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Wolfenstein, M. (1966). How is Mourning Possible?. Psychoanal. St. Child, 21:93-123.

(1966). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21:93-123

How is Mourning Possible?

Martha Wolfenstein, Ph.D.


The ability to form, and also, when necessary, to dissolve, object relations is essential to the development of every human being. At present we know more about the progress and vicissitudes of developing object relations than we do about reactions to their being broken off in different phases of life. In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), Freud described the phenomenon of mourning as it occurs in adults in reaction to the death of a loved person. There is a painful and protracted struggle to acknowledge the reality of the loss, which is opposed by a strong unwillingness to abandon the libidinal attachment to the lost object. "Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it" (pp. 244-245). The lost object is thus gradually decathected, by a process of remembering and reality testing, separating memory from hope. The mourner convinces himself of the irrevocable pastness of what he remembers: this will not come again, and this will not come again. That the decathexis of the lost object is accomplished in a piecemeal way serves an important defensive function, protecting the mourner from the too sudden influx of traumatic quantities of freed libido.

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