From a development standpoint, this ability to mourn a loss develops in the infant that has moved on from the paranoid-schizoid position onto the depressive position (remembering that the word depressive here has nothing to do with depression). It is a healthy development.
The more integrated infant who can remember and retain love for the good object even while hating it, will be exposed to new feelings little known in the paranoid-schizoid position : the mourning and pining for the good object felt as lost and destroyed, and guilt, a characteristic depressive experience which arises from the sense that he has lost the good object through his own destructiveness. (p.70)
Together with the ability to mourn is also the ability for feeling loss and guilt. This means also that there is a capacity for love that overcomes hate, and there is less projection of destructiveness on to another. In a infant this ability is a milestone in ego integration. He loses his hallucinations of being omnipotent, and can accept dependency.
Mourning and symbolization through creation of art…
The pain of mourning is experienced, leading to drive toward reparation. These, Segal adds, are the basis of creativity and sublimation (turning negative experiences into creative objects). In other words, creating art in various forms is a means of symbolic reparation of loss. These reparative activities are done because the individual is able to feel concern and guilt towards the other and the wish “to restore, preserve and give it eternal life”. This is in the interest of the self preservation, “to put together what has been torn asunder”, to reconstruct what has been destroyed, to recreate and to create.
“After his hospitalization in the asylum in Saint Remy Van Gogh felt like a “broken pitcher” that could never be mended. Even so, in between bouts of mental illness, he worked on steadily and courageously to become an even better artist. Painting and drawing, moreover, gave structure to his days and ensured that he did not fall prey to the loneliness plaguing the other patients.”
Sublimation helps the individual put his destructive impulses into creative work. At this point the genesis of symbol formation can be seen. The ability to symbolize is a very important development in human ego development. It is also a means for us to communicate metaphorically, thus allowing us to create and maintain contact with another person/or with society in an empathic way. Religions, for example, are founded on symbols. The healthy individual can also differentiate the symbol he/she has created from the reality from which the symbols are derived.
The depressive position is never fully worked through. The anxieties pertaining to ambivalence and guilt, as well as situations of loss, which reawaken depressive experiences, are always with us. Good external objects in adult life always symbolize and contain aspects of the primary good object, internal and external, so that any loss in later life re-awakens the anxiety of losing the good internal object and, with this anxiety, all the anxieties experienced originally in the depressive position. If the infant has been able to establish a good internal object relatively securely in the depressive position, situations of depressive anxiety will not lead to illness, but to a fruitful working through, leading to further enrichment and creativity. (p. 80)
The Neuroscience of Symbolization
Neuroscience explains brain activity difference between non-schizophrenic and schizophrenic patients in their ability to symbolize.
The above diagram shows a the gamma oscillation image from the brain of a non-schizophrenic person (left) and that of a schizophrenic person (right) when they are showed the black-white image of a face. The gamma oscillation on the right shows more brain activity, which is interpreted as the individual being able to derive a picture of a human face from the black-and-white shapes. The schizophrenic brain shows little activity, implying that the individual does not recognize the image as a face.
My Thoughts on Mourning and Gestalt Therapy
Reading this chapter by Segal on the depressive position has inspired me to thing about this subject in relation to gestalt therapy. Mourning brings with it lots of sadness and underlying guilt. In the text above, this guilt is attributed to the imagined destruction of the integrated love object.
If we observe people in mourning, there is always this element of regret. There is also a need to make reparation. This is often symbolic and aesthetic in nature. The whole process of the funeral services is in a way a symbolic way of bidding farewell to the dead. This helps the living to heal psychically.
In patients that have problems with the mourning process (e.g. those who cannot move on, those who could not feel sadness, but rage instead, or those who get chronically depressed) are usually stuck in a situation where they aren’t able to fully experience the loss. This could be because of their personality structure, from which the defense is against painful experiences. There is tremendous fear to go to those dark emotions.
The work of mourning in therapy is the work of reality testing. For the client to come to terms with loss. This reawakens deeper feelings of loss experienced in infancy. It requires reworking of loss in the internal object. This process is needed to regain the ability of the patient to come back to reality, learn to love again and build up confidence again.
In therapy, these are worked through. For this to happen, there needs to be a lot of trust in the psychotherapeutic alliance. The therapist and client would spend hours together uncovering the defenses that hold back the client from mourning. The technique of therapy is client centered, with a lot of focus on the phenomenology (non verbal experiences) in the therapy session.
From this article I also see the link between creativity and mourning. Using art in therapy (not to synonymous with art therapy) is also common practice among Gestalt therapists. Creating art is a reparative measure, and together with therapeutic contact and communication, it facilitates openness to emotions and ultimately the freeing from depression and despair. This is a reinforcement of the technique.
In Sagentini’s Art of the mother, the artist uses his art to sublimate the mourning of the loss of his “good mother”.
Segal, H. (2012). Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein. Karnac Books.
Carveth, D. (2016). Introduction to Kleinian Theory 5. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxdWHU1wrBY&t