Are You Stuck in Mourning That Began in Childhood?

by | Jun 12, 2012

The difference between natural mourning and melancholia could be life-long

Call it what you like—chronic mourning, extended grieving, death-related depression, melancholia—the effects are the same. A person becomes stuck in the past, devastated by the death of a parent, child, spouse, or sibling, and finds it impossible to move on in life, to work, to develop healthy attachments to others, to walk though life with self esteem and optimism. This often occurs at an early age, but can also affect adults, especially with the death of a child or spouse.

But many people suffer losses and do not undergo these extended, even life-long bouts of deep depression. Many go through a difficult but normal grieving period that could last a long time—many months, perhaps—but has the clear earmarks of healthy mourning.

What marks a healthy grieving process? Some of the main characteristics include:

  • Perhaps most importantly, a person feels significant emotion in reaction to the loss. If a friend or family member seems to be falling apart over a loss, do all you can to support him or her. The mourner is suffering pain as real as any physical pain. Share the pain if you are invited in, but do not take it away. That person is following a very natural and human course, and you should be silently grateful that a healthy grieving is taking place.
  • After some period of time—weeks for some, months for others—the mourner forgets to mourn some days. The daily activities of life begin to engage the mourner more fully and you begin to notice spontaneous expressions of energy, humor, joy, interest, and other pleasurable emotions and positive states of mind. This means real grieving has been taking place and the mourner is beginning to move forward in life.
  • At some point, you will notice that the mourner develops an ability to form attachments to other people. Not necessarily romantic attachments, but excitement and joy in new friendships, rekindling of old friend and family relationships, a fun infatuation with a TV personality or sports figure, renewed attention to the family dog or cat. Eventually, in the case of a lost spouse or significant other, you might also see a new romantic interest, but that can take a long time.
  • During the previous stages, the memory of the lost loved one is still marked by sadness and pain. However, you might notice at some point down the line that the pain transforms into joy as the mourner begins, more and more, to dwell on the funny, sweet, caring, admirable, and other wonderful traits of the deceased person. That does not mean the loved one is no longer missed and that a tear is not shed from time to time. But this is an advanced stage of grieving, and signals an ability to truly move on and carry memories of the mourned person in a different and more joyful place in the heart.

So what is different about melancholia?

  • Sigmund Freud has been a controversial figure in some circles in recent decades. But his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia” is often recognized as a seminal analysis of unresolved mourning and is still relevant today. His main point is that the melancholic person is bound to the mourned person by some unresolved conflict inherent in their relationship. If the conflict happens during child development, it can be internalized at the death of the loved one and live there for a lifetime if not resolved.
  • Developmental theory extends Freud\’s idea, noting that the death of the loved one can prevent resolution of conflicts. Thus, even a troubled relationship—for example, between a child and an emotionally distant father—could be resolved during the course of the child\’s development, via talking, emotional growth on the part of the son and/or father, counseling and therapy, or simply the normal maturation process that would allow the child to gain perspective over time. When the death of the father prevents this process from happening, the unresolved conflict can turn inward and wreak havoc on the child\’s long-term emotional life.
  • Unlike healthy grieving, melancholia can be marked by a lack of affect at the death of the loved one. This numbness can carry through the person\’s development from childhood into adulthood and result in personality traits such as coldness, retreat into ideas and intellectual life at the expense of emotions, and an inability to form or maintain solid relationships.
  • Unresolved mourning can result in severe and chronic depression, with all of its debilitating symptoms, including low self-esteem, passivity, poor job performance, isolation from others, misplaced anger, eating and sleep disorders, and suicidal thoughts or actions.
  • Orange County couples and marriage counseling can help. Research has shown changes in brain patterns in people who fail to move through the mourning process in a healthy way. Melancholia is seen as a disorder that can benefit from counseling, talk therapy, and antidepressant medications.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here:


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