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Freud on Mourning and Melancholia-1917

My Summary of Freud’s paper Mourning and melancholia


Freud, S.(1917) compares the phenomenon of mourning after the loss and death of a close love object, to the phenomenon of melancholia /depression. They both share a similar outward affect on the subject and are both due to similar environmental influences. The inhibition, absorbedness of the ego, and the disinterest and inhibition in the external world is evident in both, mourning and melancholia, equally. Although the concepts of mourning and melancholia have similarities, there are some fundamental differences between them. Mourning is recognized as a healthy and normal process that is necessary for the recovery of the loss and would not be seen as a pathology nor is there a need for medical intervention. As opposed to melancholia, which is seen as a an abnormal pathology and a dangerous illness due to its suicidal tendency. Upon close observation melancholia has some additional feature that are absent in mourning. A) In melancholia there is no apparent object-loss to the subject and to the observer. And even when the subject can identify the object-loss he can’t identify what “about it”, is so disturbing and bothersome. B) In melancholia there is a loss of self regard, the self-regard is presented as worthless and despicable, and in this regard it appears that the loss is in regards to his actual ego itself. C) In addition the loss in melancholia is an unconscious one as oppose to mourning which is a conscious process.

There are other characteristics of melancholia that manifest in the somatic realm A) a difficult with nourishment, digesting etc. B) A difficulty with sleeping. These two somatic symptoms need to be explored and understood within the depth of the melancholic condition.


The difficulty and painfulness of the mourning and melancholic process is due to the fixation of libidinal cathaxes on to the love-object which is no longer available, either because of physical extinction or because of a slight coming from the love object which causes the libido to discontinue its interest in the past love object. The slight can be new or it can be an ongoing uncertainty about the love object, and now with the criticism the previous ambivalence is heightened.

The libido is now faced with conflicting forces between the “reality-testing” of the loosed object-love and the “libidinal drive” of wanting to stay connected with the previous love-object. When the libidinal drive outweighs reality the subject will return to the love object in a hallucinatory representation and allow the reality testing to fail. Thus the subject will enter psychosis.  



Although the negative self-regard and self-reproach that the subject presents can be easily “challenged” and disproven by an observer, this approach would be useless and fruitless from a clinical, therapeutic, and research point of view.  What’s vital from a “clinical”, “scientific” and “therapeutic” standpoint is to understand his subjective and psychological statements regarding his self and his self-accusation.


Freud grapples with another seemingly contradiction within the melancholia’s condition. Although the subject presents his ego as worthless, despicable, and inferior the subject doesn’t appear to feel shameful in front of others the way the typical subjects reacts when feeling remorse and self-reproach. Freud actually finds an opposite character in the melancholic patient, where he seems to want to communicate excessively and searches for opportunities in self-exposure. This contradiction will be vital part in discovering and understanding the true condition and mechanics of melancholia. 


Ego Ideal

Freud elaborates on the self-accusation and self-criticism that the melancholic is faced with. It appears that the accuser is an independent agency within the ego and this part is controlling and dictating the rest of the ego. The ego is being dominated by a split of part of the ego which criticizes it and dehumanizes it as a foreign external object. This independent agency is referred to in the article “on narcissism” as the “ego ideal”, which constantly watches over the ego and censors its decisions. The process of censure is referred to as the conscience. This is similar to the pathological condition of paranoia where the individual hears others telling him what to do.

It’s also important to be notice that the chief criticism in the melancholic is around the idea of becoming “poor” which is associated with the anal stage.



Freud uses a keen observation to answer the above contradiction between the self-reproach of melancholia and his seemingly shameless feeling around others. The observation is as follows. When listening carefully to the criticism and self-reproach of the melancholic, it can’t go unnoticed that the subject is actually not talking about himself rather he is actually talking about another individual in his environment, an object that he once loved, or should have  love or was supposed to love, who possesses these precise criticisms and faults.


 The activation of mourning begins with the loss of an object that has been the libidinal-object, the aim of the libidinal cathexes. In melancholia the loss is due to being slighted or criticized by the love object and therefore the object is rejected. With the loss of the object the libido is left hanging with no object to place itself on. In the healthy circumstance the old object will shortly be replaced with a new object and thus end the process of mourning. However in melancholia the libidinal object becomes internalized and identified with the ego itself and all the ambivalences towards the objects is now directed towards the ego itself. The ego is thus treated as an object and can now be the object of hatred and criticism. 

This leads us to the conclusion that the subject is actually stating hatred and hostility of an external love object that has now shifted from the object to the ego itself. This process takes place with the identification of the love object. The subject regresses from an attachment relationship to a narcissistic extension, where the object becomes interjected and part and parcel of the ego. Thus the ego ideal can become sadistic toward the ego as an outsider. And the ego is treated like an object of hate and disgust, which can eventually lead to suicide.  

This is the oral-cannibalistic stage, which is associated with the primary narcissistic-object-extension. The subject wants the love object and does so by devouring it and metabolizing into itself. The subject regresses from an attachment to a narcissistic extension of his ego with the introjections of the object into the ego. 

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