn Robin's death in a healthy way, thereby tragically depriving GWB of the kind of nurturing he needed to learn himself how to mourn in a healthy way.

Dr. Frank discusses the importance of mourning extensively (pages xvi, 15, 16, 67, 68, 110, 185, 187-188, 255). He concludes that "[a]acceptance of who we are, with all our limitations, requires serious mourning -- something that Bush is incapable of doing" (page 255).


In the examples of myths that Joseph Campbell discusses in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1949), the hero undertakes the perilous journey and returns with the boon of life. For all practical purposes, John Bradshaw has undertaken the perilous journey of serious mourning and returned with the boon of life. According to Bradshaw, healthy grief is the boon of life.

In the story of the cave in Plato's REPUBLIC, the philosopher who works his way out of the cave and sees the light of the sun then goes back into the cave to work with others who are still struggling in the cave and have not yet seen the light of the sun. Figuratively speaking, Bradshaw has returned to the cave and worked to help others undertake serious mourning. In addition, he has written books and given lectures and workshops.

In his book HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU (1988; expanded and updated ed. 2005), Bradshaw sets forth an explanation as to how and why some people may be incapable of serious mourning. He says that people who are incapable of serious mourning are suffering from toxic shame that binds their emotions, except for the emotion of anger. For Bradshaw, grief is an emotion. He characterizes grief as the healing feeling (i.e., the feeling that can allow healing to occur, when healthy mourning has run its course). However, when toxic shame binds our emotions, our capacity to experience grief in a healthy way is bound (i.e., limited so that we do not mourn in a healthy way). When we are incapable of serious mourning in a healthy way, our experiences of mourning in an unhealthy way leave us with unresolved (i.e., uncompleted) mourning. Paradoxically, Bradshaw's prescription for healing toxic shame is grief work, because, according to Bradshaw, grief is the healing feeling.

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In other words, according to Bradshaw, a person who is incapable of serious mourning, as Dr. Frank puts it, will overcome this inability through the experience of serious mourning. This is probably the case. But I would point out that it is not easy to engender serious mourning in oneself or in others. Moreover, serious mourning can be an overpowering experience leading at times to a mental breakdown. So if you want to experience serious mourning as the way to overcome being incapable of serious mourning, you should be forewarned that you might experience a mental breakdown instead. Serious mourning resembles clinical depression, a form of mental breakdown.

Bereavement (i.e., serious mourning due to the death of a loved one) is not clinical depression because it is bereavement. In other words, it is obvious that a loved one's death precipitated one's bereavement. But nondeath losses can also precipitate serious mourning, as Susan Anderson describes in her fine book THE JOURNEY FROM ABANDONMENT TO HEALING (2000).

However, it strikes me that clinical depression, a form of mental breakdown, should be understood as a signal that the person needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy way, if this is possible for the person to experience. Similarly, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) should be understood as signals that the person experiencing the symptoms of PTSD needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy way, if this is possible for the person to experience. No doubt certain other kinds of symptoms should also be understood as signals that the person experiencing the symptoms needs to experience serious mourning in a healthy, if this is possible for the person to experience. But serious mourning in a healthy way is a powerful experience. So when the symptoms are already showing that ego-consciousness is being overpowered, the first order of business for the individual person should be to work out a suitable containment pattern, which usually involves the help of one or more other persons such as psychotherapists and Exquisite Witnesses, to use J. Shep Jeffreys' term in his book HELPING GRIEVING PEOPLE -- WHEN TEARS ARE NOT ENOUGH: A HANDBOOK FOR CARE PROVIDERS (2nd ed. 2011). By working out a suitable containment pattern, the individual person may be able to develop the inner strength in his or her ego-consciousness to undertake the arduous and at times perilous work of serious mourning.

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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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