Bowlby: Normal and Pathological Processes of Mourning in Response to Separation and Loss – VIII

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Bowlby looks at human loss and distress on two levels: first, the inevitable grief, anger, and despair that result when ties are broken, and second, the ways we organize ourselves to deal with these painful and often conflictual feelings. Just as in his study of affectional ties Bowlby first searched for regularities in the attachment behaviours common to human beings, so Bowlby detects prototypical responses to loss and separation, opines Prof. Ashoka, in the eighth part of his erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.

“The great source of terror in infancy is solitude” (James, 1890). A similar sentiment was expressed indirectly in a poem quoted by Bowlby that was written by an 11-year-old girl whose parents were abroad for some years:

The beauty of love has not found me

Its hands have not gripped me so tight 

For the darkness of hate is upon me

I see day, not as day, but as night. 

I yearn for the dear love to find me

With my heart and my soul and my might 

For darkness has closed in upon me 

I see day, not as day, but as night. 

The children are playing and laughing 

But I cannot find love in delight 

There is an iron fence around me

 I see day, not as day, but as night. 

Bowlby could not study attachment without encountering the suffering that ensues from the breaking or disruption of affectional ties. In the years between the publication of “The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother” in 1958 and Attachment in 1969, Bowlby published five papers on separation anxiety, grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood, processes of mourning, and pathological mourning. The publication of Attachment was followed in a similar fashion by the second and third volumes in the series, Separation (1973) and Loss (1980). The latter two volumes, based on the attachment model, again provide a very different picture of human responses to separation and loss than that of traditional psychoanalysis. Their central and simple thesis is that, just as the attachment is the primary source of well-being for human beings, so the loss is the major source of suffering.

Bowlby looks at human loss and distress on two levels: first, the inevitable grief, anger, and despair that result when ties are broken, and second, the ways we organize ourselves to deal with these painful and often conflictual feelings. Just as in his study of affectional ties Bowlby first searched for regularities in the attachment behaviours common to human beings, so Bowlby detects prototypical responses to loss and separation. The uniformity of these responses makes sense in the context of the theory of attachment and the evolutionary framework.

By the time Bowlby wrote Separation and Loss the most common successive responses to loss— protest, despair, detachment—had been well documented by other authors, foremost among whom were James and Joyce Robertson. Although many psychoanalysts had recognised that separation from loved ones is a principal source of anxiety, there was still considerable reluctance to assimilate this simple formula into clinical practice. In addition, Freud’s influence had led to the belief that the processes of both adult and childhood mourning and normal and pathological mourning differed considerably. Bowlby pointed out, however, that, as in the case of attachment, there is considerable similarity between the mourning of children and of adults and that many of the responses to loss that had hitherto been regarded as neurotic were quite natural. Attachment, unlike dependence, remains as an organizational system throughout life; so grief, even in its normal course, has a long duration. A bereaved person may experience for a long time an insatiable yearning for, and an “irrational” but natural striving to recover, the lost person. These feelings may return intermittently for the rest of the individual’s life.

Although most attachment theorists would now characterize the three phases of protest, despair and detachment as typical of normal mourning in both children and adults, in fact, an additional initial phase is usually described as well as—depending on whether the loss is final or temporary—a fifth and final phase. Prior to the protest and angry attempts to recover the lost object, most people experience a sense of numbness and disbelief. During this period, bereaved individuals must adjust all their expectations and beliefs. Whereas psychoanalysis uses the term “denial” to describe the state of disbelief, Bowlby renames it “selective exclusion.” The fifth stage, experienced only when a loss is temporary, is characterized by extremely ambivalent behaviour upon reunion with the lost person. This can be demonstrated by a lack of recognition and absence of all emotional affect at one extreme and, at the other, by clinging, an acute fear of being left, and bursts of anger lest the person desert again.

Bowlby links the three most common reactions to loss—protest, despair, and detachment— with three processes, all of which contain the considerable potential for future disturbance. These are separation anxiety, grief and mourning, and defence. Separation anxiety is a reaction to the danger or threat of loss; mourning is a reaction to actual loss; defence is a mode of dealing with anxiety and pain. As with attachment, the outcome of these responses depends largely on the ways other people respond to the feelings of the bereaved person

Following Freud, most psychoanalysts have concentrated exclusively upon the last of the three phases-detachment and defence. Although Freud and Melanie Klein accorded a central place to anxiety in everyday life, neither recognized that separation anxiety was as primary as, for instance, castration or persecutory anxiety. W. R. D. Fairbairn and Ian Suttie were the first psychoanalysts to assign a primary status to separation anxiety. Not until Freud’s seventieth year, in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926), did he perceive that separation and loss were principal sources of psychopathology. Hitherto, Freud had linked anxiety to fears of castration, to the harshness of the superego, to aggression, and to the death instinct. Even analysts such as Anna Freud and Melanie Klein who remarked on the universal distress shown by infants and young children when their mothers were absent continued to ask, why are they anxious? What are they afraid of? Many ingenious explanations have been proposed to answer these questions: the birth trauma, signal anxiety, anxiety consequent on repression of libido, persecutory and depressive anxiety, and guilt about aggressive impulses.

(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.