Defenses Against Mourning: Unresolved Grief and Pathological Mourning
Pathological mourning occurs when grief is unresolved. In one of the early papers on this topic, Helene Deutsch (1937) described how unresolved grief will surface in the bereaved
individual’s subsequent behavior and character development. The expressions may include disguised or displaced grief, depressive symptoms, characterological symptoms,
or criminal behavior arising from a sense of guilt. Melanie Klein (1940) suggested that mourning in adults reactivates the painful affects and fantasies associated with the
“depressive position” of early life. She suggested that the loss of a good object elicits unconscious fear of losing the internal object as well. In her view, pathological mourning
involves defensive attempts to repair the damaged internal object, such as manic and omnipotent reparation. Klein’s classic paper remains one of the 10 most cited articles in
the psychoanalytic literature, and her views still seem relevant today. Indeed, Diane Ehrensaft (2014) described the case of a transgender teen who presented like a “whirling
dervish” (p. 106) following the sudden, unexpected death of the youth’s father and several subsequent traumas over the next few years. Ehrensaft beautifully detailed her commitment to providing a safe potential space in which the teen could mourn the loss of the father while concurrently continuing a developmental journey toward a fluidly gender-variant identity.
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