The Inability to Mourn: Ways to Overcome Collective Grief and Guilt
The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior
Have you ever wondered why some people or groups seem to be unable or unwilling to face their past traumas, losses, or crimes? Why do they deny, repress, or rationalize their painful experiences instead of acknowledging and mourning them? And what are the consequences of this inability to mourn for their psychological well-being, social cohesion, and political behavior?
The Inability To Mourn: Principles Of Collective Behavior
In this article, we will explore the concept of the inability to mourn, which was first developed by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their influential book The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (1975). We will examine what collective mourning is, why some people or groups fail to mourn, how this affects them individually and collectively, and how they can overcome this problem. We will also look at some historical examples of the inability to mourn, such as Nazi Germany and post-colonial Algeria, and discuss their implications for our present and future.
What is collective mourning?
Mourning is a natural and healthy response to loss. It is a process of acknowledging, expressing, and working through the emotions that arise when we lose someone or something that we love or value. Mourning helps us cope with grief, adjust to the new reality, and find meaning and purpose in life.
However, mourning is not only an individual phenomenon. It can also be a collective one. Collective mourning occurs when a group of people share a common loss, such as a death, a disaster, a war, or a genocide. Collective mourning involves not only personal emotions, but also social rituals, symbols, narratives, and memories that help the group commemorate their loss, honor their dead, support each other, and reaffirm their identity and values.
Some examples of collective mourning are:
The annual memorial ceremonies for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The public displays of solidarity and grief after the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
The Holocaust museums and memorials around the world.
What is the inability to mourn?
The inability to mourn is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person or a group fails to engage in collective mourning. It is a form of denial or avoidance of facing the reality and consequences of a loss or a crime. It is a refusal to acknowledge, express, or work through the emotions that arise from such events. It is a rejection of responsibility, guilt, shame, or remorse for one's own actions or those of one's group.
The inability to mourn can have various causes, such as:
A lack of empathy or compassion for the victims or the perpetrators.
A fear of being overwhelmed by negative emotions or losing control.
A sense of pride, superiority, or entitlement that prevents admitting one's mistakes or flaws.
A need to protect one's self-image, ego, or identity from being damaged or challenged.
A desire to avoid conflict, criticism, or punishment from others.
A belief that the past is irrelevant, unchangeable, or better forgotten.
The inability to mourn can have various consequences, such as:
A distortion of reality, memory, or history.
A repression or displacement of emotions onto other targets or outlets.
A development of psychological symptoms or disorders, such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, or paranoia.
A disruption of personal identity or relationships.
A deterioration of social cohesion or trust.
A perpetuation of violence or injustice.
The case of Nazi Germany
One of the most striking and disturbing examples of the inability to mourn is the case of Nazi Germany. After the end of World War II and the collapse of the Third Reich, the German people faced a massive and unprecedented loss: millions of dead, a devastated country, a defeated and disgraced nation, and a horrific legacy of genocide and war crimes. How did they cope with this loss? How did they deal with their guilt and shame?
According to Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, the authors of The Inability to Mourn, the Germans failed to mourn their losses and crimes. They argued that the Germans were unable or unwilling to confront their past and their responsibility for it. They claimed that the Germans exhibited a collective defense mechanism of denial, repression, rationalization, and projection. They suggested that the Germans avoided facing their emotions and instead focused on rebuilding their economy, restoring their sovereignty, and repressing their history. They asserted that the Germans suffered from a collective narcissism that prevented them from empathizing with their victims or acknowledging their own faults. They warned that the Germans risked repeating their mistakes or developing new forms of authoritarianism and aggression if they did not overcome their inability to mourn.
The case of post-colonial Algeria
Another example of the inability to mourn is the case of post-colonial Algeria. After more than 130 years of French colonial occupation, Algeria gained its independence in 1962 after a brutal war that lasted eight years and claimed more than a million lives. As a result of this war and its aftermath, more than a million French settlers (known as pieds-noirs) were forced to leave Algeria and return to France. How did they cope with this loss? How did they deal with their grief and anger?
According to Rainer Maria Wieshammer and Karin Eringa, researchers on cultural memory and nostalgia, the pieds-noirs failed to mourn their expulsion and violence. They argued that the pieds-noirs were unable or unwilling to accept their past and its consequences. They claimed that the pieds-noirs exhibited a collective nostalgia that idealized their life in Algeria and denied their role in colonial oppression and exploitation. They suggested that the pieds-noirs avoided facing their emotions and instead created a mythicized identity, culture, and cuisine that celebrated their Algerian roots but ignored their Algerian reality. They asserted that the pieds-noirs suffered from a collective trauma that prevented them from integrating into French society or reconciling with Algerian society. They warned that the pieds-noirs risked perpetuating their resentment or transmitting their trauma to future generations if they did not overcome their inability to mourn.
How does the inability to mourn affect individuals and societies?
The inability to mourn is not only a problem for those who suffer from it, but also for those who interact with them. The inability to mourn can have serious psychological and social implications for individuals and societies. It can affect personal identity, relationships, political culture, and behavior in negative ways.
The impact on personal identity and relationships
The inability to mourn can impair one's sense of self and one's connection with others. It can lead to:
Alienation: The inability to mourn can make one feel isolated, disconnected, or misunderstood by others. It can create a gap between one's inner world and one's outer world. It can prevent one from sharing one's feelings, thoughts, or experiences with others. It can hinder one from forming authentic bonds or attachments with others.
The impact on political culture and behavior
The inability to mourn can also impair one's sense of citizenship and democracy. It can lead to:
Authoritarianism: The inability to mourn can make one seek or support a strong leader or a rigid ideology that promises to restore order, security, or glory. It can make one surrender one's critical thinking, autonomy, or rights for the sake of conformity, obedience, or loyalty. It can make one tolerate or justify violence, oppression, or corruption as necessary means to achieve desired ends.
Aggression: The inability to mourn can make one act out one's repressed emotions in destructive ways. It can make one lash out at real or perceived enemies, scapegoats, or rivals. It can make one engage in revenge, retaliation, or domination. It can make one fuel or escalate conflicts, wars, or terrorism.
Some examples of the impact of the inability to mourn on political culture and behavior are:
The rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as a reaction to the humiliation and resentment caused by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.
The emergence of radical Islamism and jihadism in the Middle East and beyond as a response to the frustration and anger caused by colonialism, imperialism, and globalization.
The resurgence of nationalism and populism in various countries in recent years as a result of the anxiety and nostalgia caused by economic, social, and cultural changes.
How can we overcome the inability to mourn?
The inability to mourn is not a permanent or incurable condition. It is possible to overcome it and heal from it. There are various ways to do so, depending on the nature and severity of the loss or crime, the individual or group characteristics, and the available resources and support. However, some general suggestions and recommendations are:
The role of psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a form of therapy that aims to help people understand and resolve their unconscious conflicts, traumas, and defenses. Psychoanalysis can help individuals and groups who suffer from the inability to mourn by:
Providing a safe and confidential space to explore their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Helping them identify and challenge their denial, repression, rationalization, projection, or other defense mechanisms.
Helping them face their reality and consequences of their loss or crime.
Helping them process their grief and guilt in a healthy way.
Helping them develop a more realistic, balanced, and compassionate view of themselves and others.
Helping them find new meaning and purpose in life.
The role of dialogue
Dialogue is a form of communication that aims to foster mutual understanding and respect among different parties. Dialogue can help individuals and groups who suffer from the inability to mourn by:
Providing an opportunity to listen and speak openly and honestly.
Helping them acknowledge and appreciate their diversity and complexity.
Helping them recognize and address their common interests and concerns.
Helping them resolve their conflicts or disputes peacefully and constructively.
Helping them build trust and cooperation.
Helping them heal their wounds and reconcile their differences.
The role of memory
Memory is a form of preservation that aims to keep alive the truth and lessons of the past. Memory can help individuals and groups who suffer from the inability to mourn by:
Providing a source of information and evidence about what happened and why.
Helping them honor their dead or victims.
Helping them educate themselves and others about their history and culture.
Helping them prevent denial, distortion, or forgetting of their past.
Helping them prevent repetition or recurrence of their mistakes or crimes.
In conclusion, the inability to mourn is a psychological phenomenon that affects individuals and groups who fail to cope with their losses or crimes. It is a form of denial or avoidance of facing the reality and consequences of such events. It has various causes and consequences, both psychological and social. It can impair one's sense of self, identity, relationships, citizenship, and democracy. It can lead to alienation, splitting, authoritarianism, and aggression. However, it is possible to overcome the inability to mourn and heal from it. There are various ways to do so, such as psychoanalysis, dialogue, and memory. These can help one acknowledge, express, and work through one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. They can help one cope with grief, guilt, shame, or remorse. They can help one find new meaning and purpose in life. They can help one foster mutual understanding and respect among different parties. They can help one preserve the truth and lessons of the past. They can help one prevent violence or injustice in the present and future.
Here are some common questions and answers about the inability to mourn:
What is the difference between normal grief and complicated grief?
Normal grief is a natural and healthy response to loss that involves a range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, or relief. It usually subsides over time as one adapts to the new reality. Complicated grief is a persistent and severe form of grief that interferes with one's functioning and recovery. It involves symptoms such as intense longing, bitterness, numbness, difficulty moving on, or detachment from others.
How long does it take to overcome the inability to mourn?
There is no fixed or universal answer to this question. It depends on many factors, such as the nature and severity of the loss or crime, the individual or group characteristics, and the available resources and support. Some people may overcome their inability to mourn in weeks or months. Others may take years or decades. Some may never fully overcome it.
How can I help someone who suffers from the inability to mourn?
You can help someone who suffers from the inability to mourn by:
Being patient, supportive, and compassionate.
Listening to them without judging or criticizing them.
Encouraging them to seek professional help if needed.
Respecting their pace and preferences.
Offering practical assistance if possible.
Avoiding clichés, platitudes, or comparisons.
How can I cope with someone who suffers from the inability to mourn?
You can cope with someone who suffers from the inability to mourn by:
Setting healthy boundaries and limits.
Taking care of your own needs and well-being.
Seeking support from others who understand your situation.
Expressing your feelings and opinions respectfully.
Avoiding arguments or confrontations that may escalate the situation.
Where can I find more information or resources about the inability to mourn?
You can find more information or resources about the inability to mourn by:
Consulting a mental health professional or a grief counselor.
Joining a support group or a community organization that deals with grief or trauma.
Reading books or articles on the topic (such as The Inability to Mourn by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich).
Visiting websites or online forums that offer information or advice on grief or trauma (such as HelpGuide.org).