When Loss Leads to Depression

In my web page on the causes of depression, I said that loss and separation—such as the death of a loved one, divorce, marital separation, or any interpersonal conflict are major triggers for depression. For example, a majority of the people who come to my depression support group have experienced a recent loss, such as a divorce, relationship breakup, or death of a parent. I remember one man, who when left by his girlfriend, spent the next three months sleeping on the living room couch in his apartment. His overwhelming grief had caused his body, mind and spirit to shut down. On a personal level, my three previous depressive episodes were all triggered by the loss of a relationship.

Why is this so? Years ago, Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified the five stages of death–shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While Kubler Ross did her research with people who are physically dying, her stages apply equally well to those who are experiencing an emotional death. Think about a time were you broke up with a significant other–you no doubt experienced these stages.

Extreme sadness is the fourth stage of Kubler Ross’s grieving process, and if it is allowed to proceed, the person eventually comes to the final stage–acceptance. But what if this grief is not allowed to proceed in a normal fashion? It gets repressed and turned into “frozen grief.” Later on, this grief can emerge in the form of depression.

This is what occurred with President Abraham Lincoln who lost his mother at the age of nine and then suffered from crippling depression throughout adulthood. This is why the great psychoanalyst Alice Miller wrote. “It is not the trauma, but the repression of the trauma that leads to psychiatric problems.”

Fortunately, there is a way out. It is to mourn our losses, especially when they occurred in early childhood. While mourning past losses may be painful, you can’t heal what you can’t feel. Or, to put it another way, “the only way out is through.”

This process takes time and may require having a skilled therapist to serve as a guide. But when the mourning is completed and the loss is properly grieved, we can come back to life again. As the psalmist says, “He who sows in tears shall reap in joy.”

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