How the experience of grief and loss shapes our world, by Vamık D. Volkan

Life after Loss: The Lessons of Grief

Cyprus 1964, printed 2013 Don McCullin born 1935 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with the assistance of the ARTIST ROOMS Endowment, supported by the Henry Moore Foundation and Tate Members 2013

I was born in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island, when it was a British colony. After completing my high school education there I went to Turkey for my medical education. In the summer of 1956 I finished Ankara University’s School of Medicine and six months later I came to the United States of America where I remained. During the last two and a half years of my life in Ankara, first as a rather poor medical student and then as a newly graduated physician, I shared a small room in an apartment complex with another Cypriot Turk named Erol. He had come to Ankara, as had I, for his medical education and was two classes below me at the same medical school. He called me “abi,” meaning “my big brother.” Since I only had sisters and no brother, I considered him to be my brother. During the time we were roommates, ethnic conflict began between the Cypriot Turks and Cypriot Greeks.

Cyprus, a former British Colony (1878 - 1960), in the 1950s

Cyprus, a former British Colony (1878 – 1960), in the 1950s

Three months after my arrival in the United States I received a letter from my father. In the envelope there was a newspaper article with Erol’s picture describing how he had gone to Cyprus from Ankara to visit his ailing mother. While trying to purchase medicine for her at a pharmacy he was shot seven times by a Cypriot Greek terrorist. This terrorist killed Erol, a bright young man with a promising future, in order to terrorize the ethnic group to which he belonged.

After receiving the news of Erol’s death I felt numb. I did not cry. I was in Chicago in a foreign environment in which I was close to no one, so I did not share the news of Erol’s murder with any other person. Even when I was undergoing my personal analysis some years later, I did not dwell on losing Erol. In those days psychoanalysts, in general, did not focus much on the intertwining of an external trauma with analysands’ internal structure. My “hidden” mourning process largely remained just that—hidden. As a young analyst I felt close to the late William Niederland, then a psychoanalyst in New York City, and, in a sense, I thought of him as a mentor. At the time it never occurred to me that my seeking out Bill, who had coined the term “survivor syndrome,” as a mentor might have something to do with my losing Erol and my own “survival guilt.” My roommate had died and I had survived.

Thirty-some years after Erol’s death while visiting Cyprus  one summer night some friends took my wife and I to a garden restaurant, and one of them who knew Erol’s story pointed out a bearded man behind the bar and told me that this man was Erol’s younger brother. I spontaneously got up from my chair and approached this man and said to him: “My name is Vamık. Does this name mean anything to you?” He began to cry and I found myself also crying too, right in the midst of people dining with soothing classical music playing in the background. This event activated my mourning process which lasted many, many months. This time I was very aware of it.

The-Empty-Chair (1)

“Mourning can be defined as the bereaved person’s continuing relationship with the mental double, the mental representation, of the lost individual”

I know now that my hidden mourning process, combined with other events in my life, was my hidden motivation to study and research life after loss while I was in psychoanalytic training and after I became a psychoanalyst.  I focused on perennial mourners without being aware of my being such a person. Human psychology can be defined as a series of concrete and abstract losses and gains. Depending on internal and external circumstances we give various types of responses to significant losses, from going through a “normal” mourning process to developing depression to becoming a perennial mourner to initiating of a creative activity. Mourning can be defined as the bereaved person’s continuing relationship with the mental double, the mental representation, of the lost individual. Since we keep such mental doubles “alive” in our minds until we die, in a sense, mourning never ends. It only comes to a practical ending when the relationship I mentioned above is no longer preoccupies the mourner’s mind.

Candle in hand

“specific religious as well as cultural customs have evolved throughout human history to give comfort and help to bereaved individuals”

Since we face losses again and again during our lifetime, specific religious as well as cultural customs have evolved throughout human history to give comfort and help to bereaved individuals. We have not, however, developed routine teaching programs in schools or public places to inform and prepare ourselves for life after significant losses. Elizabeth Zintl, an award-winning journalist, and I wanted to provide a book that gives in-depth information about various types of mourning to anyone who is searching for some meaning in his or her behavior after a significant loss. Without hiding behind technical terms and with case reports we wrote Life After Loss. It examines what psychoanalysts observed about such life experiences since Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia and includes findings from my own studies and research.

Volkan picture

41-pPU8l3CL._SL_300_Vamik D. Volkan is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, an Emeritus Training and Supervising Analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, and the Senior Erik Erikson Scholar at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He is the president of the International Dialogue Initiative and a former president of the International Society of Political Psychology, the Virginia Psychoanalytic Society, and the American College of Psychoanalysts. He received the Sigmund Freud Award given by the city of Vienna in collaboration with the World Council of Psychotherapy.

Elizabeth Zintl was an accomplished journalist who served as chief of staff in the office of the University of Virginia’s president. The Elizabeth Zintl Award from the University of Virginia Women’s Center honors the professionalism, creativity and commitment that characterized Elizabeth Zintl’s contribution to the university.

Their book, Life after Loss: The Lessons of Grief, is republished this week by Karnac Books.



‘This humane and eloquent book offers valuable insight into the ways in which we suffer from, wrestle with, adapt to, and grow through loss.’—Judith Viorst, author of Necessary Losses

‘When you are bereaved, you always need but do not always find a good friend whose expressions of sympathy are knowing, simple, unpious, unpompous, and mercifully brief. Life After Loss has this same rare combination of qualities. If you know someone who needs such support, give this book; it will actually help.’ —Shana Alexander, author of When She Was Bad and Very Much a Lady

‘When the earth opens and takes someone we love, we glimpse for an instant, but for all time, the utter fragility of life – and the hazard of loving. Those who cannot face the maximum sorrow of grief – cannot weep and remember – cannot let go, cannot move on. Nowhere is there a finer guide to loss and grief than Life After Loss. Writing with intelligence and heart and style, Volkan and Zintl have produced a classic.’—Michael P. Nichols, PhD, coauthor of Family Healing: Tales of Hope and Renewal from Family Therapy

‘Whatever the ravages of grief, it has produced this wonderful book by Dr. Volkan and Elizabeth Zintl. Life After Loss is a special present from them to us.’—Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle and Southern Discomfort

‘Everyone should read, digest, and metabolize this book – for their own sake and for our children’s sake.’—Howard Stein, PhD, Professor of Family Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center




2 thoughts on “How the experience of grief and loss shapes our world, by Vamık D. Volkan

  1. I suffered a loss, four years ago. After counselling, anti-depressants and a great deal of trauma, I found this blog helpful in that it made me feel less…”abnormal”. Thank you.


  2. Pingback: Consuming Violence: forensic psychoanalyst John C. Espy on our fascination with serial killers |

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