Mourning and Melancholia. HTML version

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on
Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258
Mourning and Melancholia
DREAMS having served us as the prototype in normal life of narcissistic mental disorders, we will now try to
throw some light on the nature of melancholia by comparing it with the normal affect of mourning.1 This time,
however, we must begin by making an admission, as a warning against any over-estimation of the value of our
conclusions. Melancholia, whose definition fluctuates even in descriptive psychiatry, takes on various clinical forms
the grouping together of which into a single unity does not seem to be established with certainty; and some of these
forms suggest somatic rather than psychogenic affections. Our material, apart from such impressions as are open to
every observer, is limited to a small number of cases whose psychogenic nature was indisputable. We shall,
therefore, from the outset drop all claim to general validity for our conclusions, and we shall console ourselves by
reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal to-day, we could hardly discover anything that was
not typical, if not of a whole class of disorders, at least of a small group of them.
The correlation of melancholia and mourning seems justified by the general picture of the two conditions.2
Moreover, the exciting causes due to environmental influences are, so far as we can discern them at all, the same for
both conditions. Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction
which has taken the place of one, such as one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on. In some people the same
influences produce melancholia instead of mourning and we consequently suspect them of a pathological
disposition. It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude
to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to
1 [The German ‘Trauer’, like the English ‘mourning’, can mean both the affect of grief and its outward manifestation.
Throughout the present paper, the word has been rendered ‘mourning’.]
2 Abraham (1912), to whom we owe the most important of the few analytic studies on this subject, also took this comparison as
his starting point. [Freud himself had already made the comparison in 1910 and even earlier. (See Editor's Note, p. 240 above.)]
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refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any
interference with it as useless or even harmful.
The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the
outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a
degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of
punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same
traits are met with in mourning. The disturbance of self-regard is absent in mourning; but otherwise the features are
the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of someone who is loved, contains the same painful frame of
mind, the same loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall him—the same loss of capacity to
adopt any new object of love (which would mean replacing him) and the same turning away from any activity that is
not connected with thoughts of him. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription of the ego is the
expression of an exclusive devotion to mourning which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests. It is
really only because we know so well how to explain it that this attitude does not seem to us pathological.
We should regard it as an appropriate comparison, too, to call the mood of mourning a ‘painful’ one. We shall
probably see the justification for this when we are in a position to give a characterization of the economics of pain.1
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in
presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds
to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable
opposition—it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even,
indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from
reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis.2 Normally,
respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its