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Wolfenstein, M. (1969). Loss, Rage, and Repetition. Psychoanal. St. Child, 24:432-460.

(1969). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24:432-460

Loss, Rage, and Repetition

Martha Wolfenstein, Ph.D.


In studying the reactions of children and adolescents to the death of a parent, we have found that mourning does not take place (Wolfenstein, 1966). Feelings of protracted grief are avoided, and the finality of the loss is denied. The representation of the lost parent remains intensely cathected and there are fantasies of his return. While such expectations persist, there is also an acknowledgement of the fact that the parent has died. These two trends, of acknowledgment and denial, coexist without being mutually confronted, constituting what Freud (1927) called a splitting of the ego. I shall try to show in what follows how this splitting may extend into the lives of such patients, impairing their reality testing in other relationships as well, and leading to repetitions of the loss which they are trying to deny.

Instead of grief, the most common reaction to the loss of a parent which we find in children and adolescents is rage. Bowlby (1961), (1963) has spoken of what he calls "protest" as the primary reaction to loss, and likened it to the screaming of the infant left alone, which serves to call the mother back to his side. We might suppose that the rage is directed at the parent who has abandoned the child, but the situation is more complex. There is a strong need to perpetuate a positive image of the lost parent, what Freud (1926) calls the hypercathexis of the lost object, as if thereby to preserve it from loss.

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