What Freud Got Wrong About Sadness And Mourning

Much of what we think we know about sadness is still based on what the father of pychoanalysis wrote 100 years ago, but psychologists and brain researchers are starting to discover more about the feeling’s true mechanisms.

Mareike Manzke

BERLIN â€" Heavy hearts in autumn. For many who have lost a loved one, this dark season makes grief resurge. This might be beneficial for finding peace of mind, but it doesn't necessarily have to. Too often, the bereaved suffer because of unreasonable expectations â€" and sometimes pretty useless advice from friends: "Let the pain in," or "It's about time to return to your old life."

Grief is an important human feeling that has never been studied thoroughly. The perception we have is partly still based on the assumptions neurologist Sigmund Freud made over 100 years ago. Scientists today are trying to discover more about grief and sorrow and lready, they have demonstrated how frequent pathological sadness is, and what exactly happens in an affected person's brain.

"If you know nothing about the grieving process, it's simply impossible to understand how the mourning person truly feels," explains grief counselor Uta Schmidt.

After a death, there is significant psychological strain, and the pain of the bereaved simply cannot be put into words. There is deep grief and yearning, sometimes anger, despair, guilt, resentfulness or the fear of being alone.

Anything might trigger these feelings. "Empty beds or chairs are a constant reminder of what's gone forever," Schmidt says. Some perceive the loss like an amputation and often experience physical issues such as loss of appetite, palpitations or insomnia.

Schmidt says that many people in mourning consult her because they fear they're going crazy.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, argued in his book Mourning and Melancholia, published almost a hundred years ago (1917), that grief must be addressed by intensely thinking of the lost loved one. According to Freud, mourners should accept and consciously live through the grief.

Silent mourning

The converse argument would be that those who show little to no emotion about their loss run the risk of being overwhelmed by it later. Or that the missing grief reveals something about the quality of the relationship. In the end, the only way to return to life and normality is by finding true closure.

"After experiencing several losses himself, Freud had come to the conclusion that he might have been mistaken," explains Kathrin Boerner from the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna in 1913 â€" Photo: Library of Congress

The mental space that thoughts about loved ones take up diminish with time, compared to everyday life. But grief isn't a clearly distinguished phase with a clear end to it, says Boerner. "The connection changes, but there usually remains an important ongoing inner connection no matter what."

Not a pathological process

As a matter of fact, many experts believe that those who are constantly dealing with their loss run the risk of becoming unable to return to normalcy. In the worst-case scenario, mourning becomes pathological. But even if the emotional roller coaster fuels the fear for one's own mental health, mourning has nothing to do with a pathology most of the time. It is instead a very normal reaction. "It's the reverse side of the connection," explains Anette Kersting from University Hospital in Leipzig.

But when does the fear of losing one's mind become founded? One indicator is if the mourning remains dominant after a significant passage of time â€" Kersting speaks of 14 months â€" and affects the person in everyday life. But Kersting's and others studies show that this pathological form of mourning affects only 7% to 20% of people.

It's not just about the duration of mourning, Boerner says. "From the beginning, those people live their grief differently." It's typical in this pathological form of mourning to constantly think about the grief, but also to try to escape the pain. For instance, people will avoid activities that remind them of the lost loved one. They let the grief build a wall around them, and they can't break it down on their own.

Finding closure â€" the right way

Several factors need to be considered to deal with loss: the circumstances of the death, the type of relationship a person had with the decedent, age and sex as well as personality. "There is one critical factor: previous psychological difficulties," says Boerner. In other words, emotionally unstable people have a particularly hard time dealing with loss.

Men tend to struggle more than women because they often lack a supportive and stable social network. "Most of the time, women are the ones establishing and cultivating the couple's social contacts," Boerner says. "Men's main attachment figure, on the other hand, are their wives." If she dies, a man's central figure and his social networks are gone.

A changed part of the brain called nucleus accumbens has been detected in patients suffering from pathological grief. This part of the brain is responsible for gratification and dependence, which might explain why those people can't stop thinking about the deceased. By doing so, their brain rewards them â€" the way a drug would.

It's not the new scientific findings that shape people's image of grief, but rather obsolete and disproved theories. Another example, similar to Freud's findings, is the 1970s stages model of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, according to which mourning people go through five phases: denial, anger, bargaining with a higher justice, depression and, finally, acceptance.

This simple model predicts a potential end to the process of mourning and suggests that all you have to do is go through the process, step by step. But experts disagree. George Bonanno, a psychologist from New York's Columbia University, discovered in 2002 through an extended study that the five-stages model doesn't apply to 90% of people in mourning.

Nearly 50% of people participating in that study claimed that they were feeling reasonably good 18 months after the death of a loved one. And this was especially true for those who had always been emotionally stable. Boerner stresses that there are "a variety of mourning processes that can be qualified as healthy."

Laughing heals

Kersting refers to a different model that has been developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut from the University of Utrecht. They describe two "poles," one rotating around death and loss, the other around the present and future. "Mourning people oscillate between one or the other," Kersting says. The farther someone has come in finding closure, the more he'll concentrate on what lies ahead.

The model also seems to reflect the experiences of the bereaved, who have moments of gratitude and joy â€" for instance, when thinking of a common vacation. Schmidt advises people to seek these moments actively, even if they feel they are expected to show pain. She also stresses that she sees that "people feel being judged by society, even if this clearly isn't the case."

Friends, neighbors and colleagues often don't know how to address the topic and are afraid of saying something wrong. But what can they do? Listen, says Schmidt, help the mourning person to understand the pain, encourage them to take new directions â€" and show compassion. "They feel supported if their personal approach and choices are accepted by their environment."

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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