How to turn trauma into loss. It’s not easy.

B0000724This post is inspired by a not very recent and probably not very well known essay, “A Late Adventure of the Feelings: Loss, Trauma, and the Limits of Psychoanalysis,” by Gregg Horowitz. It’s in a collection titled The Trauma Controversy. I never did find out what the trauma controversy is. I thought there were only controversies.


Loss, says Horowitz, is the substance of our lives. And we never get over it. “The loss we never make good on, yet which we never leave behind, is the very texture of our ordinary lives.” (31) In loss the origin keeps happening over and over again. The main reason is because the loss is incomprehensible. Easy enough to grasp, impossible to believe. It sounds like trauma, but it’s not.

Loss is the opposite of trauma. Though we never get over our losses, we can learn to respond creatively to them. Consider the following brief story, not part of Horowitz’s essay. At the site of the destroyed twin towers in New York City, in the lobby of an insurance company building near ground zero, a mural was displayed throughout most of 2002. It consisted of a series of self-portraits done by thousands of children, many of whom lost a parent or relative in the 9/11 attacks, others who had lost parents in wars around the world. An extract from a paper by Hanna Segal was placed beside the mural, serving as its motto. Segal was Melanie Klein’s closest associate.

It is when the world within us is destroyed, when it is dead and loveless, when our loved ones are in fragments, and we ourselves in helpless despair—it is then that we must re-create our world anew, re-assemble the pieces, infuse life into dead fragments, re-create life. (199)

Marygrace Berberian, an art therapist and social worker who came up with the idea for the project, in which eventually 3,100 children’s self-portraits of grief were combined, says “Children were recreating life in their art . . . . Creativity allows for describing, building and reconfiguring an injured object so that mourning can begin.” (Berberian, 33)

Loss, even if it is never redeemed, never made good on, can be mourned. Acts of creative living are the main way people do this. The creative act need not have artistic skill behind it, only the desire to recreate a lost world in the medium of the imagination.


Trauma is the opposite of loss. Trauma is the experience of static time. Everything is seen under the horizon of the original trauma. There can be nothing new under the sun. “Trauma is the . . . certainty of no [new] experience.” (35) If loss is the continuation of the suffering of absence into the present, then trauma is the freezing of past and present into a single frozen moment.

How trauma works: symptoms count

I don’t think Horowitz defines trauma very well, but perhaps it can’t be. “Loss happens to people, whereas traumatic violence, by contrast, eviscerates the prospect of any development of a psychical structure that might measure it.” (37)

In severe developmental trauma, like C-PTSD, trauma does eviscerate the development of the psyche. But among adults, psychic structure already exists. Trauma stops time, but it doesn’t retroactively stop development. There is a developed psyche waiting for it. But never developed enough.

Trauma trivializes development, for it shows that the best developed psyche in the world is dependent on contingency, on luck. Severe trauma simply can’t be transformed into loss in order to continue. For one has lost one’s attachment to the world. Given enough trauma, this can happen to anyone (Herman, 57).

Horowitz ignores the symptoms of trauma. I think the symptoms of trauma (such as PTSD) themselves become the barrier to transforming traumatic experiences into loss. Getting the symptoms under control is the key, and here a lesson from Bessel van der Kolk is important: the problem with trauma isn’t the past. It is the inability to take any pleasure, or pay any attention, to the present. Symptoms, everything from hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, to the social withdrawal that often follows, overwhelm everyday life.

This would make sense of Horowitz’s cryptic ending. “Trauma cannot be thought; it can only be halted.” (p. 40) And we halt trauma first and best when we provide relief for symptoms.

“At the heart of annihilation anxiety is the certainty that there is no more time in which to overcome the injury that should have annihilated the sufferer.” (41) Taking a page from Winnicott, I would say “the annihilation has already happened.” Fearing annihilation, we become a bundle of symptoms warding off the annihilation that happened during the experience of trauma.

“Sanctuary from history, then, and not normalization, is the demand of traumatic suffering.” (41) Sanctuary is a world of safety for the traumatized, in which annihilation anxiety can be confronted. Safety, an experience of being held and contained, not just during the therapeutic hour, but throughout the most intense experience of annihilatory anxiety, which may rage for months (or more), is essential. Judith Herman makes this point repeatedly, and it’s a good one. Healing trauma takes a community. There should be an AA for trauma sufferers, TA.

Transforming trauma into loss so that it might be mourned

The goal remains the transformation of the annihilatory dread of trauma into loss. Trouble is, the losses are incomprehensible. Not just for the reason Horowitz suggests: that we can’t let ourselves know what we know. But because the deepest losses are intangible: the loss of a safe world, of someone or something to believe in, the loss of so much of one’s life to traumatic symptoms. Not only can these losses never be made good, but they are difficult to mourn, for it is not really something outside, but something inside that has been taken. I am reminded of the famous line from Freud that “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego.” Mourning turns into melancholia because the ego is so identified with its lost object that to lose the object is to lose the self.

Melancholia isn’t the same as trauma, but they are united not only by an inability to mourn, but because the inability to mourn stems from the loss of interest in an outside world. In the case of trauma, the outside world is rendered meaningless because the inside world has become overwhelming.

Herman (188, 195) argues that mourning trauma is so threatening because it seems endless, as if one is entering into a permanent state of overwhelming loss. In truth, it is only entry into the state of overwhelming loss that allows for the trauma to recede.

In this regard, the symptoms of trauma are particularly heartbreaking because they represent what one victim of trauma I spoke with called “the turbulence of stagnant motion.” All this activity and motion going nowhere, when all one has to do is lose. It’s the hardest thing in the world.


Marygrace Berberian. Communal rebuilding after destruction: the world trade center children’s mural project. Psychoanalytic Social Work, 10 (2003): 27-41.

Sigmund Freud. Mourning and melancholia. The Standard Edition, vol. 14 (1915), pp. 243-260.

Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Gregg Horowitz. A late adventure of the feelings: loss, trauma, and the limits of psychoanalysis. In The Trauma Controversy, ed. Golden and Bergo. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009, pp. 23-44.

Hanna Segal. A psycho-analytical approach to aesthetics. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33 (1952): 196-207.

Bessel van der Kolk. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking Penguin, 2014, pp. 88-89, and chapter 13.


Comments (2)


    Several people on the Association for Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society Facebook Page, seemed to equate trauma with loss. Theirs were good comments. Here is the response I posted on the Association’s Facebook page.

    Consider the following examples: surviving a terrible automobile accident, rape, brutal physical assault, the trauma of combat. I agree that each of these examples involves a loss, but the concept of loss has to be made more general: the loss of a sense of basic trust in the world, the stability of the world, the goodness and meaningfulness of the world.

    I think these can be mourned, but they are harder to mourn, and one needs to think about the loss involved differently than the trauma that comes from suddenly (or not so suddenly) losing a loved one. Mourning an abstract loss is more like mourning the world we live in. I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that it’s tougher, more like the mourning of Job, who worked through a lot of anger before he accepted his tiny place in the world. Fred


    Dear Alex, thanks once more for your comment on my blog post, how to turn trauma into loss ( Part of the confusion is that my post is a review of a book chapter by Gregg Horowitz which argues that trauma and loss are sharply distinct. I disagree with Horowitz, while finding some merit in his position. In particular, much traumatic experience doesn’t feel like a loss; it feels like one is frozen in time, unable to escape. Paying respect to this experience is a good thing, for trauma in the end is not about our theories, but about experience.

    As I mentioned in my last Facebook response, some traumas, for example, a terrible automobile accident, or a violent physical attack, or war-time trauma, are not immediately experienced as loss. They are experienced as a violent intrusion. The loss is more “philosophical,” if I can put it that way: a loss of innocence, a loss of belief in the goodness or rightness of the world, and so forth. To mourn this loss is a different and more complicated mourning. So, I think it is fruitful to distinguish trauma and loss, and not assimilate them. In doing so, we respect how difficult it is to mourn many traumatic experiences.

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