Everyday philosophy: What is the purpose of grief?

Philosophers have had surprisingly little to say about mourning and mourning rituals, so little that it seems they are deliberately avoiding the topic. The ancient Stoics are a notable exception. They made a virtue of not being affected by the loss. Epictetus argued that intensely missing someone who was no longer here was like wishing for figs out of season, not a rational way to approach life. Instead, appreciate those close to you while they are alive and acknowledge that nature takes its course. Cry for the loss of a friend, but don’t mourn, was Seneca’s slightly more indulgent philosophy. However, the general attitude of the Stoics was this: don’t worry about the things you can’t change and focus on the things you can. Grief can take over your life and, like anger, it is a useless emotion. It won’t bring anyone back. Find ways to control it.

In his recent book, Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi takes a different line from that somewhat dismissive stoic approach. Rainer Maria Rilke suggested in a letter that although the death of someone we care about hurts us, it can also give us a greater understanding of ourselves. Cholbi develops this thought, focusing on the supposed positive side of mourning.

Although it is intensely painful and can overtake us at any moment, grief, he argues, is a complex set of emotions and a process that provides unique opportunities for personal growth. It lifts us out of complacency and reveals to us who we are and what we truly value. It is an opportunity to reorient ourselves towards the world and towards others, but it is also a mirror of our own commitments, expectations and values.

Some people dismiss being moved by the death of those we have never met as a kind of sentimentality, an undeserved thrill. But Cholbi sympathizes with the idea that mourning the death of celebrities, a widespread phenomenon, can be a true mourning. This seems correct. The intense pain and shock that so many experienced over the death of Amy Winehouse, for example, despite not knowing her personally, was real.

Similarly, the outpouring of sadness and prolonged public mourning when Princess Diana died. While I don’t share her grief, because I’m not emotionally invested in following the royals, I appreciate that many are now mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth even though they never met her and even though she lived a long life. Some of it is directly related to the values ​​that she represents for them, her dedication and diplomacy, regardless of her symbolic role as monarch, and some of it with the appearance that she was always in their lives as a member of their own family. .

However, I do not share Cholbi’s optimism about grief and self-knowledge. I am tempted to say that it is an illusion. I think it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Grieving is not essentially a tool for personal development, although it can rarely work that way. Grief is generally a darker and more desperate set of emotions than this approach suggests.

My opinion is this. It is part of the human condition that some people very dear to us die before us. That is one of the painful and unavoidable tragedies of our existence. Most of us, without choosing to do so, will feel intense emotion when this happens and struggle to come to terms with this loss. The pain may never go away completely, and maybe it shouldn’t. It will come back in waves when we least expect it.

When I cry for friends and relatives who have died, I am sad because they are gone when they could and should have been. In essence, this is a feeling of intense regret that they died when they did, a feeling that is easier to deal with when they led a full life and didn’t die young.

Grief rituals can give public expression to these kinds of feelings, but personal grief is a more enduring flame that keeps your memory alive and meaningful, but can also border on despair. It is a way of continuing the bond I have with my lost friends and family despite their passing, a way of continuing to care for them, a combination of sense of loss, real grief and sadness. Beyond that, it’s a reminder of what lies ahead for all of us, of how our own death will affect the people we love and who love us.

As Queen Elizabeth herself said, “Pain is the price we pay for love.”

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