When Freud lost his daughter to the Spanish flu: a story that connects the past to coronavirus

Sigmund Freud and his family in 1898. Sophie Freud is the little girl on the left, when she was five years old. (Wikipedia)

“This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenza, snatched away in the midst of 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.”

It is a distant voice that echoes our reality. It brings us face to face with our vulnerability and the terrifying possibility of losing loved ones. These are the words that Sigmund Freud wrote to Pastor Oskar Pfister in a letter dated 27 January 1920 to tell him that the so-called “Spanish flu” had snatched his daughter away from him.

The devastating effect of the unexpected

Sophie was Freud's fifth daughter and probably his favourite. She softened her father's autocratic character and as she grew up, she evoked feelings of admiration in him, according to his biographers.

At the age of 20, Sophie Freud married Max Halberstadt, a photographer from Hamburg. Nevertheless, despite the distance, she always maintained an intense correspondence with her father, who kept up with his daughter's joys and sorrows.

Sophie had two boys, but a third seemingly unwanted pregnancy weakened her and paved the way for the virus that was sweeping across Europe to take hold of her. She died on 25 January 1920, at the age of 26.

Her death was a severe blow to the father of psychoanalysis, who came to recognise that although he had mentally prepared himself for the death of his sons, who had all been drafted for the Great War, he was not prepared for his daughter to be “snatched away”.

Losing a loved one is always painful, but losing them suddenly is even more so because, as Seneca said centuries before: “what is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster.”

The unexpected is exactly what is dealing us the greatest blow in this crisis. What has left us with nothing to hold onto. With no cardinal directions to guide us. Many people have seen their relatives get sick quickly and leave them in a matter of hours.

These unexpected deaths make everything seem like a nightmare. We live through them with a sense of unreality that clears up at times, when the pain breaks through. Sudden losses make it difficult for us to accept that the person is no longer with us. They make it even more difficult for us, if such a thing were possible.

No chance to say goodbye

Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And that distance had to remain distance; we were not able to travel immediately, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; because there were no trains, not even for an emergency. The clear brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she will be cremated.”

Freud’s words are a very distant mirror, but they perfectly reflect the pain of many people who saw their loved ones disappear behind the doors of an intensive care unit or an ambulance on its way to the hospital and who were not given the chance to hug them or hold their hand again during their final moments.

Not having a chance to say goodbye causes great anguish that in the long term can lead to feelings of guilt. We start blaming ourselves for what happened in an attempt to make sense of a sudden death that we find difficult to accept and understand, while the world around us becomes increasingly confusing, chaotic and alienating.

This is why Freud’s story is also the story of those who have had to accept something that until recently had been unthinkable: that someone could die without their loved ones by their side to accompany them on their final journey. That their funeral would be brief, silent and deserted. With only three people to fill the emotional vacuum and 10 minutes to say goodbye to an entire life.

The fact is that coronavirus, just like the Spanish flu, can take away not only our loved ones but also something as essential as saying goodbye and supportive hugs, which we may receive too late or which will not be strong enough to break through the screens from behind which we try to send them.

We must not forget that the funeral ritual fulfills very important psychological functions. It helps us become aware of our loss so that we can start the mourning process. It also gives us the chance to receive the love and support of others to confirm that, although we have lost someone, we still have others by our side. And lastly, it fills that deep-seated need to know that the body of the person we love has been treated and sent off with dignity. When both the person and the farewell ritual are taken away from us, we experience a double loss. Double the pain. And double the anger.

Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud pictured in 1920. (Wikipedia)

How did Freud deal with the pain of losing his daughter?

At first, Freud was devastated. He wrote to the husband of his deceased daughter that it was “a senseless and brutal stroke of fate," stating that they could only bow their heads under the “blow like the poor, helpless creatures we are, mere playthings for the higher powers.”

His words give a glimpse of that initial period of mourning when we resist accepting the loss and feel immense anger because something extremely valuable that we would have always liked to have with us has been taken away from us. Freud, too, wavered between the need to accept a painful reality and the desire to reject it, precisely because it was too painful.

He took refuge in his work. His work was his salvation and he acknowledged: “I do as much work as I can, and I am grateful for the distraction [...] as for mourning, that will no doubt come later."

Freud, who had always been very attached to his routines, found in them a comfort and a way to escape the pain that gripped him, even if only for a few hours a day. Finding comforting routines to keep our minds occupied will help us cope with loss and give our unconscious time to process what has happened.

It is no coincidence that it was during this period that Freud published the book that would mark a turning point in his theory: Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It is likely that he “took advantage” of the chaos that surrounded him to reflect on the human essence, later manifesting it in his work.

The deaths from the Great War, the rampage of the Spanish flu in Vienna, and even the death of his own daughter must have left a very strong impression that led him to restructure the model of the psyche that he had proposed and to which he had made every effort to include Thanatos, or the death instinct. Some critics have said that this book was his most confusing work, albeit his most intimate.

In a way, “writing about death seems to become a way of regaining control after the disrupting experience of death, of reassuring continuity in the face of discontinuity, of mastering the absence”, suggested Elisabeth Bronfen. Freud found a way to channel those losses, the chaos and suffering of the world around him. And that helped him move forward.

From pain to acceptance

Little by little, in time, acceptance also came. Nine years later, Freud sent a letter to Ludwig Binswanger in which he wrote: "My daughter who died would have been thirty-six today [...] We know that the acute sorrow we feel after such a loss will run its course, but also that we will remain inconsolable, and will never find a substitute. No matter what may come to take its place, even should it fill that place completely, it yet remains something else. And that is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating a love that we do not want to abandon.”

Freud always wore a tiny locket with a photo of his daughter inside it, and he looked at it every so often. Nothing could take her place. He knew it and so do we. We know that the arrival of another person will never take the place of the one who has left us. And that’s the way it should be.

But we should also be aware that mourning will be softened and transformed into nostalgia. With the passage of time, whenever we remember the person who is no longer there, their memory will no longer evoke pain but instead a bittersweet feeling that can even be comforting for us.

Freud’s story drives home the fact that no matter how great the pain we feel today, acceptance and consolation will come in the end, with the reassurance of knowing that, although a loved one may have been taken from us, nothing can take away the moments we have shared together. And that is what we must hold onto.