Prof. Dr. med. Heinrich Deserno Obituary

The IPU mourns the death of Prof. Dr. Heinrich Deserno, former professor and director of the IPU’s psychotherapeutic outpatient clinic. Deserno passed away on 14 February, 2023. In memory of him, this is his obituary by Prof. Dr. Lutz Wittmann.

Prof. Dr. med. Heinrich Deserno
* 17 September 1945 † 14 February 2023

How it tore you from life
Words and thoughts tear us apart
I wonder with a silent mind
A sore heart full of gratitude

Last Tuesday we were caught unexpectedly by the news of Heinrich Deserno’s sudden death. Perhaps this obituary can be an attempt to put into words the speechlessness in which he has left us.

At the age of 64, Heinrich Deserno decided against waiting for retirement. Instead, he accepted a 2009 invitation to teach as Professor of Clinical Psychology at the International Psychoanalytical University in Berlin. Having such a clinically experienced, psychoanalytically educated, and scientifically accomplished teacher was a great stroke of luck for the first generations of students at the newly emerging university. But Heinrich was so much more than just a teacher and researcher. He took over the management of the psychotherapeutic outpatient clinic that was to be established, just like he did in his previous longtime workplace, the Sigmund Freud institute in Frankfurt. Anyone entering the university outpatient clinic sensed that quite a unique spirit was at work here. Heinrich never fell into the trap of thinking of himself as particularly important. He ran the outpatient clinic not with medical authority, but with his personality. And he shared – his clinical and institutional experience, his wisdom and his almost infinite knowledge of psychoanalytic literature, his compassion and his humor.

I don’t know whether Heinrich’s sudden death allowed him to review his life, to take stock, during his last days. But I am firmly convinced that on his list of what was important in his life, what really counted, the word relationship would have been at the top.

I believe that everyone who heard Heinrich talk about his family knew that it was the calming focal point in his life. But also in his professional life, his approach to prioritize relationships applied generously. The bond that had developed between Heinrich and the team at the IPU university outpatient clinic was palpable. The wonderful team, which deeply identifies itself with the institution and its director, remembers him today as an “artist of human relationships”. When, in conversation with me, students recalled the impression that Heinrich left on them, words such as fatherly, motherly, or “the grandfather everyone wishes they had” came up often.


But Heinrich was also a relationalist as a therapist and researcher alike. Anyone who reads his case stories, above all, that of Leo S., knows that the therapeutic relationship is the strongest factor in the treatment of mental illness. This special kind of relationship may not be free of conflict any more than our everyday relationships can be. Conflict that Heinrich Deserno traced back early on through the use of the Luborsky approach in identifying the central theme of relationship conflict. It is quite significant that early on, his dissertation on the concept of the therapeutic alliance and his reformulation of it brought him international recognition. His perspective on the dream, another central object of his interest, was also permeated by the transference focus of Morgenthalerian character: “What is he dreaming to me?”. In this area as well, Deserno is leaving behind a rich legacy. The second dream theory that Heinrich was fascinated by was Moser and von Zeppelin’s dream generation model. This problem-solving paradigm postulates that an accumulation of stressful interactional experiences effective in the long-term memory is processed in the form of dreams. The dream translates the abstract representation of interaction back into simulated reality. In doing so, we distinguish between those structures for which dream work can find a solution and those which cannot be resolved, to which we have to adopt, with which we have to deal. Here two tendencies struggle with each other: The one that wants to bring us into contact with the painful experience and the tendency of defense that wants to protect us from this very pain.

If your death seems to me like a bad dream, from which I only have to wake up and everything will be fine again – then this tendency of defense is easily recognizable. On the other hand, the tendency which is supposed to show me the fact of your death is not as easy a game. Because your parting is not resolvable, not changeable. In its finality, this appeal to let you go without having called out to you even one last goodbye is an excessive demand. Only the things you have shared with us, what we have shared with each other, gives us hope that we will be able to, probably not solve it completely, but carry out this demand. It makes us realize that there is not only pain, but also love and gratitude. May these be our companions on the road we have to travel without you.

Prof. Dr. Lutz Wittmann, 17 February 2023