Queen Victoria wore black for the remaining four decades of her life after her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. This mourning practice was still commonplace during the first decades of the 20th century but almost nonexistent by its end. My great-grandmother, who died in 1999, was the only person I knew who wore mourning black until her own death.
Over the past century, traditional mourning practices have fallen out of favor in the West. Black is now usually worn only to a funeral, and not always then. Fewer and fewer people return to visit the deceased at their place of rest regularly; annual memorial services are especially rare. The sight of someone wearing mourning jewelry made of jet can strike a modern observer as a touch macabre. We are not supposed to hang on so tightly to those who are, after all, gone.
But traditional mourning practices were designed to do just that: to preserve a place for the dead among the living, to help mourners carry the weight of their grief not by getting over it but by maintaining their relationship with the deceased (as metaphysically suspect as that might sound to modern ears). That approach to mourning has been displaced by one that focuses more on coming to terms with the reality of loss, liberating sufferers from the burden that those emotional bonds — now untethered to a living being — might impose.
Today we are encouraged to step out from the shadow loss casts over our lives and return to happiness. Sell our dead parent’s house to pay for our child’s education. Donate her belongings to a charity. Finally go on that vacation that her illness prevented us from taking. A loved one wouldn’t want us to be unhappy, as we sometimes say to console the grieving.
This approach to grief and mourning might seem to be a good thing, like picking yourself up after a fall. It is arguably less morbid, with its emphasis on “getting closure” and “moving on” in a process whose goal is “healing.” But I fear the benefits do not outweigh the costs.
The idea that recovering one’s happiness should be the end goal of mourning dates back to Sigmund Freud. His innovation was to view mourning as a matter of individual psychological health, as opposed to the final stage in the relationship we have with someone. In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he argued that the inability to overcome loss and finally lay its object to rest was pathological. He considered a continued attachment to the dead, as expressed in traditional mourning practices, to be a potentially harmful delusion that could prevent us from accepting and engaging with the real world.
Over the following century, Freud’s ideas about mourning helped to foster an increasingly clinical understanding of grief. The 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the source of standards of practice in mental health throughout the world — allows for a clinical diagnosis of a depressive spectrum disorder from the very first day of the grieving process. The 2022 update to the manual includes “prolonged grief disorder” and adopts the World Health Organization’s 2019 classification of prolonged grief as akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. No doubt Queen Victoria would be deemed a case for urgent treatment if she lived today.
The appeal of Freud’s approach is understandable. By making the end goal of mourning the psychological well-being of the bereaved, he seemingly gives us control over the costs of our relationships, underscoring our autonomy over our own lives. Nonetheless, the Freudian approach seems to neglect a crucial fact about our relationships: If genuine, they are not primarily driven by the benefits they offer us, but rather by our interest in and concern for the other person. In life, genuine commitment to others comes before our own happiness. Traditional mourning practices, with their permanent “burdens,” offer a way for those commitments to continue.
But it’s not all about obligation. Maintaining a place for the deceased in our lives can also mean continuing to draw on those relationships as sources of strength — to share our joys with the dead or feel their support in moments of sorrow. When my great-grandmother lost her son, she had already worn black to commemorate the loss of her husband for many years. But because she had kept her husband present in her everyday life, she felt, in a palpable way, that she was able to face this new sorrow together with him.
Traditional mourning practices also capture what you might call the holism of grief. When grieving, one senses not just that one familiar object is now absent from the world, but also that the world itself has been transformed and made deficient. Our experience of the world, after all, was shaped by the other person’s way of seeing it, interacting with it, responding to it. What we lose is not just the individual but also our experience of their experience of life.
One important goal of mourning is to reclaim that shared experience. Practically speaking, this might mean adopting the potted plant collection orphaned by your grandmother, going on holiday to a place your mother liked to visit or doing something your father wanted to do himself but never did — like restoring that old clock.
But making a place for the dead in our lives is not limited to such private gestures; it also means making room for the community that was once theirs. In Poland, for instance, there is a traditional mourning practice called the empty night, in which friends and family gather on the evening before a burial and sing together until dawn to reaffirm their ties. Less ritualistically, you might achieve the same effect by inviting the friends of your deceased parents over for dinner or to join you for a walk in the graveyard to visit their place of rest.
That all may sound innocent enough, but to followers of Freud, such behavior can seem to pose a risk to our psychological well-being. As a result of our preoccupation with the remnants of the past, we might, for example, find it harder to take advantage of new and potentially fulfilling opportunities.
The most significant thing in our lives, however, surely cannot be how good we feel. To be sure, it is a burden to perpetually honor those we have lost — to see our commitments to others as not dissolved by their deaths. But it is ultimately a more human way of relating to the world than viewing other people, in effect, as a path or impediment to our contentment, to be embraced or let go of as our sense of well-being requires.
Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode (@MikolajRode) is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw and a research fellow at Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford. He is the editor of “The Meaning of Mourning: Perspectives on Death, Loss, and Grief.”
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