The Time of Mourning: Passing through Grief

According to Freud, the loss of a person or something we love – a death, a separation, a departure, a theft – not only takes away someone or something dear to us, but also that part of us which is related to the object of our lost love. Thus it is not only the loss of another person or object but also of a significant part of ourselves. Mourning (lutto in Italian, from the Latin lugere, to cry) is the emotional reaction that this loss brings, the pain that also inflicts trauma on the vital energy.

The first important point to understand is that separations and mourning are part of life, just as much as other emotionally significant events, such as love. We might even say that they are a consequence of love, because when we are involved in a love relationship we also take on the risk of suffering that its loss entails.

Mourning is the process through which we come to accept the definitive disappearance of what or who we have loved, and to consciously separate ourselves from it. It’s also important to understand that acceptance is not the same as resignation. It’s neither a return to a readjusted “before” nor a passive closing off. On the contrary, it is often an impetus towards a responsive transformation of our existence.  

Separation from the object of lost love, what is more, does not mean one cancels the memory of it; on the contrary, it may remain as an important fact that is impossible to cancel. It is rather a temporal relocation of experiences, the transition towards a non-paralysing nostalgia, but makes space for a return of the vital force to the present moment.

This process involves three aspects: memory, pain and time. After an initial moment of emotional numbness, the awareness of our loss rushes back with a painful flood of memories. This is the worst phase, the most difficult, in which it is particularly important to find good emotional and motivational support.

The flow of memories generally does not follow a linear pattern: there are moments of apparent detachment into which, all of a sudden, poignant nad heart rending  images may erupt. We cannot predict how long this intense resurgence of memories, with their emotional baggage of suffering, will last; however, if we manage not to establish pathological defense mechanisms, with time they tend to become less frequent and less intense.

Those popular traditions that required mourners to wear external signs of mourning for a time ranging from one to three years, depending on their relationship with the deceased, had understood the average time needed to overcome the loss.

When faced with serious loss, however, there may be some pathological responses that we can identify, above all inconsolable distress and obsessive denial. In the first case, the depressive reaction is prolonged in an unlimited way and becomes chronic in what is defined as the melancholic stagnation of mourning, a condition that begins to dominate one’s life. The person’s emotional life stops and is frozen around the memory of someone who is no longer there and who they obsessively want to keep. 

This state can have different degrees of intensity, often accompanied by ritual behavior, such as preserving  unchanged over a long period those spaces where the deceased had lived. 

In other cases we can observe a more or less conscious refusal to open up again to the pleasant aspects of life, as if this “guilty” coming out of mourning were an abandonment of the loved one, the betrayal of his or her memory. 

Obsessive denial, on the other hand, consists in rejecting the pain that every loss inevitably entails.  The person does not want to go through the time of mourning and the suffering it entails and throws him or herself into a flurry of activities to fill the void that has been left. This is a very different condition from the reaction that follows a full expression of loss, because it leaves no space for pain, devalues its meaning and worth, or even denies its existence.

In both reactions, the process of separation from the lost object of love, that can only come about from consciously working with one’s pain, is blocked. It is important to remember that separation from someone who dies, from someone who has moved away, or from something that has been lost is not the annulment of his/her/its memory, of which there will always be a trace, just as a scar remains on wounded flesh which might be just visible, or deep and sometimes still painful according to the condition of each person and the extent of the wound. 

Hence the path of mourning is also the process of re-appropriating that part of oneself that has been lost, together with those who have disappeared, or a place or a job that one has had to leave. Each phase of growth, each evolutionary step (leaving the womb, giving up the breast, leaving the parental home and so on) calls for a moment of separation, more or less painful, that requires time and strength to deal with the pain. It begins with sobbing, tears, with nostalgia, with nurturing memories, then evolves into a gradual distancing, a letting-go of what was and is no longer, but which can continue to live in our wealth of memories, in shared and lasting experiences. Pain, if accepted, always teaches us something. 

What can help us in this work? Time is an indispensable factor, but it is often not enough by itself. The support of close loved ones is certainly another important element, although often not sufficient. Working with serious mourning requires the ability to deal with serious pain and this is never easy for those who are not prepared for it or are too emotionally involved. Therefore targeted therapeutic work may be necessary. 

In addition to time and external support, the awareness of the distressed person and his or her view of life are fundamental in this process. For those with a religious faith, this can be a comfort: it helps to believe that one’s suffering has a higher value; that what happens, however painful, is part of a divine plan. In a non-theistic view such as that of Buddhist philosophy, awareness of the impermanence of everything is central, always keeping in mind that everything that has come together, starting from matter to human relationships, is destined to fall apart. It’s just a matter of time.

A more complete awareness of impermanence can be developed through meditation practice, although I don’t know how much it is able to immunize us from the suffering that comes from losing our deepest attachments. It will certainly help us not to be taken by surprise and will offer us tools to work through pain without being crushed by it. 

In a society that seems to promise the elimination of all suffering and claims the right to well-being without disturbance, there is an increasing attempt to exorcise the idea of death and to remove the inevitability of pain from our lives, with the effect of making us unprepared for losses, and wanting to minimize the time of mourning. In this context, it becomes even more important to restore an awareness of one’s own fragility, the space for listening to oneself, and the search for a path of knowledge that can guide us when the pain of loss enters our lives.

A final aspect to consider is that defined as anticipatory mourning, by which we mean the emotional response in the face of approaching death in a terminal illness. Although no one can reasonably think that life goes on indefinitely, most of us tend to dismiss the idea of our own death as a real event, or at least to shift it towards the illusion of an abstract future. However, this would open up a discussion that deserves to be treated separately. 

Luigi Vitiello

Minimal bibliography

  • Bormolini, G.: Accompagnatori e accompagnati – Ed. Messaggero 2020 
  • Felaco, R. & D’anselmo, F.: Amare in assenza – Kaizen 2016 
  • Frankl, V.: L’uomo in cerca di senso – Franco Angeli 2017 
  • Freud, S.: L’elaborazione del lutto – BUR 2013
  • Jäger, W.: L’essenza della vita – La Parola 2007
  • Namkhai, N.: Birth, Life and Death – Shang Shung 2007 
  • Recalcati, M.: La luce delle stelle morte – Feltrinelli 2022

Luigi Vitiello has been a student of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu since 1977 and trained as a Yantra Yoga and Meditation teacher with him. He is a doctor and psychotherapist and holds a Masters degree in Spiritual Accompaniment in sickness and dying.
He was head of the Tibetan Medicine section of the Shang Shung International Institute of Tibetan Studies, of which he later served as director.
He is the author of various articles on Tibetan medicine and psychotherapy and holds seminars and courses on these topics, on meditation and on aspects relating to the end of life according to the view of Vajrayana Buddhism and Western psychology.
He lives between Naples and Arcidosso.

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