Freud wrote to his mother the next day, informing her of the terrible news, and adding: “I hope you will take it calmly; tragedy after all has to be accepted. But to mourn this splendid, vital girl who was so happy with her husband and children is of course permissible.”
The next day he wrote to his friend, Oskar Pfister, that “sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of a glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed...The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is being cremated, our poor Sunday Child!”
There was no comfort in religion for Freud—famously atheistic, he regarded a belief in god as an infantile need for a father figure. Writing of Sophie’s passing to psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, Freud said: “as a confirmed unbeliever I have no one to accuse and realize that there is no place where I could lodge a complaint.”
Sophie left behind two sons. The younger one, Heinele, was just a baby at the time. He was, wrote Freud, “physically very fragile, truly a child of the war, but especially intelligent and endearing." When he too died, three years later, of tuberculosis, Freud was undone. Another three years on, Freud wrote to fellow analyst Ludwig Binswanger: “This child has taken the place of all of my other children and grandchildren for me, and since then, since Heinele's death, I no longer take care of my other grandchildren and no longer feel any enjoyment in life either."
To British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones he wrote: “Sophie was a dear daughter, to be sure, but not a child. It was ... when little Heinele died, that I became tired of life permanently. Quite remarkably, there is a correspondence between him and your little one. He too was of superior intelligence and unspeakable spiritual grace, and he spoke repeatedly about dying soon. How do these children know?"
Freud had written about grief before as a younger, less blemished man. His landmark paper comparing mourning and melancholia (1917) said the former was a healthy, temporary depression following a loss, a process that when completed successfully allows the bereaved person to live and love again. Melancholia by contrast, more self-defeating, enduring and with no apparent conscious cause, was more problematic. Freud memorably described it as “an open wound.”
But as the losses mount, they can accumulate and sometimes be felt more keenly over time, not less, and the distinction between mourning and melancholia can become blurred by all the tears and the fog of remembrance.
In another letter to Binswanger in 1929, Freud wrote: “Although you know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It's the only way of perpetuating that love which we don't want to relinquish.”
Freud suffered in his life. A perpetual cigar smoker, he had more than 30 surgeries on a mouth cancer that caused him excruciating pain. He and his youngest daughter, Anna—a famous psychologist in her own right—fled the Nazis n 1938 and moved to London. Freud died by doctor-assisted suicide the following year, three weeks after the start of the Second World War—a war that saw his four sisters murdered in the Holocaust.
The death of Sophie, however, and of little Heinele were defining moments in the landscape of his 83 years on earth.
Freud learned that we never really get over life’s biggest losses. What we can do is honour the dead by living—and living well.