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by Dr. Nathaniel R. Strenger
| OLOGY

Good Mourning.

Mourning image with credit

Mourning is a rather inefficient human process. It is notoriously subjective. It shows little uniformity in severity or duration across populations, and so it regularly defies real scientific standardization. It is no wonder then that a positivist culture like ours considers mourning an inconvenience to be overlooked, ignored, or flat-out denied. But mourning is having a moment. Or at least it should be.

We typically think of mourning as a state of sorrow over the loss of a loved one. But for my purposes here, I extend our reach beyond. I speak not only of bereavement, but of the far more quotidian confrontations with loss: Letting a fellow commuter inconveniently merge, spending precious time reading something at unwelcomed suggestion, ceding a point in a sore argument. These represent losses mourned as well.

But I must insert a brief caveat. A few handfuls of words—therapy words—gain lives of their own in the public sphere. For good and ill, buzzwords common in psychological research and theory permeate popular conversation. And then they start operating in ways unintended: trauma, bully, narcissist, gaslighter. Concept creep is a real thing, and we need to visit and revisit it time and again. I say this only to say that I tread carefully. And I can only ask a reader to do the same as we stretch definitions of mourning onto the less remarkable happenings of life. I want to avoid psychiatrizing everyday loss so that it might be wielded to excess as a weapon of self-defense against others. This is what has happened to some of those other terms. When we do this in poor faith or with misunderstanding of the clinical science and its limitations, we use these expanded concepts to shield us from the otherwise typical demands others might—even should—place on us.

No, simple or even virulent disagreements with others do not usually “traumatize” people. Partners who genuinely, if not rarely, hold different interpretations of past exchanges are not “gaslighters.” Such social narratives create a world in which people are only one of two types: Doer or Done To.[1] Some cultural situations do suit these categories and must be considered so. But not all. And many would benefit from finding some shared space, some demilitarized zone, between the two. So, what I intend to do instead is talk about mourning not in a way that shields us from expectations or splits us into such attacker-victim categories (like, say, Leave me alone, I’m in mourning. You are so insensitive.), but in a way that demands things from us (like, say, “I disagree with you about a lot of other things, but I cede your point on this one. I’ll have to mourn that loss”). Thinking of mourning like this, I say, does not expand one’s arsenal of social weaponry but stocks one’s toolkit for effective communion.

When we drain our capacities for loss in the family, in the church, and in the public sphere, we inevitably face the consequences. We are watching it unfold now, in this historical moment. Interactions become so characterized by individual demand, characterized by zero-sum thinking, that we no longer know how to remain flexible in compromise—and it permeates every level of society. So instead, we would all do better to think of the ways we can take responsibility for our call to be good mourners.

Mourning in the Family

When working together in therapy with older teens and adults even reaching up into their 50s and 60s, more often than not I reach a certain inflection point. There eventually comes a confrontation with mourning, and that mourning is usually over the loss of a childhood or familial relationship hoped for. There is the recognition that no, not all of those most profound and personal needs were met. Or there is the recognition that the parents or friends that were idolized or depended upon did not always live up to the commitment when they were needed most. In short: A person loved also turned out to be a person hated. This is the nature of the species, and it is not going anywhere. But the realization is a loss; it mourns what life might have looked like if those disappointments had not been.

But before you call me a mommy-basher, let me continue. The therapeutic process, at these inflection points, intends to enrich one’s capacity for good mourning. That is, it acknowledges personal loss while cherishing shared love and commitment.[2] To approach another family member who has both loved and frustrated, clear-eyed but open, is a profound achievement of personality development. It shows the capacity to conceive of an intimate other with flexible nuance, contextuality, and empathy; and it is conceived with a confidence in one’s own experience that need not falter in the face of that complexity. It is for one family member to say to another, “I mourn who you are not, but I love who you are. I trust you to do the same towards me.” But it is a painful and difficult achievement, sometimes only hard-won in therapy. One can even say it is depressing.[3] It is depressing because it forces confrontation with the necessary feelings of loss, guilt, rage, and love all knotted together in star-crossed beauty.

Folks take these confrontations with them into their adult relationships too. They idealize fantasies of who a partner (or any neighbor, really) could or should be, only to be disappointed by reality. And if they are to love the real, they must mourn the ideal. Learning to mourn family interactions in this way empowers one to traverse the inevitable rhythms of love, hurt, and repair with grace and legato.

Mourning in the Church

This can have a profound impact on one’s relations to God and church too. Anne Lamott likes to say you can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do. This is to say that the church is far too guilty of wielding a so-called idealized God as a weapon—sometimes to outcomes entirely contradictory to the whole spirit of the sacred text. But in a certain Christian theological lineage, leaping forth from Immanuel Kant and Karl Barth, the contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann warns against snuffing out the “unabrogable subjectivity of God.” Barth used to refer to God as “wholly other,” as if to say that God cannot fall prisoner to our own thoughts, demands, and words. God instead persistently frustrates them; and this is inconvenient indeed. It means that not every broken human desire will be left satisfied; an omnipotent God defies efforts to anticipate, direct, or even at times understand. Just like mom (or dad) did.

This means that, allowing God that transcendent subjectivity, a church is also a place of mourning in mystery. The movements of God do not always satisfy the fickle impulses of a fallen humanity. God does not always smite those deemed in need of a good smiting. God does not always telegraph a step-by-step system for understanding the right purposes in a specific and painful circumstance. And sometimes the best the church can do alongside a fellow suffering sinner is to suffer with. This is good, this is humble, mourning.

Mourning in the Public Sphere

We can trace most contemporary definitions of the public sphere to the famed German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.[4] Enveloping politics, economics, family, and faith body, the public sphere is that shared communicative space, formed by a vast network of intersubjectively situated individuals, where we form what is called “public opinion.” And, as Dr. Noëlle McAfee wrote, this space devotes itself the collective act of making decisions in the face of uncertainty. There are of course a whole lot of ways of arranging that sphere. We here aspire to constitutional democracy.

But democracy, the mid-century psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott wrote, represents a “society well-adjusted to its healthy individual members,” (Winnicott’s emphasis). Of course, there is a lot of theory and research contributing to definitions of a healthy individual member. But one important component shows up regularly in the literature: good mourning.

Many prominent political philosophers crown the shared capacity to mourn monumental. Harvard’s Danielle Allen elegantly lays out the roles mutual sacrifice and reciprocal mourning play in democratic citizenship.[5] Nonviolent social compromise depends on networks of people groups all willing to take losses for the sake of a bigger public sphere. But they can only do so, justly and safely, when there is trust that the sacrifice will be recognized and honored, and when it is part of a broader rhythm of equitable reciprocity. Injustices and cultural resentments form when sacrifices are forced involuntarily, and when necessary mourning is left unacknowledged. When this happens, those bifurcated “Doer and Done To” patterns harden. Instead a smoother exchange of sacrifice and honored mourning lends itself to a public sphere characterized by what Allen calls “difference without domination.”[6] That is a public sphere worth aiming towards.

I say all of this to encourage us all to embrace good mourning. This good mourning is not just some other reason to accuse those around us of harm—we have enough of those—but as a social integrator. When we mourn the ways we cannot bend our families, our churches, and our rivals in public debate to our idealized and dogmatic whims, we better situate ourselves to remain open to what is good and desirable in them too. We learn to tolerate some of the dissatisfying with the satisfying, and we practice the mutual submission sorely missing from our social exchanges.

With that, I bid you good mourning. And you can pay attention to happenings at OLOGY, especially come the fall of 2024. We are planning a large event—to involve educators, psychologists, and faith leaders—to explore these very topics.


[1] If you are clinically minded and interested, this is taken from a seminal paper by one of the more important psychological theorists living today: Jessica Benjamin.

[2] Remember what happens to Riley’s “core memories” at the conclusion of the Pixar movie, Inside Out? They start harboring mixed feelings rather than fixed, unitary good or bad hues. By the way, if you have not heard, there is a sequel on the way.

[3] One did, in fact. Familiar clinicians easily recognize the basics of Melanie Klein’s influence here. I should say, too, while the early analysts spent a lot of time talking about mothers, the same interpretations should be attributed to other parents too.

[4] Much here is indebted to Dr. McAfee at Emory University. Her Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis is a great read, and she leans heavily on Habermas.

[5] This is from Dr. Allen’s 2004 book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education.

[6] This one is from one of Dr. Allen’s more recent works, Justice by Means of Democracy.

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