Mourning or depression?
When we see deep and painful discouragement, cessation of interest in the external world, loss of the ability to love, inhibition of every single skill (Freud, 1970), we see a person engulfed in unhappiness. The image of that unhappiness can be similar in depression and mourning, which is shown in Robert Redford’s film entitled “Ordinary People” (1980).
It tells a story of an American family from the upper middle class, whose members deal with the death of Buck, an older son, in very different ways. The mother (Mary Tyler Moore) becomes indifferent and is emotionally distant from the family, but she keeps the appearances of normality. The father (Donald Sutherland) strives to be bursting with joy, willing to bring a living son back to life and take care of him. The main character is Conrad (Timothy Hutton), a teen brother of the dead, who participated in the accident with him. We are introduced to the family when Conrad comes back home from a psychiatric hospital, where he ended up after a suicidal attempt. Until we get to know about the tragic death of Buck, Conrad’s symptoms indicate depression: he has not strength to get up, has no motivation to act, acts in front of his parents that everything is alright, but he gets angry easily, isolates himself from friends, is evidently in constant tension and, as Freud would put it, suffers from depressed mood expressing in the form of accusations and blames directed at himself, going as far as deranged expectation of punishment (ibid.). In the case of Conrad, the expectation of punishment is all the more justified as he suffers from the sense of guilt because he had survived the accident.
Both in mourning and depression – a state formerly known as melancholy – we deal with the loss of an object of love. This object can be a loved person, work, a system of values. Freud refers to depression as pathological mourning as it cannot be stated conclusively what has been lost or what meaning the loss has. In the case of Conrad, not only the brother is lost, but also the familial and social harmony and faith in the perfection of Buck (he was glorified by everyone and was a role model for Conrad). The creator of psychoanalysis indicates a telling and sublime fact: a person deep in melancholy experiences a loos within their self, from where it takes never-ending self-accusation and self-blaming – if anything happens not like such an individual (in depression) would like to, it becomes her fault.
On the other hand, mourning is a normal process of assimilation of loss (experience and acknowledgement of and assimilation to change). We might not like it, but it is natural that every loss gives suffering. Eventually, the mourner succeeds in reconciling two loyalties: to the dead and life, which keeps going (Francesetti et al., 2016), which Freud describes as “respect for reality triumphs.” Being in the world is seen as an all-encompassing emptiness and the need for contact with the lost object can even lead to hallucinations or flashbacks – if, just like Conrad, the mourner participated in the death of the deceased. However, the hero of “Ordinary People” experiences emptiness in his relationships with the still alive friends and family. The scenes where Conrad could have contact with his close ones, generally show the lack of contact. Gestalt psychotherapists indicate that this is characteristic of a person experiencing depression. That is to say, the mental space between two individuals, which was once a space for meeting and contact, ceases to exist and starts to become an insurmountable cosmic abyss. A similar thing happens in the initial phases of mourning. The similarity of melancholic and mourning symptoms makes doctors prescribe antidepressants to many individuals suffering from the loss of their dear ones, which hinders the process of transformation occurring as a result of the loss.
Author: Natalia Żuk
A member of our team between 2011-2016
Francesetti G., Gecele M., Roubal J. (2016). Psychoterapia Gestalt w praktyce klinicznej. Od psychopatologii do estetyki kontaktu [Gestalt psychotherapy in clinical practice. From psychopathology to aesthetics of contact] Publisher: Harmonia Universalis.
Freud S. (2007). Psychologia nieświadomości [Psychology of unawareness]. Publisher: KR.
Film „Ordinary People”, Robert Redford, USA, 1980.