De Melancholia

Michael S. Roth dissects "The Anatomy of Grief," the new book by Dorothy P. Holinger.

De Melancholia

The Anatomy of Grief by Dorothy P. Holinger. Yale University Press. 328 pages.

IN 1621, ROBERT BURTON PUBLISHED The Anatomy of Melancholy, a compendium of medical, astrological, and literary perspectives on a deep sadness that the author saw afflicting a great many of the men and women of his day. Burton wanted to analyze the causes of this sadness, while also offering ways to relieve it — “prognotisckes, and several cures,” as his subtitle has it. Yet Burton knew well the enormity of the challenge, the power of melancholy, admitting in his preface that he himself was writing about the condition as a means of temporarily avoiding it. Burton understood that

from these melancholy dispositions, no man living is free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well composed, but more or less, some time or other he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of mortality.

While Burton can be satirical — in the preface he refers to himself as “Democritus Junior” — Dorothy P. Holinger begins her new book, The Anatomy of Grief, with earnest empathy. This is a “book for the bereaved,” she writes, and she offers explanations of the scientific sort of what they might be going through (e.g., what is happening to their brains), together with stories of those who find a way to live with their grief until they can get to the other side of the suffering. There is no humor in The Anatomy of Grief. This is a very sad book.

But perhaps sadness is appropriate for a book offering sympathy to the bereaved. Holinger is a clinical psychologist who wants to “help readers find the information they need most.” An essential part of that information is learning how others manage grief — or, rather, how some extraordinarily gifted writers worked their way through bereavement. This Anatomy, like Burton’s, is full of quotations, and Holinger’s orchestration of different voices describing the vicissitudes of their anguish is often moving. The clinician hopes that readers who are stuck in grief without respite might find these accounts, from Charles Darwin on the loss of his daughter to Helen MacDonald on the loss of her father, helpful in understanding their own painful experiences. At the same time, she cites the saying of E. M. Forster (as quoted by Julian Barnes), that “one death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another.” Holinger respects the stinging particularity of the grieving process, but she also wants people to know they are not alone in their sadness.

After describing different forms of grief, Holinger spends a few brief chapters on how the processes of digesting loss are manifested in the body. She has plenty of examples of people who suffer a variety of ailments as they physically adjust to being deprived of a profound attachment. Although she quotes the affect-oriented trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Holinger is wedded to the talk-therapy tradition of relieving some forms of bodily distress by working to articulate their meaning and history. One of her patients described therapy as “a safe place to describe the severity of her pain.” Description is itself therapeutic.

The author hopes to provide some relief, or at least a sense of companionship, in the set of chapters called “Lost Loved Ones.” If you had recently lost a parent, for example, you might focus on the chapters on mothers and fathers. Holinger doesn’t promise either structure or closure here. She does offer some compelling sketches of how people have dealt with the aftermath of losing a child, a spouse, a sibling, or even a twin. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, but the author seems to believe that in reading about the severe pain of others and how they survived it, one can see a path through one’s own grief. Of one of her own patients, Hollinger writes: “Her mother’s death was no longer saturated […] with gruesome memories. […] Her words had given her the ability to convert the trauma of her experience into grief.”

Although Hollinger writes mostly in the calm tones of a clinician, she can also be quite personal. Among her many examples, Holinger describes the loss of her own sister when they were both very young and how this loss marked her mother for the rest of her life. As a child, the author had the role of consoler, of wiping away her mother’s tears, time and time again. Holinger describes herself as growing up “with an internalized mandate to make people smile.” Although she thinks that losing a sibling is losing a piece of oneself, she emphasizes that this kind of loss is often jealously owned by the parents. “Not until I was an adult did I come to understand that my mother’s sadness was her way of carrying my sister’s death with her until she herself died.”

We humans have burial, cremation, and a variety of mourning rites to mark the loss of crucial attachments. These conventions signal a relation to the past that will help survivors to leave it behind and avoid being subsumed within it. Holinger is indebted to psychoanalytic traditions, and she cites various analytic works on mourning. “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “in melancholia it is the ego itself.” He described his magnum opus The Interpretation of Dreams as a reaction to his father’s death, the kind of loss that “causes a revolution in one’s soul.” Freud suffered from anxiety, migraines, and worse after losing his father, and it wasn’t until he was able to face some of his ambivalence vis-à-vis “the old man” that he was really able to get on with what he called the “work” of mourning. What kind of labor is it to learn to live with loss? And when one stays “stuck” in an attachment to the dead, what kinds of solace and satisfaction are being derived from that connection?

In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud explored the connections between what feels like inescapable sadness and the process through which one lets go of an attachment to a loved one. In melancholia (what we would today call “depression”), the loss remains unconscious, and aggression is turned inward. In grief, one feels the world to be poor and empty, like an abandoned house. Melancholics feel themselves to be abandoned. While mourners may rebel against a world missing their love one, melancholics rebel against themselves for being unworthy of love, for remaining present. The mourner’s memories are all painful, Freud wrote, because the “verdict of reality” comes again and again: the loved one is no more.

The refusal to forget a person and the feelings that person called forth is braided with suffering — that is the focus of The Anatomy of Grief. More broadly, I would suggest, grief is a modality of historical consciousness, and it can also be a form of piety. At first, and maybe for a long time, pain is the marker of that refusal and of that piety. One’s suffering is a leaden sign of fidelity to the relationship one mourns. But there are other signs of piety that don’t require these painful elements of grief; there are alternatives to both suffering and forgetting. Holinger doesn’t much discuss these, but she concludes her sorrowful book with the hopeful metaphor of “changing lead into gold” by naming the importance of the lost relationship and thereby being set free from the pain of longing for it. “[T]o name the unnamed,” she writes, “is to gain the power to change the course of one’s life.” Amen to that.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University.

LARB Contributor

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are The Student: A Short History (forthcoming), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019), and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014).


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