Depression and the lost object

It is clear from clinical experience that many, if not all, people who present with depression have a experienced a significant loss in their lives.  This may be the loss of a person, but it could also be the loss of a job, a house, or even an idea or belief system. We could even go further and say that a person who presents themselves in therapy with a history of depression is essentially presenting a history of loss.

Although it may seem obvious in many cases that a person’s depression is connected to loss, for example the death of a loved one, in other situations it is by no means obvious. This is particularly the case with people who seem to be permanently depressed, perpetually mournful or sad, even when there seems to be no apparent cause for their mood.

The term ‘object’ is used a great deal in psychoanalytic language. This may seem a rather impersonal and dehumanising way of describing what are often real people. However, it should be understood in the grammatical sense, i.e. that which takes the action of a verb. So the ‘object’ can be another person, but it can equally be an actual object, or even something intangible such as an idea or even a dream.

Lacan had a name for this object: the objet a. However, contrary to some psychoanalytic uses of the term ‘object’, the objet a does not exist – which, paradoxically perhaps, is why it has such a strong influence on us. Lacan used the term object cause of desire to describe the objet a, which is actually rooted in a complex philosophical idea linked to the phenomenological concept of intentionality. However, the key point here is that the objet a is linked to desire, i.e. lack. The subject lacks and therefore desires. And what does he or she desire? The ‘lost’ object, the objet a.  I deliberately use the quotation marks around the word ‘lost’ because the objet a does not exist, except in fantasy.

However, even if the objet a itself does not exist, it still manages to embody itself in a number real objects. In fact, the objet a can embody itself in anything. It can be a person, it can be a job, a property, an idea, or even a particular expression or part of a person’s body.

And, in fact, the lost object can even be one’s own ego. This is the argument that Freud develops in Mourning and Melancholia.1   Freud noticed that in many ways melancholia looks very much like mourning:

In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition – it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it.2

In other words, the work of mourning is the work of coming to terms with the loss of the loved object. In melancholia something happens which prevents this process of working through from occurring properly – although as Freud points out people do come out melancholia. In melancholia, the ego itself is taken as the lost object, which means there is close connection between melancholia and narcissism.

And this accounts for the crucial difference between mourning and melancholia: the self-depreciation of the ego, self-loathing, hatred of one’s self. Freud argues that, in reality, this is hatred of (or rather ambivalence towards) the lost object, which has become identified with the ego.

Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open.3.

Essentially the subject is treating his or her ego as the lost object – which, of course, means the object is never actually ‘lost’ in the first place. However, there is a terrible price to pay here: the subject becomes trapped in the illusion of the object/ego. It also means the subject is unable to relate to a real (other) person – because to all intents and purposes, the fantasy object has replaced real relationships with others. This is a process which Freud describes in great detail in his paper on narcissism.4

The real tragedy, though, is that the ‘lost’ object never existed in the first place. This is not to say that the subject did not lose something or someone. However, this something or someone is an embodiment of a fantasy. This does not mean, however, that the pain of loss is any the less real.

Some analysts and psychotherapists try to pin down the exact nature of the ‘lost’ object. In other words, they try of identify exactly what it is that the subject originally loses in their very early childhood. This is regardless of whether this particular object is an embodiment of another ‘lost’ object. Some argue that it is the mother, the mother’s breast, or even the placenta.

A critical point regarding depression and loss is how the subject comes to term with this original loss. If he or she is able to work through the loss of the (actual) object than the chances are that he or she will be able to work through subsequent losses. However, if the subject is unable to work through this original loss it is highly likely that he or she will be unable to work through subsequent losses. And, of course, one of the aims of therapy is to, belatedly perhaps, help the subject come to terms with that original loss.

One way to look at loss is to think of it as a bereavement. And this not only applies to the death of a loved one. As mentioned earlier this loss can equally be that of a job, a home, or even an idea or belief.

By looking at loss as bereavement we can also start to think of the coming to terms with loss as the ‘work’ of mourning. I mentioned earlier the idea of working through the loss. Essentially this is a process of symbolising the loss and the lost object. And in therapy this process of symbolisation is conducted mainly through words.

And this is where things can start to go wrong for the subject who is in a state of bereavement. Being able to talk about loss, and especially the loss of a loved one, can be very painful and difficult. One of the problems for the subject is that they may have idealised the lost object, which is essentially a ‘freezing’ of the object in a moment in time; a perfect moment, a moment that the subject can cherish for ever; a moment of infinity. This is linked very closely to the identification of the subject’s ego with the object discussed earlier.

The problem for the subject who has idealised the lost object is that if they start to talk about it they risk ‘de-idealising’ it, to start giving it a history – and to start giving themselves a history in relation to the object. And the more they talk about their relation to the lost object the more they realise this relationship was actually quite complex and full of many contradictions and ambiguities.


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  1. Freud, S. (1917) Mourning and Melanchola. In: J. Strachey ed. The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp.239-258. []
  2. 244-45 []
  3. 250-51 []
  4. Freud, S. (1914) On Narcissism: an introduction. In: J. Strachey ed. The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/Hogarth Press, pp.69-102. []