It is now just over three weeks since my sister died. The ordinary patterns of life are beginning to resume. Deadlines loom, meetings have been scheduled, and the obligations of work are making themselves felt once more. I’m not sure how I feel about this. At times, I find it easy to reinsert myself into old habits and routines, to become absorbed by what I am doing, to forget about what happened. But this doesn’t last long. The smallest thing can trigger a cascade of memories and then I am back to where I was, feeling guilty for having lost myself in the mundane details of life. It feels like it shouldn’t be so easy to get back to reality, that I should linger on what happened just a little longer.
This raises an obvious and important question in the ethics of grief recovery. Is there a certain mourning period that should be observed following the death of a loved one? If you get back on your feet too quickly, does that say something negative about the relationship you had with the person who died (or about you)? To be more pointed: if I can re-immerse myself in my work a mere three weeks after my sister’s death, does that mean there is something wrong with me or something deficient in the relationship I had with her?
There is a philosophical literature offering answers to these questions, but from what I have read the majority of it does not deal with the ethics of recovering from a sibling’s death. Indeed, I haven’t found anything that deals directly with this issue. Instead, the majority of the literature deals with the ethics of recovery from the death of a spouse or intimate partner. What’s more, when they discuss that topic, they seem to have one scenario in mind: how soon is too soon when it comes to starting an intimate relationship with another person?
Analysing the ethical norms that should apply to that scenario is certainly of value, but it is hardly the only scenario worthy of consideration, and it is obviously somewhat distinct from the scenario that I am facing. I suspect that different norms apply to different relationships and this is likely to affect the ethics of recovery across those different relationship types. So what I propose to do in this post is to consider various arguments pertaining to the ethics of grief recovery in the spousal (or intimate partner) context first and then consider how those arguments might apply to other contexts, with a particular focus on the sibling context and my own experiences.
I’ll be using an article by Ryan and Erica Preston-Roedder as my guide through this topic. Their article offers a nice definition of what it means to recover from grief:
Grief Recovery: the return to one’s emotional and functional baseline following a bereavement.
Baselines are important here. If you were miserable and apathetic before somebody died, you cannot expect to become joyous and full of energy after their death (though that could happen). Recovery is about the return to some semblance of normality. Or, as I prefer to put it, to the ‘new normal’.
The Presten-Roedder’s article defends the claim that quick recovery from grief in the aftermath of a intimate partner’s death is not necessarily regrettable or problematic. They defend this position in the negative: i.e. by criticising arguments for the alternative point of view. There are three such arguments discussed in their paper and I will go through them one-by-one.
1. The ‘You Didn’t Care’ Argument
The first argument is not discussed at any length. It is briefly introduced and dismissed in order to distinguish it from more compelling arguments. Nevertheless, the argument expresses a familiar concern that arises in the case of grief recovery. If someone appears to recover very quickly from the death of a spouse — perhaps by dating someone new with a few months and maybe even marrying them — we might be inclined to question how sincere they were in their relationship with the deceased. We might be inclined to accuse them of not really caring for (or loving) the deceased.
Let’s set this argument out more explicitly, adopting a template that will be followed for all the subsequent arguments. I’ll use the shorthand ’S’ to refer to the surviving spouse/intimate partner and ‘D’ to refer to the deceased partner:
- (1) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests (provides evidence for) the view that S did not care for/love D.
- (2) If S did not care for/love D, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.
- (3) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.
Let me just say something about the structure of this argument. The Presten-Roedders do not set out any of the arguments discussed in their paper in formal or semi-formal terms. I’m doing so in order to more clearly expose the logic that underlies them. This means I could be getting things wrong. I’m pretty confident that premise (1) reflects the logic of the objection. The idea is that we can infer something about S’s attitude toward D from S’s quick recovery. I’m less confident that premise (2) reflects the logic of the objection. Clearly, the idea is that we can pass judgment on the quality of the relationship between S and D from our assessment of S’s attitude toward D, but I think there may also be some attempt to make inferences about S’s character more generally (i.e. beyond the particular relationship they had with D). I’ll leave that out of the discussion here, but I think it hovers in the background of all of these arguments.
Assuming I have the structure of the argument more-or-less right, we can ask the question: is the argument a good one? I don’t think so. For starters, I would raise a worry about the epistemic grounding for the argument. I think we should be careful about inferring too much from limited observations of someone’s outward behaviour. In particular, I think we should be careful about inferring that someone has recovered from grief from, say, the fact that they started a new relationship. Someone who appears to have recovered quickly may not, in fact, have recovered all that well. Indeed, the very attempt to seek solace in a new relationship could be a reflection of some underlying psychological/emotional turmoil. This may bubble to the surface in time.
But suppose this is not the case. Suppose they have genuinely ‘recovered’ (in the sense defined above) from their grief. Is the argument credible then? No, for at least two reasons, both of which have been articulated by Dan Moller. First, there is good evidence to suggest that humans are generally psychologically resilient in the aftermath of a bereavement. Many people recover from their spouse’s deaths within 2-3 months and most within 6 months. This resiliency seems to be hardwired into us, probably for good evolutionary reasons. It would be expecting to much of people to go against these deep-rooted norms of behaviour. Second, and more importantly, the mere fact of recovery says nothing about the quality of the love/care between S and D while D was alive. To make judgments about that, we need to consider how S behaved and felt toward D while D was still alive. S could have been the most loving, caring and supportive person imaginable while D was alive. That doesn’t change simply because S recovers quickly.
All that said, it should be noted that quick recovery is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that S didn’t care about D when they were alive. It may not justify us in making claims about a deficiency in the prior relationship; but it might trigger an inquiry into that relationship. If I saw someone recover very quickly from the death of their spouse, I think I might be a little suspicious about how much they cared and might ask further questions. Still, I accept that any judgment I reached could not be grounded in the fact of quick recovery; it would have to grounded in facts about how S and D interacted during D’s lifetime.
The intuition underlying the ‘you didn’t care’-argument clearly ports over to other bereavement contexts. Recovering quickly from the death of a child, friend, or sibling cannot, by itself, warrant a judgment to the effect that the relationship between the survivor and the deceased was deficient, but it could trigger an inquiry into the quality of the relationship. This is something I have had to confront in relation to my own experiences of grief recovery. My ability to re-immerse myself in the details of everyday life has made me suspicious of the quality of the relationship I had with my sister when she was alive. While I believe that I did care about her, I do worry that I didn’t always show this to be true in my behaviour toward her. Her bubbly and effervescent personality often clashed with my more introverted and insular personality. I often resisted her desire to talk to me, putting off calling or emailing her back until either she forgot or I finally mustered the energy to do so. I was also, sometimes, quite sarcastic and dismissive. I always justified this behaviour on the grounds that I could make it up to her later on — that there would be time enough to set things right — but that was a mistake. Her illness and sudden death meant that I never got the chance. I did send her a long email shortly before she died in which I apologised to her for my past behaviour, and in which I told her how much she meant to me. She told me not to worry about it and that she never held my taciturn nature against me. This was a step in the right direction, and may have partially healed the rift, but since I am a self-confessed behaviourist when it comes to the ethics of interpersonal relationships, I have to believe that there was something deficient about the relationship I had with her.
Still, none of these self-judgments is grounded in the fact that I may have recovered quickly from her death; they are all grounded in what happened when she was still alive. Indeed, if anything this inquiry into the past, and the sense of guilt (or regret) that it dislodges, is probably something that will block quick recovery from grief. So I agree with Moller (and the Presten-Roedders) that the ‘you didn’t care’ argument is not particularly strong. It does, however, point the way to a more interesting argument.
2. The Argument from Importance
The more interesting argument is the argument from importance. This is the one that Dan Moller endorses in his work on grief and recovery. The idea is straightforward: if S recovers quickly from D’s death, it suggests that D was not important to S. Again, this allows us to make judgments about the deficiency of S and D’s relationship. A lot hinges on how we define ‘importance’. Moller identifies two key elements to it:
Significant Difference: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would have made a significant difference to S’s life, i.e. D would have been crucial to S achieving a high degree of functioning/flourishing in their life.
Irreplaceability: If S and D’s relationship was a good one, D would not be easily fungible or replaceable, i.e. another person would not be able to play the same role in S’s life with equal effect.
You might be able to see where this is going. Having identified these two sub-components to importance, Moller goes on to argue that the fact of quick recovery provides evidence for the claim that D did not satisfy either of these conditions in S’s life. This would seem to be particularly true if S quickly enters into another intimate relationship in a short space of time:
- (4) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that D was not important to S, i.e. that (a) D did not make a significant difference to S’s life and (b) D was not irreplaceable.
- (5) If D was not important to S, then there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.
- (6) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship.
What are we to make of this? I think Moller’s characterisation of what it means for one person to be important to another is intuitively appealing, particularly when it comes to intimate partner relationships. If you share a life with someone, your daily routines and habits will come to rely upon them. If they die, there will be considerable disruption to those routines. It thus seems obvious that it should take some time to readjust.
I’ve quoted this passage before in this series but I will do so again because I think it captures this idea so well. It is from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and it describes how disrupted his life was after his wife (‘H’) died:
I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac.
But, of course, Moller isn’t simply arguing that in a good relationship S’s habits and routines should come to depend on D. He is saying that the dependency is something that actively contributes to S’s flourishing and well-being. Again, that does seems like a plausible claim. If the spousal relationship is a good one, then S and D should make a significant difference to one another’s flourishing. Their lives should be better together than they would be apart.
In addition to this, Moller’s claim that a loved one should be (or should at least approximate) irreplaceability seems intuitively appealing too. An intimate partner should not be like a smartphone: something that can be readily traded for an equally good (or better) make and model. There should be something unique and special about them that makes the transition to a new relationship difficult.
All of which means that Moller feels secure in concluding that quick recovery is, indeed, regrettable and that it would be preferable if S went through a long process of recovery. This doesn’t mean that S should ‘fake’ their emotions or feelings. The argument is not about the social performance of grief. It is about what a morally virtuous person, who was in a meaningful and morally valuable relationship, should feel after their partner has died.
I expressed some concerns in a previous post about the impact of standards or norms like this on the life of grieving person. I won’t repeat those concerns here. Instead, I’ll turn to the Preston-Roedder’s critique of this argument. Although they agree that Moller’s characterisation of importance has some intuitive appeal, they argue that there are other ways of understanding importance that are not undermined by a quick recovery and that are consistent with the view that S and D had a good relationship.
First, they argue that Moller is wrong to think about ‘significant difference’ solely in terms of functionality and flourishing. While it could, of course, be true that D made a significant difference to S’s flourishing, the mere fact that they did not would not necessarily cause us to lament the relationship between them. Indeed, excessive dependency on another might itself be a sign of something problematic or deficient in a relationship. You shouldn’t have to rely too heavily on another person for your happiness and well-being, and indeed it can be destructive if you do. What if the other person can’t cope with the demands that you place on them? What if they buckle under the pressure?
An alternative way to think about ‘significant difference’ is in terms of the impact that the other person makes on your practical identity. Did they change your conception of yourslef? Did they change your values, commitments and beliefs? This is an idea I explored in an earlier post in this series when I looked at Michael Cholbi’s argument in favour of the goodness of grief. In that post, I considered his claim that one of the reasons why grief is so painful is because it affects our identity-constituting relationships. A deceased partner may have made a significant difference to someone’s identity, without necessarily making a difference to their functioning/flourishing. A quick recovery from their death does not imply that they didn’t make this difference. The surviving spouse could still carry with them the values and commitments that D helped to shape. This would undercut Moller’s argument.
Second, the Presten-Roedders argue that there are at least two different ways to think about ‘irreplaceability’:
Instrumental irreplaceability: D was an irreplaceable means to certain ends for S, e.g. security, sexual intimacy, financial support, co-parenting/childcare (and so on).
Intrinsic irreplaceability: D was valued by S for their ‘distinctive particularity’, i.e. for the whole, unique bundle of characteristics that they had.
Moller’s argument seems fixated on instrumental irreplaceability. He thinks that there is something problematic in the fact that S quickly found another intimate partner who could perform the same roles/functions in their life as D once did. But the Presten-Roedders argue that instrumental replaceability is neither surprising nor problematic. It is, after all, commonplace for people to form relationships, break-up, and find new partners who can perform similar (if not perfectly identical) roles in their lives. There is nothing to lament in this. Indeed, it seems obviously wrong to suppose that the main value of our intimate partners lies in the fact that they performed certain functions for us. That could be part of the picture, for sure, but not the most important part. Intrinsic irreplaceability is the more important idea. A good relationship is characterised by a situation in which S loves D for who they are as a person, not for the things they can do for S. To put it more philosophically, it is characterised by a situation in which S loves D in D’s distinctive particularity. The fact that S quickly recovers from D’s death, perhaps by finding another partner, does not imply that D was not loved in their distinctive particularity (though, as with the ‘You didn’t care’-argument, quick recovery is not inconsistent with that possibility).
I agree with the Presten-Roedders’s take on the argument from importance. Assuming they are being fair in how they present it, Moller’s argument does seem to be far too wedded to an instrumentalist/functionalist view of what it takes for S and D to be in a good intimate relationship. But how does the argument apply outside of intimate relationships? Can it be applied to sibling relationships or parent-child relationships? I think it can. To state the obvious, siblings, parents and children are ‘important’. They definitely play a role in shaping our practical identities and I would hope that we value them primarily for who they are, not because of any particular function or role they play in our lives. I feel, pretty strongly, that this was true of my relationship with my sister. She played an important role in shaping my practical identity, particularly during my school years when she used to help me with my maths homework and explain difficult scientific concepts to me. I don’t think I would have the interests I now do without her influence. Furthermore, I would never even think about ‘replacing’ her in my life. She was a unique, once-off. She could only be valued in her distinctive particularity.
There is something interesting in this. I mentioned earlier that I found aspects of Moller’s argument intuitively appealing. That’s because, even though he may be too wedded to the instrumentalist view of importance, he is not wrong in thinking that spouses and intimate partners play important instrumental roles in our lives, that some of their value lies in how well they perform those roles. The same would seem to be true of parents, particularly when we are very young and in need of security, love and care. It would be foolish to think that these functional roles are not part of the picture. But it is interesting to me that Moller’s version of the argument is much less appealing in the case of children and siblings. I would find it very odd to conceive of the importance of children and siblings in terms of some instrumental role they play in our lives. Indeed, I think the predominant normative view of those relationships (at least nowadays) goes against any such instrumentalist interpretation. It’s only because intimate partner relationships and parental relationships blend aspects of the instrumental and intrinsic that Moller’s argument gets any purchase at all. The more distinctive and common features of all close relationships are their intrinsic merits.
3. The Argument from Abandonment
The final argument against quick recovery is the argument from abandonment. This is an argument that the Presten-Roedders formulate themselves, claiming that it is implicit in the literature on grief, albeit not properly articulated to date. The gist of the argument is this: if S recovers quickly from the death of D, it suggests that S has abandoned D, and this is bad because good relationships are characterised by solidarity between S and D.
The Presten-Roedders give a more detailed characterisation of what they mean by ‘solidarity’ in relationships:
Solidarity Principle: A good relationship is characterised by solidarity between S and D, where solidarity can take one of four forms:
(i) Taking on and sharing in one another’s projects.(ii) Harbouring certain hopes for one another and having certain kinds of faith in one another.(iii) Celebrating one another’s successes and sharing in one another’s suffering/misfortune (i.e. having great empathy for one another)(iv) Being present with one another, both physically and in thought.
As best I can tell, although these forms of solidarity might be expressed in a particularly strong form in intimate relationships, they are not unique to such relationships. They apply much more generally. The claim the Presten-Roedders make is that a quick recovery from grief suggests a loss of, at least some of, these forms of solidarity. In particular, they suggest that quick recovery might indicate a failure by S to share in D’s suffering/misfortune (death being the ultimate misfortune), and a failure to remain present (in thought) with D. To put it more formally:
- (7) If S recovers quickly from D’s death, this suggests (provides evidence for the fact) that S no longer stands in solidarity with D, i.e. has stopped sharing in D’s misfortune and is failing to be present (in thought) with D.
- (8) If S does not stand in solidarity with D, then there was (is?) something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.
- (9) Therefore, if S recovers quickly from D’s death, there was something regrettable or deficient about their relationship with D.
The metaphysics of this argument are puzzling to me. I’ve indicated my puzzlement by adding the bracketed ‘is?’ to premise (8). I’m not sure to which temporal frame this argument is supposed to apply. The solidarity principle makes sense while someone is alive, but it makes no sense when someone is dead. At least, it makes no sense to me, given my secular, non-religious views. When a person is dead, they no longer exist. From that point onwards, there is no one with whom one can fail to stand in solidarity. No one to be abandoned. This is what I believe to be true about my sister. She was here once; she is here no longer. I could share in her misfortunes when she was alive; I could be present with her when she was alive; I can do neither of these things now that she is dead.
…even though the metaphysics of the argument are puzzling, I admit that it has a powerful emotional pull. My sense of guilt about returning to life is, I think, partly grounded in the sense that it would be wrong to abandon my sister so quickly, to just forget about what happened to her and move on. As I mentioned in the intro, I have this sense that I should linger with her for a while longer. I know this sounds irrational. I know that I will never really ‘forget’ her. She may not be foremost in my mind at all times, but the memories will always be there, ready to be accessed (or triggered) when the time is right. I also know that I cannot ‘linger’ with her anymore. I can only linger with my memories of her. These are fantasies, simulacra, not the real thing. But I am still drawn to them.
Besides these metaphysical worries, the argument has some other problems. The Presten-Roedders argue that quick recovery is not inconsistent with continued solidarity with the deceased. They break this counter-argument down into two parts, each one focusing on a different aspect of what it means to recover from grief. First, they consider what it means to recover to one’s emotional baseline. Assuming you weren’t perpetually sad and depressed before the bereavement, emotional recovery will consist in returning to some semblance of emotional neutrality, maybe even happiness. Does this return to neutrality and occasional happiness indicate a loss of solidarity? Can solidarity only be manifested in continued sadness? This seems implausible.
As the Presten-Roedder’s point out, those who recover quickly from their grief may simply be expressing or manifesting emotional solidarity in a different way. They may be avoiding painful memories associated with D’s death and focusing instead on happy and joyful memories. They could be just as emotionally invested in the deceased as the person who is sad and depressed, perhaps even more so. Indeed, the person who is continuously sad and depressed may engage in avoidant behaviours, stopping themselves from remembering too much about the deceased for fear that it will foment another cascade of tears.
They then turn to functional recovery. It is common to suppose that the person who spends all day wallowing in bed, thinking relentlessly about the deceased and the life they could (should?) have lived, is showing the utmost solidarity with the deceased. They are definitely ‘present’ with them (at least in thought). Their inability to return to work, or to have any get up and go, are indicative of this. But, again, this is not the only way to manifest solidarity. Indeed, the Presten-Roedders argue that there may actually be better ways to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased had projects that they left unfinished, or causes/charities that they supported. Continuing those projects and supporting those causes would be one way to manifest solidarity. Perhaps the deceased was deeply invested in the career and flourishing of the survivor and would want to see that success continue. Continuing with one’s work and trying one’s best to succeed might manifest solidarity (though that seems suspiciously self-serving). Alternatively, the survivor could launch into a new project that commemorates the deceased, thereby recovering functionality, but in a way that clearly remains present with the deceased.
I find these suggestions reassuring (metaphysically suspect though they may be). I certainly don’t want to abandon my sister and get on with my life; but I don’t want to marinate in feelings of guilt and betrayal either. I would like to think that there are ways to express and manifest solidarity with her without staying in a depressed, sub-normal state. My sister had many projects and causes that she supported in her lifetime, and she was deeply interested in the work that I did, always reading my latest work and listening to my podcast appearances. Continuing with these projects and supporting those causes could be my way to show solidarity. Furthermore, as you may have suspected, I think it might be possible to view this series of blog posts (now nearly 20,000 words long) as some attempt at continued solidarity that involves returning to my usual routines of reading and writing.
But note how each of these suggestions doesn’t quite deal with the dilemma I introduced at the start of this post: the need to return to the obligations of life as they were was before the death. The Presten-Roedders’s suggestions involve restructuring or reorganising your life, perhaps even to the extent of pursuing new projects, in order to maintain solidarity with the deceased. This isn’t particularly helpful when you are being asked to continue with work projects that pre-dated the deceased’s death — that are callbacks to the time before. This is the dilemma I now face. The demands of work continue to pile up, and I continue to procrastinate on all but the most pressing of them (ironically one of the character traits I shared with my sister). I’m not quite ready to go back to the world as it once was. Whenever I do, I find myself drawn back to my memories of her and the sense of betrayal and abandonment this return entails.
Of course, I am being naive. I can never ‘go back’. Things will be different from now on. Maybe that is the key insight here: there is no real ‘recovery’ from grief. You cannot be restored to how you once were. You must rebuild and reconstitute yourself to accommodate the new reality. That can happen quickly, but it has to happen if the relationship with deceased was a morally significant one. If it didn’t, if you just continued as things were, then there probably would be something deficient about the relationship you had with the deceased.