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Gaines, R. (1997). Detachment And Continuity. Contemp. Psychoanal., 33:549-571.

(1997). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 33:549-571

Detachment And Continuity

Robert Gaines, Ph.D


The idea that the major task of mourning is detachment from the lost object has been examined critically. Mourning is more accurately conceived of as involving both processes of “letting go” and of “holding on.” Loss of an object threatens inner object ties and identifications, which are the basis of a secure inner world and a sense of security in the world. Mastery of this threat is achieved through the process I have termed the creation of continuity. Creation of continuity is distinguished from the various forms of denial of loss by the fact that in creating continuity there is always explicit, even if unconscious, recognition that the object is gone. Creation of continuity always has a bittersweet quality, but, in tandem with the process of detachment, it helps the mourner move forward in life.

The process of creating continuity is often carried out smoothly and without conscious awareness, but it does require psychological work. At other times a person may suffer feelings or symptoms that reflect a failure to maintain continuity, and this can seriously complicate mourning. Awareness of the task of creating continuity and its possible derailment can be helpful in treating complicated mourning. For instance, an overemphasis on conflicts around the need to detach can exacerbate mourning complications that derive from difficulty maintaining continuity. The perspective on mourning that develops from consideration of the task of creating continuity also heightens awareness that mourning is not something accomplished in one period of time and then left behind. While the acute phase of grief comes to an end, the challenge of coping with a loss continues throughout the lifespan.

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