After a few remarks in relation to the social function of death in the last centuries in comparison to the actual medicalization and technification of it, we ask once more: is it possible to mourn our own death? Could we die better if in our course of life we have worked out our death? Do we try to mourn our external and internal love objects or do we have to encourage the wish to live until the last moment?. Are we facing a truncated mourning because it is difficult to surmise cathecting new goals? Finally we think about the ethical aspects and the role of the psychoanalyst in groups within our cultural and scientific disciplines that keep on questioning the problem of dying.
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To illustrate, we present the case of Roxana, a Mexican woman whose psyche reflected the dynamic of the dead mother complex. Through an analysis of her interpersonal relationships and past experiences, and comparing with psychoanalytic literature, we conclude that the dead mother complex might become a common condition in our society.
For them, melancholy was a disease associated with certain physical and mental symptoms, and Hippocrates affirmed that it was an extension of fear and sadness. In his text Mourning and Melancholia , from , Freud shows that this ailment does not possess a unique definition within health sciences, and that it can manifest in many different ways in clinical practice. According to this author, melancholy is characterized by a general disinterest towards the world, along with a negative self-concept expressed through attitudes marked by reproach and denigration that the subject directs at themselves, to the point of having expectations of being punished.
Likewise, Freud explains that in mourning there is an unconscious conflict originated on the ambivalence of the subject towards a lost object, a conflict in which feelings of love and hatred struggle to, respectively, loose and keep libidinal ties to the object.
In this way, mourning is revealed as a defense allowing the elaboration of a loss perceived by the ego, while in melancholy the object loss is followed by a loss of something that is perceived as part of the ego CARUSO, However, Freud himself will express that his approach to mourning and melancholy is not profound enough, leaving the work of a deeper exploration of these concepts to future psychoanalysts.
A defense mechanism proposed by Klein appears around this time: projective identification, functioning by splitting and projecting parts of the self on the objects in order to avoid being apart from them, and to keep away the bad objects forcing them to be apart from the self.
On the other side, the depressive position is installed when the child begins to perceive their mother as a total object, separated and different from the child. The consequence of this is that the child, after realizing that both the good and bad objects are parts of the same thing, suffers from the anxiety provoked by feelings of ambivalence: instead of fearing an external, persecuting, object, they fear that destructive drives will damage the external good object, which will eventually be introjected, allowing the child to gain confidence in their own creative potential.
Due to the child now perceiving their mother as an object apart from themselves, life and death drives are introjected and splitting gives place to repression. Inhibitions force the child to seek for substitutes for the satisfaction of their drives, beginning thus the first steps of symbolization. Even if the depressive position is never totally elaborated, the child can still structure a stable enough ego to deal with further conflicts along their life.
On the other hand, if while in the depressive position the ego is unable to secure its creative and destructive impulses, it will develop experiencing feelings of persecution and guilt, preventing it from establishing a creative relationship with reality KLEIN, a ; SEGAL, We live today in social conditions which are very different from those in which Freud and Klein did their investigations.
During the early years of the 20th century, societal norms would structure a superego defined by an ethic of must-be , linked to the demand of a renunciation of the drive, allowing the development of civilization and culture; today, however, we live in times in which the imperative from the social superego structuring the social bond has transformed into must-enjoy , in which the renunciation of the drive is left aside in the structuring of civilization RECALCATI, Traditional neurotic symptoms are based on the formation of a compromise between an unconscious desire and the demands of social reality, while new symptoms are presented as inhibitions in the capacity to represent experiences due to a state of unrepresentable anxiety GREEN, ; RECALCATI, In other words, we are not talking here of the loss of something that was once had, but of the absence of an object that never was in the first place GREEN, On the other hand, blank mourning refers to those situations in which, regardless of the real loss of the object, there is a psychic absence of it due to its impossibility to be represented by the psyche which, as has been mentioned, is because of the structuration of a mental void resulting from the absence of an object capable of enacting the reverie function GREEN, The essence of this condition lies in a massive anticathexis of the child on the part of their depressed mother.
Reparation of the object leads in turn to a capacity to trust in his own impulses and to relate in a progressively more active way with his sorroundings SEGAL, This process will become the basic schema which will repeat in successive mourning processes that the child will have to go through later in life KLEIN, b.
In the case of the dead mother complex, there is no such anxiety, because the introjected mother figure is that of a depressed mother and thus emotionally unavailable - a dead mother. Following Green, interaction with such a mother will lead to the constitution of unconscious fantasies of a mother devoid of affection, introjecting in its place a structural void where a mother should have been, either good or bad, but alive.
Since what is introjected is the image of an already dead mother, there is no anxiety nor possibility of going through a normal mourning, transforming the subject into a sort of sarcophagus containing within himself the figure of an undying mother, neither living nor dead.
As previously said, mourning is a work allowing the elaboration of a loss that can be either real or imaginary. Object loss is overcome when its libido has been reinvested on new objects, which can also be either real or imaginary.
In the dead mother complex, we find a basic difficulty in the mourning process because, as there is not a lively connection between the child and his depressed mother, there is no real or signified loss, but an unconscious void leading the subject to always keep moving, cathectizing objects of the world but unable to create deep, affectionate bonds with them. She is divorced, and works as manager in a branch of the company she started with her ex-husband, a South American man she met when both were university students.
During her analysis, Roxana describes her ex-husband as a manipulative and emotionally absent man, and their relationship as problematic and difficult. After the death of their eldest daughter, and due to the lack of psychological support during this episode, Roxana took the decision of getting divorced. Another very important person in her life is her mother. Roxana describes her as an imposing woman, more preoccupied about her own personal development.
Roxana explains that her relationship with her mother is a distant one. Her then husband makes the necessary arrangements so the next day she departs with their children to that country, each one carrying only a bag with belongings. Roxana will be by her side in practically every moment, in fear that her daughter would die in her absence, going as far as spending whole days without leaving the hospital or going back home to take a shower.
Roxana remembers her daughter as full of joy and optimism, with a strong character. This situation created tension in her relationship with her other children, who would reclaim their mother about her lack of attention towards them, the most vocal being her younger daughter, Daniela. By the time Roxana begins her analysis, Daniela was 16 years old, having recently moved back to her father in Mexico City to course her high school education, making Roxana feel excessive feelings of guilt due to her not being able to fill the role of a mother for her children.
Roxana began to disregard her appearance, paying little attention to anything unrelated to her daughter, with little psychic energy available for her other children. This situation provoked in Roxana self-deprecating ideas and feelings of guilt about her own maternal capacity.
Roxana described her relationship with her parents as distant. Both worked as university professors: her father was a mathematician, and her mother a psychologist. A disabling disease prevented her father from being the main provider for the family, and her mother took up this role, taking postgraduate courses and seminars to better her academic background and professor.
In this way, she would keep herself constantly busy, often neglecting her role as a mother to her children. Roxana perceived her mother as distant person, cold and absent.
In the dead mother complex, the mother dissociates herself from her depressed feelings. During the first sessions, Roxana talked in detail about her feelings of anxiety and loss at the idea of having to be apart from her children, as well as about of her great difficulty to communicate and relate with them in a positive way.
Her then husband makes the arrangements so the next day after receiving the diagnosis, all five of them moved to that country, him staying in Mexico City to manage their company. She accepted not having taken care of her other three children while she was at the hospital, even ignoring who looked after them and assuming that the job was taken by friendly neighbors.
When that school year ended in United States, she took her children and returned to Mexico, once again in an abrupt manner and without saying goodbye to the people she frequented in that country, and who supported her by looking after her children.
When she told this, Roxana mentioned having felt guilty for leaving without thanking those people who supported her in such a difficult situation. Her treatment towards her other three children became distant and remote, which forced them to taking up most of the housework by themselves, such as cooking and cleaning, activities frequently associated with the mother figure. When this was pointed to her in analysis, she broke into tears, nodding however at the comment.
Her children, however, complained about this in several occasions, claiming that her self-absorption prevented her from paying attention to her other living children. This defense mechanism was conceived by Melanie Klein, and is based on the splitting of self-objects and their projection on an external object, so that that object fulfills the fantasies associated with the projected elements.
This is also similar of the dynamic Green mentions as part of the dead mother complex, in which the subject is unconsciously identified with their mother, occupying thus her place and repeating the pattern of abandonment.
Roxana thought that maybe this was the reason her younger daughter, Daniela, had left to Mexico City to live with her father, feeling abandoned herself and seeing her mother as decayed and depressed. Some sessions after making this comment, Roxana explained that lately she had begun to feel better, changing some of her habits and starting to work out.
Her children commented her that Roxana began to look different, as she was able to do some housework, and to have dinner with her children on the afternoon. As previously mentioned, a particular thing Roxana did when confronted by difficult situations: was to flee in a sudden and abrupt way. During the deepest period of her depression, Roxana not only ceased to pay attention to her children, but also neglected the company she started with her ex-husband.
However, during her analysis she expressed her desire to try to take back her share of the company, which she felt belonged to her because of the time and effort invested by her.
However, at the thought that this would be a long a difficult process, as well as complicated due to the possible conflicts with her ex-husband, she thought that she would do better just by letting her company go and starting from zero somewhere else. When commenting to her that this would be yet another flight before another difficult situation, she reacted confused and surprised.
She is then confronted with every scene from her past in which she reacted to difficulties by running away, like the time she suddenly let to the U. When being confronted with this, Roxana was silent, and afterwards she broke in tears, adding that for her those situations were very difficult to handle, especially when they involved her ex-husband.
Roxana seemed to be doing well in her analysis, when her job began to be a justification for her to skip her sessions. Roxana expressed having felt many things when she found herself again in a hospital with her daughter diagnosed with a similar disease.
Her absences became more common, until she stopped attending at all. This was interpreted as another attempt at fleeing in the face of surprising and difficult situation, which risked the advancements made in a year of treatment.
However, there was a change: after several weeks of absence, Roxana called in to explain her departure. It was her who now was struck by a disease, in her case in the kidneys, which forced her to be hospitalized for several days.
Even though she was now feeling better, her work had accumulated, making it impossible for her to know when she would be able to take back her analysis. During this phone call a brief commentary is made about the results of her analytic process, pointing that there were elements left to be worked, and that she was welcomed to return when she felt ready. A similar situation is reported in a case worked by Bollas , who comments that his patient seemed to behavior in a similar way, running away from his sentimental and working relationships, originated on a similar anticathexis on the part of the mother.
Bollas explains that, for his patient, the failure of his relationships was because of a repetition of his relationship with his emotionally dead mother, who at first was loving but afterwards sank within herself. Her incapacity to mourn for that loss made Roxana introject the image of a mother incapable of dealing with traumatic situations.
Thus, at every situation in which she was forced to separate from emotionally important people in her life, she would just leave, unconsciously avoiding having to deal with loss.
This is appreciated in the difficulty Roxana had with her children, who would complaint to her about not being a mother to them. Even though she suspended her treatment after one year, and also considering that there were many elements that could have been explored, in the end Roxana was able to realize that, even if she had been repeating a flight behavior, she had a greater desire to be a mother to her children, and to take the reins of her own life.
The dead mother complex is a phenomenon expressing the sudden anticathexis of the child by the mother. The subject enters into a sort of wandering, repeating outside that original link with their own mother, running away in moments which demand them to look deep into themselves. The cold affection of these subjects is also expressed in the clinic, and as Green points, during the treatment of patients in which we can perceive the presence of the ghost of a dead mother, a more active attitude is needed from the analyst for the patient to avoid repeating the pattern which marks their interpersonal relationships with the cold affection of the mother they have introjected within their fantasy.
Despite the fact that the dead mother complex is well documented in psychoanalytic literature, it is important to point that cases described in it present multiple variations which could make access to the study of this condition rather difficult, and we consider that it should be further studied to get a clearer picture of its particular dynamic and its possible evolution in clinical work.
Dead Mother, Dead Child. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gil, S. The poetics of psychoanalysis : in the wake of Melanie Klein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, De locuras privadas. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, La madre muerta. Narcisismo de vida, narcisismo de muerte. Madrid: Tecnipublicaciones, Saturn and Melancholy.
Nueva York: Basic Books, The dead mother: variations on a theme.
2017, Number 1