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Reminiscence and Life Review – The Experience of Melancholy

I was speaking with a friend the other day about my observations of some of the people that I work with, explaining that for some people, there is a melancholy in their recollections of the past and where they are today. My friend told me how much she loved that word, ‘melancholy’ and how distinctly different it is from the current usage of the word ‘depression.’

I spent some time researching the word melancholy, it’s initial source from Aristotle and the Greeks who believed it was an imbalance of bile in the system. The term ‘melaina kole’ literally translates to ‘black bile.’ At some point in time, the two words collapsed and in current psychology, they are synonymous with each other; melancholia being a current term for depression.

In a completely different conversation, another friend reminded me of the researcher Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development theory. The final stage, called “Integrity vs. Despair’ takes place in later adulthood around age 60 or older. Occurring when the individual experiences a sense of their own mortality (either through retirement, death of a spouse or other life changing social role), the individual begins to reminisce in a life-career review (often with a personal historian like myself.) This outcome can be either positive or negative resulting in an eventual acceptance of life, or a depression coming from the fear of death and a sense that life is too short and not enough was accomplished.

I think this reminiscence and life review is definitely part of the melancholy but what I experience with some of my clients is something very different from depression.

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