Friday, May 11, 2018

Coping with Grief: A Series of Philosophical Disquisitions

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Grief is central to the human experience. To find evidence of this you need look no further than our earliest literary works. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which is shattered by the latter’s death. Gilgamesh cannot stop grieving for his lost friend. He enters a phase of denial, seeking out the secret to immortality and eventually coming up empty-handed. Grief is also central to The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is Achilles’s grief (and rage) at the death of his friend Patroclus that results in the poem’s most consequential fight — between Achilles and Hector — and it is the recognition of shared grief between Achilles and Priam (father of Hector) that lies at the heart of the poem’s most poignant scene.

I’ve long been aware of the centrality of grief to human life, but until recently had limited personal experience of it. That all changed on the 16th April 2018. That was the day that my sister (Sarah) died. She was only 43 years old. She had been a living, breathing person just hours before her death, laughing and joking with her family, and singing in the kitchen for her young son. She had been seriously ill, but not expected to die for some time. For her to be so suddenly wiped from our lives was hard to take. In the aftermath of her death, I experienced a range of emotions. Initially, guilt and shame were predominant. I regretted things I had said to her, beat myself up for phone calls and emails I had failed to return, and wished I had spent more time in her company. Subsequently, these feelings of guilt and shame were replaced by feelings of gratitude — gratitude for having known her, and for the kind, generous person that she was. There were some tears, though not as many as I expected. Mainly, her death served to reinforce beliefs that I have long held: that much of what we value in life is fragile; that death is inevitable; that we should prepare ourselves for its inevitability; that the universe is fundamentally morally indifferent; but that there is much good in life too.

As you might imagine, Sarah’s death has prompted a degree of soul-searching and reflection. Since I have a tendency to intellectualise everything, I have turned to the philosophical literature on grief for guidance on how best to navigate the troubled waters of bereavement. I have read a lot. I want to share some of what I have learned over a series of posts. I want to focus on three topics in particular, dedicating one post to each. Some of these will be quite long. I apologise for that in advance. I’ve been working through my own thoughts through the process of writing.

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