Turning Our Lives Around After Our Turbulent Losses

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 4 October 2015.
By John Abbate.

Mourning and Melancholia.

“I was alone

In my distress and desolation.

But as I sat sadly on the ground,

The sun reached out his hand to me

And touched my face

And so my healing began.”

—Marjorie Pizer, “My Healing”


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s analysis of loss and grieving in the essay entitled “Mourning and Melancholia.” For the meaning of the word “mourning,” Freud reserved the normal, healthy processes of conscious, temporary grieving and recovery after loss. Melancholia, on the other hand, is a largely unconscious, prolonged condition in which grief takes a pathological turn. Freud identified several features of melancholia. Dr Macnab lays them before us as follows:

  • Profound painful sense of dejection
  • Abrogation of interest in the outside world
  • Loss of capacity to love
  • Inhibition of all activity
  • Lowering of self-regard
  • Utterances of self-reproach
  • Expectations of punishment
  • Ambivalence—needing to loosen the bonds to the lost object, yet desperately wanting to hold on.

In his address, Dr Macnab enlists Freud’s aid to answer some important questions:

  1. What happens to us in our times of loss?
  2. How do we find better ways to cope with the pain and loss?
  3. How can we reshape our lives after loss and retrieve or recreate some goodness in life?
  4. What does our religion have to say about this experience?

“We are dealing with a paradox: just as life plunges us into pain, it also provides us with the pathways to lighten our pain.”

—Dr Francis Macnab

What happens when we grieve? The process is similar regardless of the nature of the lost “object”, whether it is a person, a job, a friendship, or a pet. After loss, the emotional attachment to the lost object is severed, and the energy of that attachment has nowhere to go; it must be withdrawn back into the self. An internal reorganisation occurs before we can reinvest that energy back into life and the wider world.

With the healthy process of grieving and the emotional reorganisation of the self, the pain of our loss subsides, leaving us in a position to take notice of the world again. The final stage in which we remake ourselves and reinvest in the world, Dr Macnab calls “reshapelescence.”

While Freud did not explicitly address the role of religion in the processes of mourning, when we read him carefully, we find that he did have a sense of the resilience, courage and interpersonal support needed to deal with grief.

“Religion has not always served us well,” said Dr Macnab, “particularly in the way it spoke words of comfort and consolation without giving us that further word of how to recover, or uncover, our comfort and consolation.” Religion must operate at two levels simultaneously: at one level it is concerned with healing, growth, and inspiration; at another level, religion gives us a larger life perspective. When a loss confronts us with the “stark emptiness of things,” religion can “come alongside to deepen, to strengthen, to enhance, and to inspire the human spirit.” And as that happens, it has the potential to reach beyond the individual to open up all spirits. “As one is opened, all are able to embrace a new faith,” said Dr Macnab.

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