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Thoughts for the times on virus and loss

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Life during the current Covid-19 crisis situation has been compared to the experience of being at war. For a better understanding of lockdown and its associated anxieties, Dr David Kaposi, a senior lecturer in the School and a psychodynamic psychotherapist, looks back to Sigmund Freud's response to World War 1, and forward to the challenge the current crisis is posing to psychotherapy – and to our lives.

Through that transformative week when those of us who are in the UK were first strongly advised to work from home and only to meet with “essential contacts” (16 March), then saw the schools closed (20 March), then pubs, gyms, restaurants and all social venues (21 March)… when we thus recognised that the current lockdown would be inevitable – I could not help recalling Freud’s reaction to the First World War:

“In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without the glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgments which we form. We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest.” (Freud, 1915/2001, p. 275.)

As we know, Freud’s concern and practical business was the taming of humanity's wild spirits in the therapy room, to ensure the triumph of the healthy, the ethical and the relational. The triumph of peace. What is more, at this point in his life, not only is he optimistic about achieving such outcomes but also, after a decade in the wilderness, he has followers, their numbers gradually building across the globe. His work is being vindicated not just by his success in turning his patients’ “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” but by psychoanalysis becoming a worldwide movement (Freud and Breuer, 1895/2001, p. 38).

Yet when five months after the outbreak of the war he looks at the devastation, he feels compelled to declare repeatedly: we did not see this coming; we don’t know what’s going on.

I recalled Freud’s poignant confession, this pronouncement of his own limitations at the precise point when he had good personal and professional reasons not to feel limited, because what seems to me the vast, overwhelming psychological characteristic of our present situation is that we did not see it coming. Not when it was in Wuhan, not when it was in Italy, not when it was in Brighton. Or perhaps we did 'know' but did not realise what we would have to reckon with. So why should we assume, even when it has reached into our own houses, that we now do know what’s going on?

To take the example of Freud’s own profession, counselling and psychotherapy, there is hardly any trace of previous thinking or preparation for the wholesale change that occurred pretty much overnight, to move all therapy sessions online. Professional bodies offered no guidelines or warnings for their members. They made no reference whatsoever to a coming change which will profoundly alter our profession. On Monday morning (16 March), online therapy (or 'Skype therapy', as it was known back in those ancient times) was still what it had been for the past decade or so: a marginal phenomenon that was hardly mentioned (let alone taught) in professional training and existed mostly as an occasional substitute for the “real thing”. By the afternoon, online therapy (mostly via Zoom, as Skype all of a sudden seems to have proved less than ideal for therapy purposes) had pretty much become the sole medium for therapeutic activities. As a result, the transition to what is a massive change in the therapeutic setting, and as such with equally massive consequences, has been done in a breath-taking haste and without proper discussion with clients.

Needless to say, the present crisis has political, and ideological, aspects. The “Keep calm and carry on” attitude was, after all, official policy, until its likely horrific consequences had become public knowledge. Yet, another aspect of the crisis may once again go back to Freud and the tradition that has evolved from his work.

I think that the staggering degree to which we have been unprepared to think about the coronavirus crisis is because it is to do with death, and death around us on a mass scale. It may also come to be about our own death, or the imminent and sudden death of a loved one we have not been prepared to lose. And it already means the death of our way of life, the way we were used to living our lives.

The First World War prompted Freud’s first engagement with mourning what we have lost, a psychoanalytic theme that Melanie Klein subsequently positioned at the centre of our psychic life. When the baby starts to realise that they are they and we are us, the baby realises that the thing s/he loves and hates is one and the same thing – the object of love can be damaged and lost. This realisation is possible/manageable and can be sustained if there is some capacity to restore and recover and build up everything again inside the baby’s mind. However, if the person possesses no such capacity (yet), the response may be denial (i.e., “I did not lose it”) or omnipotent control (i.e., “I can bring it back to life whenever I want to”). With those responses, reality is not faced with sadness, sorrow and perhaps hope; instead, there is a (doomed) attempt to triumph over it in manic excitement. 

Today, there is a lot of anxiety around. People are suddenly facing a loss that was denied up to a very short time ago, and they don’t know what to do. Certainly, other people very quickly volunteer to tell them what to do. The advice will perhaps come across as helpful, yet what needs to be considered is whether it is an authentic engagement with a problem, or a manic response that continues to be based on denial and omnipotence. This is a very delicate question, but my hunch is that there can be no helpful response which does not take account of the fact that the author themselves did not see this crisis coming. Any helpful response needs to start with our looking into the mirror, and reckoning not just with the sorrow and sadness that loss entails (Melanie Klein), but with the utter and complete denial that was our own initial response. Otherwise, what appears and is surely intended as helpful support will merely exploit and even ultimately increase the anxiety, rather than genuinely alleviating it.

When encountering the burgeoning genre of “how to survive the lockdown” or even “how to thrive in a lockdown” guides, I therefore feel we need to consider this. Therapeutic support is genuinely needed, and rather basic therapeutic support is genuinely needed, on a vast scale as we suddenly cannot escape loss. We are locked in with it, so to say. Support therefore needs to be offered. Yet it will be no real support if it does not acknowledge in some form its own profound limitations: we did not see it coming (either) and we do not really know what’s going on (either). What we can help with is not by creating the utterly false illusion that we know how to survive such lockdowns, but by preparing ourselves and others to finally look this unexpected and unprecedented loss in the eye.


Relevant literature:

Freud, S. (1915/2001) ‘Thoughts for the times of war and death’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 273-300.

Freud, S. (1917/2001) ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 237-258.

Klein, M. (1935/1998) ‘A contribution to the genesis of manic-depressive states’, in Love,Guilt and Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 262-289.

Klein, M. (1940/1998) ‘Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states’, in Love, Guiltand Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 344-369.

David Kaposi’s psychotherapy practice website can be found here.

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