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Wolfenstein, M. (1973). The Image of the Lost Parent. Psychoanal. St. Child, 28:433-456.

(1973). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 28:433-456

The Image of the Lost Parent

Martha Wolfenstein, Ph.D.

LOVE IMPLIES A STABLE ATTACHMENT TO THE IMAGE OF THE BELOVED person in his absence. While the infant experiences the object only as an immediately present source of pleasure, the growing child forms an image of the object that remains intensely cathected in the interludes of the object's comings and goings. The attachment to the images of the first love objects, the parents, attains a great tenacity. We know with what travail the adolescent, under the stress of developmental circumstances, achieves a partial decathexis of his parents, in order to free libidinal energies for a mature sexual life.

The loss of a parent by death while the child is still in the process of growing up presents an extreme emotional exigency. Clinical studies suggest that the child is developmentally unprepared for what Freud (1917) calls the "work of mourning," the gradual, painful decathexis of the image of the lost object. I have put forward the hypothesis (1966) that mourning becomes possible only after adolescence has been passed through. Adolescence serves as a trial mourning, an initiation into the way of decathecting a major love object. Children who have lost a parent at an earlier age tend to retain their intense cathexis of the image of the parent. At the same time they acknowledge superficially the fact of the parent's death. Thus they maintain a dual and contradictory attitude toward a major reality of their lives. There is a splitting of the ego insofar as the two opposing views of the lost parent are not mutually confronted.

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