A personal work
Freud wrote the first draft of Mourning and Melancholia already in 1915. In parallel, he was working on two other articles related to the same topic: thoughts about war and death (2) and transience (3).
This was in the midst of the First World War. Freud lived in Vienna, and the Habsburg Empire was engaged in a full-blown war with Russia, Britain and France.
Freud discussed the manuscript about mourning and melancholia with two of his psychiatrist colleagues, Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933) in Budapest and Karl Abraham (1877–1925) in Berlin. The latter had already in 1913 published his psychoanalytic studies of manic-depressive disorder, while Freud borrowed the concept of 'introjection' from Ferenczi. It was not uncommon for Freud to use his colleagues' ideas and concepts and transform them to elaborate on his own theoretical contributions (4).
During the war years of 1914–18, large parts of the population of Vienna was struck by famine and disease. The winters were harsh, and fuel was scarce. Few patients came to see Freud. Previously, his patients had included a number of rich Russians but they no longer came, and he struggled to make ends meet.
Two of Freud's sons and a son-in-law fought in the war. At first, Freud was proud of his sons who wanted to fight for the emperor, but he soon came to another understanding as the horrors of modern warfare dawned on him. He was deeply distressed by the 'tens of thousands of dead' and also by how rational, modern man could descend into primitive bestiality and the urge to destroy, putting the entire European civilisation and culture at risk (2, 5), p. 338). The project closest to his heart, psychoanalysis, was facing an uncertain future. In 1913, he and Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) had broken off their collaboration. Furthermore, one of Europe's most prominent psychiatrists, Swiss Eugen Bleuler (1857–1939), broke with psychoanalysis ((6), p. 289). There was enough to worry about and mourn over. Mourning and Melancholia is therefore a personal work. Freud was already well acquainted with mournful and depressive thoughts. In the 1880s he treated himself with cocaine for conditions of a psychosomatic and depressive nature ((5), p. 194). The Interpretation of Dreams – the book that established psychoanalysis as a separate discipline – was written as a creative response to the grief over his father, who died in 1895 ((7). Many of the dreams that he discusses and analyses here stem from his most intensive periods of mourning.
The Interpretation of Dreams was written as a creative response to the grief over his father
In 1923–24, Freud suffered another bout of depression. It started when his daughter Sophie Freud Halberstadt (1893–1920) died from the Spanish flu. Freud subsequently developed maxillary cancer in 1923 and underwent surgery. He was afraid of dying and unable to work with patients or participate in the work of the psychoanalytical organisations he had founded. In the summer of 1923, his grandson Heinerle (Sophie's son) died of tuberculosis at the age of four years and six months. Freud was greatly attached to his grandson and mourned over him for a long time ((5), p. 346; (8), p. 91; (9), p. 161).
Freud's own death was an assisted suicide. Max Schur (1897–1969), who had been his doctor for many years, administered an overdose of morphine in accordance with an agreement they had entered into many years previously, when Freud was first diagnosed with cancer. The agreement was that when Freud had become too ill and no longer able to work and see any meaning in life, he should be helped to die. Some believe this to be is sign of how Freud had a clear relationship to death ((5), p. 344). In my opinion, this is rather an effect of the idealisation of Freud. Freud's doctor has provided a vivid, detailed and unsentimental account of his patient's final days, including the circumstances around the death itself ((10), p. 504).