We can think about grief in different ways. The most obvious might be to think of it as a psychological phenomenon. When we do this we should avoid the mistake of thinking that grief is some singular psychological state. It is not. It is, rather, a complex concatenation of them. It is characterised by depression or sadness, but also by anger, guilt, shame, longing and so on. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularised the ‘five-stage’ model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which captures this ‘complex process’ idea, though her particular model has been widely rejected. Most people do not experience grief in this linear sequence.
We can also think about grief as a social phenomenon. There are many complex rituals and protocols associated with grief. If you have recently experienced a bereavement, you will be struck by the number of expectations that will be foisted upon you. You will be expected to behave and act in a particular way. People will expect you to be sad, heartbroken, unable to face the day. They will be surprised, perhaps even judgmental, if you do not cry. In some societies, the rituals are very carefully prescribed: there are specific mourning periods that must be observed and clothes that must be worn. The social expectations of grief are frustrating — at least in my experience — as they can induce a sense of anxiety or guilt if you fail to live up to them. Why can’t I cry? Why can’t I feel sad? Is there something wrong with me?
This mental anguish again prompts the question: is grief worth it? If it causes so much pain and anxiety, would we better off without it? I considered the case for grief in a previous post. In this post, I want to consider the case against it. This case rejects the social expectations of grief and encourages us to reevaluate our psychological reactions to death. It is often associated with the ancient philosophical tradition of Stoicism. One of Seneca’s letters to his friend Lucilius (letter 63) famously counsels against grief and highlights its destructive potential. But similar views can be found in other ancient traditions. In his article ‘Neither Bereavement or Grief’, Yao-ming Tsal defends the Buddhist tradition of ‘not-grief’ as being a healthier and more adaptive response to the death of a loved one. And in her discussion of grief in the Zhuangzi (the key text of the Daoist tradition) Amy Olberding notes that several of the sages depicted in the text, along with Zhuangzi himself, seemed to warn against grief.
For want of a better name, let’s call this the ‘anti-grief’ view. It can be characterised in the following manner:
Anti-grief: Grief is, on balance, a bad thing; it is maladaptive and, ultimately, destructive; it would be better if we could minimise the extent to which we experience it in our lives.
Since it has an ancient pedigree, and has attracted different people, living in different geographical and cultural regions, you might think that the anti-grief view must have something going for it. But it faces stiff and obvious opposition. To many, it seems inhuman and cold. If you do not grieve the loss of a close friend or relative, then you must not have really loved them in the first place:
Inhumanity Critique: A person who minimised the experience of grief would not live a full human life; they would not truly experience the joys of attachment and intimacy that are integral to a well-lived life.
The Inhumanity Critique has considerable appeal. And if you would like to read a longer defence of it, I would suggest reading my earlier analysis of the arguments from Michael Cholbi and Amy Olberding. But in the remainder of this post, I want to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief stance. I do so partly because think there is much to be said in its favour and partly because I think the Inhumanity Critique can be deflected. Indeed, I believe that the defenders of grief and its opponents can, to a considerable extent, be accused of talking past each other. There is much more common ground between their positions than might be first thought.
To illustrate this thesis, I want to consider four arguments in favour of the anti-grief view.
1. Argument One: Proponents of the Anti-Grief View are not Inhuman
This first argument will seem a little weak, but it warms us up for the more serious arguments that are to come. It is simply that, contrary to what their opponents claim, many of the famous defenders of the anti-grief position were not cold, robotic and inhuman in their behaviour. They were often compassionate, generous and kindly. They did not argue that we should avoid all friendships and attachments. They often cultivated and nurtured such relationships themselves. Seneca had many close friends — it would be hard to make sense of his letters to Lucilius if you thought they were the product of someone who did not care about others. The same goes for Zhuangzi.
Furthermore, they did not argue for the total eradication of grief. They merely argued for its moderation. They suggested that we allow ourselves to experience the ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’ forms of grief, but warned against getting too carried away by our own emotions and their social performance. Seneca was very clear about this:
I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all — and yet I am convinced that it is better that way. But who will ever be granted that strength of character, unless he be a man already lifted far out of fortune’s reach?….When one has lost a friend, one’s eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but not lamentation…Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it.
I will say more about the excesses of grief below. For now, I just want to emphasise the important and subtle point that I think Seneca is making here. He is saying that we should expect to experience some grief — that it is natural and that we lack the ability to completely eliminate it — but we must be careful not to wallow in it; to ‘parade it’ for the benefit of others and ourselves; to prove how much we care. This advice resonates with me. In the aftermath of my sister’s death I certainly felt the temptation to perform my grief for others. There is something soothing about being the object of other’s pity, and to feel pity for oneself. I think it is important to avoid this.
This is taking us away, slightly, from the original point. That point is simply that proponents of the anti-grief view are not the inhuman monsters they are sometimes accused of being. Seneca says some things which, when taken out of context, can seem inhuman (such as arguing that Lucilius should replace his dead friend Flaccus with another fried as soon as possible). But in the overall context of the letter, he is not completely against grief. He says that he himself experienced sorrow when his friend Annaeus Serenus died. In this he was similar to Zhuangzi who, as Amy Olberding points out, also experienced grief after his wife died.
The critic could argue that these examples prove nothing. They just show that Seneca and Zhuangzi were inconsistent in their behaviour. We don’t care about that. It’s their philosophy that is being criticised, not their behaviour. We know that humans often fail to live up to their stated principles. The critic might even go further and argue that Seneca and Zhuangzi’s behaviour demonstrates the impossibility of their position: it is simply not possible for humans not to experience grief. They are hoists on their own petard.
But I think a more charitable interpretation is in order. The very fact that neither Seneca nor Zhuangzi seemed to be the inhuman monster you might expect them to be suggests that they did not intend for their position to be the cold, unemotional caricature that it is often presented as being. They were arguing for something more subtle and sophisticated. The three remaining arguments might help to reveal what that was.
2. Argument Two: Deeper Attunement to the Metaphysics of Reality
The second argument is the one that interests me the most. It claims that proponents of the anti-grief view are trying to foster within us a deeper attunement to the metaphysics of reality. They think that this deeper attunement will enable us to feel more at home in the world, and less vulnerable to negative emotions like fear and anxiety. I use the unfamiliar word ‘attunement’ deliberately. I think this really gets to the heart of what Stoicism, Daoism and Buddhism were all about. Their advice about attitudes to death and grief were grounded in more fundamental* beliefs about the nature of reality. But they didn’t want us to accept those propositions on a merely intellectual level; they wanted us to incorporate them into our daily habits and routines. This is what I try to capture by using the word ‘attunement’. The argument for attunement takes some unpacking so I will try to develop it slowly.
One thing that is noticeable about many memoirs of grief is how they frequently share the sense that the death of a loved one was a ‘rupture’ in the ordinary structure of reality. One of my favourite explorations of this is Joan Didion’s discussion in the The Year of Magical Thinking, a book written in the year after her husband died from a heart attack. They were having dinner at the time. In an ordinary moment, her life changed dramatically. She observes how people commonly draw attention to how normal everything was in the lead-up to tragedies of this sort, and how troubling the ordinariness of it seems to be when it comes to accepting what happened:
It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I realize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames… “He was on his way home from work — happy, successful, healthy — then gone”, I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966, I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been.
Again, this resonates with me. My own reflections on my sister’s death dwell on the ordinariness of it all. It was an ordinary day in March when I learned she was first admitted to hospital. It had been an ordinary Sunday evening when I got the call that she had died. Hours before her death I was told that she was laughing and singing with her family in her kitchen. Going through her ordinary routine. Although she had been diagnosed with a serious illness, there was nothing to suggest that the rupture in the fabric of existence would come so quickly.
And yet, when you think about it, this sense that death comes ‘out of the ordinary’ is very odd. Death is everywhere. We all know that we will die, that illness and death can strike at any time. News broadcasts are filled with families that have been struck by sudden (and not so sudden) tragedy. Their grief is ‘paraded’ for our entertainment. We live in a world of constant change and chaos. The odds are against us all. Why should we assume that we, or our families and friends, will be spared?
We need to capture this oddness more precisely because it points the way to what the Stoics (et al) are trying to do. Michael Cholbi provides some help in his article ‘Finding the Good in Grief”, which I covered in more detail in a previous post. Cholbi notes that we take an awful lot for granted in our everyday lives, particularly our relationships with others, even though we ‘know’ it is all contingent:
For much of our lives, our outlook on the world operates on autopilot. We go about our daily business, pursuing our goals, trying our best to live well, and so on. We develop habits that reflect …our practical identities [i.e. what we care about and value]. These habits easily become entrenched and normalized, and when they do, we can lose sight of how our practical identities assume a stable normal environment in which to act upon them. Of course, we know that much in our everyday environment is contingent. We ‘know’, for example, that our homes can be felled by earthquakes or other disasters, that our professional lives depend on institutions and practice that can totter, that our bodies may betray us via injury or disease.
The use of the inverted commas around the word ‘know’ is suggestive. Cholbi is saying that we know these things at an intellectual level, but not on a practical level. On a practical level, we are attuned to a social world that we assume to be stable and consistent. That assumption may be adaptive in some contexts — I’m sure some evolutionary theorists could argue that animals that assume stability do better than those that do not — but it can be counter-productive in others. In the case of death and bereavement, it rests on a delusion, an assumption of immortality and existential robustness that is not warranted. It is one of the reasons why the death of a loved one can be so shocking and upsetting.
I think this is one of the key insights of the anti-grief proponents. They are cautioning us against being attuned to the facade of stability in our ‘ordinary’ everyday lives. They are urging us to become more attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality. That reality is one in which organisms come into being and pass out of being on a regular basis, in which change is a constant, and in which death is an inevitability. We need to stop being deluded by the mirage of the social world; we need to take a wider perspective. This is exactly what Zhuangzi did to overcome the grief he experienced after his wife died:
When she first died, do you suppose that I was able not to feel the loss? I peered back into her beginnings; there was a time before there was a life. Not only was there no life, there was a time before there was a shape. Not only was there no shape, there was a time before there was energy. Mingled together in the amorphous, something altered, and there was the energy; by the alteration in the energy there was the shape, by the alteration of the shape there was the life. Now once more, she has gone over to death.
(Taken from Olberding 2007, 341)
There is some pretty fancy metaphysics going on in this passage, which you may or may not accept, but the basic point is simple enough: his wife’s death “evidenced in microcosm the macrocosmic processes by which the world is governed” (Olberding 2007, 342). Her death was not some major disruption of the ordinary world. It did not fall like a plane from a clear blue sky. It was just nature taking its course. When he became attuned to the deeper metaphysical reality, the grief subsided a little bit. I have tried to illustrate what I think is going on here in the following diagram.
I have only used one example to illustrate this attunement argument, but I think it is relatively easy to see evidence of it in other anti-grief traditions. Buddhist metaphysics, for instance, famously rejects the existence of the self and holds that the concepts and categories that we apply to the world are illusions (you can, of course, find similar ideas in Western philosophies). Yao-ming Tsal, in his article on Buddhist approaches to grief, argues that acceptance of these metaphysical truth will enable us to become detached from grief and bereavement — to experience what he calls ‘not-grief’.
Whether we can actually become attuned to the deeper reality, and cast off the illusions of the social world, is, I think, up for debate. It would be a hard slog, if nothing else and recent studies suggest that devout Buddhists experience great anxiety in the face of death despite their acceptance of the not-self doctrine (the study did not look at grief). Nonetheless, I think there is something to what the anti-grief proponents are arguing. We are too complacent about the stability of the everyday world, and we tend to avoid confronting the reality of mortality. I think we would be well-advised to take more cognisance of it in our daily habits. I would rather confront the truth than live with an illusion.
3. Argument Three: Preventing the Excesses of Grief
The third argument is more practical and ethical in its orientation. It returns us to one of the problems alluded to in the first argument: that grief can be dangerous if taken to excess. This might seem obvious enough — the negative emotions associated with grief could be harmful to our psyches if allowed to fester. If, as Seneca noted, we start to parade our grief and wallow in self-pity, our grief will become self-destructive. We will become slaves to it, trapped in a cycle, unable to accept the reality of what has happened.
This is something that is central to Joan Didion’s narrative of her own grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. The ‘magical thinking’ referred to in the title is her inability to come to terms with her husband’s death and her belief that he was going to come back:
Of course, I knew that John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and my brother and to Quintana’s [her daughter’s] husband…Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That’s why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.
Shortly after this she describes how for months after her husband’s death she was incapable of rationality:
…I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts and wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.
So there is an element of self-care to the anti-grief position advocated by Seneca (et al). They are warning us not to become so beholden to grief that we are trapped in avoidant, delusional thinking.
But there is more to it than that. The anti-grief position is not just about self-care; it is also about the care of others. This is something that Paul Scherz emphasises in his discussion of grief in both Stoic and early Christian traditions. He claims that one of the key arguments underlying the Stoic anti-grief view is that grief, when excessive, blocks us from discharging our duties to others. To appreciate the argument in its entirety we need to make a distinction between two forms of grief:
Anticpatory Grief: The grief that precedes the death of a loved one, usually when you learn that they are sick and dying.
Retrospective Grief: The grief that arises after the death of a loved one.
Both forms of grief take us out of the present moment. Anticipatory grief gets us to focus on the future — to the point in time when the loved one will no longer be with us; retrospective grief gets us to focus on the past — to the time when they were still alive. The anguish and pain associated with both forms of thinking often leads to avoidant coping behaviours, such as the denialism evidenced in Didion’s memoir. The net result is that we are taken out of the present and its ethical demands on our character. We live in a desired past or imaginary future. We ignore what needs to be done in the here and now.
This has some particularly problematic consequences. In the case of anticipatory grief, our fixation on the future, and how painful it may be, can cause us to withdraw from the person who is dying. It is just too painful for us to visit them while they are sick, to help them when they are most in need of our support. So we hide away. This retreat from the ethical demands of care is commonplace. Friends of mine who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses often remark on the fact that being sick drives people away. People who you once thought were friends suddenly adopt a stance of radio silence. You will not hear from them again unless you become well. It is also something, to my shame, that I felt when I first learned of my sister’s illness. I held off on speaking to her for a few days because unable to confront the reality of what was happening. My anticipatory grief prevented me from confronting the demands of the present.
A similar phenomenon can arise in the case of retrospective grief, only in that case it is not your duties to the deceased that you fail to discharge but, rather, your duties to everyone else who relies upon you. Again, this is something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Promises I made to others have not been lived up to. I find it hard to motivate myself to care about those who are still alive when she is gone. The anti-grief view is trying to prevent this absence from the present from becoming pathological.
There is one final element to this. In addition to facilitating self-care and care for others, the anti-grief view is defended by its proponents on the grounds that it is more respectful to the dead. Those who are prone to excessive grief may be unable to truly celebrate and cherish the memories of the deceased. The memories will be too painful for them to enjoy. The anti-grief view is intended to remove that impediment to joy. This is something Seneca emphasises in his letter to Lucilius:
Let us see to it that the recollection of those we have lost becomes a pleasure to us. Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain…Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still.
The latter part of this quote is describing the Stoic practice of negative visualisation — of always preparing oneself for the worst — which is is done in the belief that it will enable you to be grateful for what you have and once had. You don’t have to accept this practice to accept the bigger point: that we should cherish and enjoy the memories of those who are dead. This is something I find myself doing with my sister’s death. She was a happy and warm person. My memories of her, for the most part, share that character. When I think of her, it is most often with a feeling of joy and gratitude, not sadness or pain. We all die. She died sooner than most. People may perceive that death to be a tragedy; but the life she lived before that was not and should not be remembered as such.
4. Argument Four: Freeing us from the Social Expectations of Grief
The final argument is about the negative social expectations/demands of grief. I shall be brief with this one since it is not the strongest of the four and I described it in the introduction already. As I noted then, there are many social norms around grief. You don’t just feel grief; you perform it for others. Those others have demands and expectations. Some of the social norms are comforting: standard mourning rituals (funerals, wakes) provide structure and certainty in the immediate aftermath of a death — one less decision to worry about.
But there are at least three problems with the social norms of grief. First, as Seneca noted in one of the passages quoted above, we may get too caught up in the social performance of grief. This may kick-start a feedback cycle in which the negative manifestations of grief are reinforced and habitualised. Second, our actual feelings of grief may not align with the social expectations of grief, which as I pointed out in the introduction can add a layer of anxiety or guilt to the proceedings. Third, the social norms may be uncertain, confusing, or in conflict with one another. Martha Nussbaum makes this point when she describes her own experiences of grief following the death of her mother:
Human beings experience emotions in ways that are shaped both by individual history and by social norms. My own grief was shaped not only by my attachment to my mother, but also by norms about the proper way to mourn the loss of a parent. These norms, as I experienced them through my own inclinations, were unclear and to some extent inconsistent…One is supposed to allow oneself to “cry big” at times, but then American mores of self-help also demand that one get on with one’s work, one’s physical exercise, one’s commitments to others, not making a big fuss.
This seems very true to my experience. It can be frustrating to not know what is expected of you, or to be subject to competing demands. It can make you more reluctant to seek support from others. While it is reassuring to have friends and family check in on you following a bereavement, you sometimes get odd sense that they are judging you as they do so. Is this person dealing with the grief in the right way? Are they recovering properly (whatever that might mean)? This can make their presence less comforting. Admittedly, this is more of a problem with loose acquaintances or casual friends: I don’t worry about the judgments of those with whom I am very close. And perhaps the uncertainty is a product of modernity? Maybe in traditional societies, where we have clearer norms and rituals, the problem goes away? But since even the ancients were offering one another advice on how best to grieve, I doubt that this is true.
The anti-grief view, of course, doesn’t completely eliminate the problems associated with the social norms of grief. Indeed, if taken too far, it may simply replace one set of social expectations with another. But in its original intention it tries to ease the anxiety one might face in relation to those social expectations, and to prevent them from reinforcing a negative spiral of emotions. It says that we should allow ourselves to experience natural or instinctual grief, but not be too worried about the social performance. This seems like sound advice to me.
To briefly recap, I have tried to offer a modest defence of the anti-grief view. This view holds that although some grief is acceptable, it can be maladaptive and it is best to moderate its negative effects. This is sometimes viewed as inhuman advice on the grounds that it encourages callous emotional detachment, but I have argued that this is not the case. Proponents of the anti-grief view were not callous and emotionally detached in their actual behaviour, which suggests that their position was more subtle than the caricature allows. They were encouraging us to become more deeply attuned to the metaphysics of reality (which necessarily involve death, destruction and change) and less deluded by the facade of stability in our everyday lives. They were also trying to provide ways to avoid the negative excesses of grief, discharge our duties to those who are still alive, and reduce the burden of social expectation that is associated with it.
I want to sign off by returning to something I said in the introduction. I previously wrote about the goodness of grief, looking at arguments claiming that grief was an integral part of the well-lived life. I do not think there is much distance between that view and the one examined in this post. To a large extent, proponents of the respective positions are simply talking past each other. Those who see good in grief are unlikely to deny its negative excesses; and defenders of the anti-grief view clearly see some value in it. There is a middle ground on which they can both meet.
* I have to be careful here. I don’t mean more fundamental in the sense that these beliefs were more strongly held. I just mean that the beliefs pertain to the fundamental structure of reality.