Antoñito. Romería de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, the Festival of Near-Death Experiences. Galicia, Spain, 1981. Photo by Cristina Garcia Rodero/Magnum


Against mourning

It takes a lifetime of preparation to grieve as the Stoics did – without weeping and wailing, but with a heart full of love

by Brian D Earp + BIO

Antoñito. Romería de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, the Festival of Near-Death Experiences. Galicia, Spain, 1981. Photo by Cristina Garcia Rodero/Magnum

Imagine you are at a child’s funeral. The child is yours. The air is numb with silence. An ache so deep you can barely breathe moves through you, until it bursts and you cry out loud. Somebody passes a tissue; another rests his hand on your shoulder. In time, your eyes run out of tears. But now there is a hole in your heart in the shape of a child, and it feels like it will never heal. Maybe it shouldn’t, you think to yourself. You lost a child. This stays with you. It’s supposed to stay with you.

How should we grieve when someone close to us dies? Should we wail and gnash our teeth? Should we swallow our pain? Some would say there is no right answer. You feel whatever you feel, and heal however you heal, and that’s okay. But according to the ancient Stoics – those Greco-Roman philosophers making a comeback as preachers of practical wisdom in a self-help world – there is a correct answer to the question of how we should grieve. And the answer is that we shouldn’t. What’s done is done. There is nothing you can do to change the situation – so move on.

It sounds cold and unfeeling, as it did in the Stoics’ own time. According to Seneca, perhaps the most famous Stoic, critics regularly accused the Stoics ‘of too great strictness, slandering our precepts because of supposed harshness – because (say they) we declare that grief should either not be given a place in the soul at all, or else should be driven out forthwith’.

Is this really slander? The Stoic precepts were harsh. They sincerely believed that a perfectly rational being, which is a status they think we should all aspire to, would never give in to sadness at a funeral. And yet, it seems natural to ask: what parent does not mourn – and for a good long while! – the death of their child? If Stoicism cannot answer this charge, then so much the worse for Stoicism.

But I believe it can. We have a lot more to learn from the Stoics about the appropriate response to death than first meets the eye.

The Stoics trace their lineage to Zeno of Citium, who founded a philosophical school in Athens about 300 years before the birth of Christ. Along with Seneca, the Stoics are mostly known today by the works of Epictetus, an emancipated slave, and the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Central to their worldview was the need to distinguish between what we can and cannot control, and waste no time worrying about the latter. In other words, we should conform our thoughts and behaviour to Mother Nature’s ineluctable course, which the Stoics believed was a major part of what it is to be good or virtuous. Among other things, they took this to entail that it is simply wrong to grieve after the death of a loved one.

On the face of it, this seems crazy. Failing to grieve when a friend or family member dies – or even failing to grieve enough, or for a long enough period of time – strikes many people as psychologically dysfunctional, if not outright deserving of condemnation. The philosopher Dan Moller at the University of Maryland has written about a race of imagined beings known as the ‘Super-resilient’: ‘modified humans’ or even alien creatures who are just like us – but who ‘have no grief reactions at all to what would strike us as great tragedies’. When a loved one drops dead in front of them, says Moller, ‘they shrug their shoulders and check what is on television’. Moreover, if the loved one was their wife or husband, they ‘remarry as soon as they are able to find another mate, often within weeks’.

In short, they are – or they appear to be – the very models of Stoic mourners, in that they do not mourn, not even for a moment.

But isn’t that grotesque? asks Moller (I’m paraphrasing).

He is not alone. William Shakespeare is said to have been a great psychologist: if Hamlet’s reaction to his mother’s (brisk) remarriage after the death of Hamlet senior is at all reflective of common moral intuitions, then such ‘resilience’ deserves contempt, not admiration. Even ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason’, says the prince, would have ‘mourned longer’ than one measly month.

What is behind these intuitions? Nobody is saying it is necessary or even appropriate to mourn for the rest of one’s life if one’s spouse (say) has given up the ghost (or perhaps become a ghost, like Hamlet’s father). But there is something more than a little unseemly, most people think, about ‘moving on’ too quickly or with too much ease. The feeling goes something like this:

  • If you truly love someone (that is, love them as you should if they are a close family member, spouse, or friend), it is simply not psychologically possible, barring some serious mental defect outside your control, to fail to grieve, and grieve profoundly, when they die.
  • So, if you do so fail to grieve, you must not have truly loved the person as you should have loved them while they were alive.
  • Therefore, it is not just psychologically difficult, or too demanding an expectation, but actually proof of a moral failing if you fail to grieve.

How can the Stoics deny this, and in fact reach the exact opposite conclusion? Here is where we resolve the tension. They deny the first premise – that it is psychologically impossible to love someone, truly love them, and yet remain unmoved by their death when it arrives. It’s just that you have to spend your life, to the day, to the hour, mentally preparing for such potential losses.

That is what is so different about their intuitions and ours. To put it simply, if you are not a Stoic philosopher – if you have not been training yourself, year in and year out, to calmly face life’s vagaries and inescapables – and you feel no hint of sadness when your child, or spouse, or family member dies, then there probably is something wrong with you. You probably have failed to love or cherish that person appropriately or sufficiently while they were alive, and that would be a mark against you.

You might have been cruel and uncaring, for instance, or emotionally distant, or otherwise aloof. For had you not been those things, you would certainly grieve. This, in turn, can explain why the Stoics were (and are) often thought to be so callous – as though they must have advocated such detachment from one’s kith and kin in order to pre-empt any associated suffering.

‘Let what flows be what emotion forces from us, not what is required to imitate others’

However, nothing could be further from the truth. As Epictetus instructs, one should not ‘be unfeeling like a statue’ but rather maintain one’s relations, ‘both natural and acquired, as a pious man, a son, a brother, a father, a citizen’. He also repeatedly emphasises that we are social animals, for whom parental and other forms of love come naturally. ‘Even Epicurus,’ he says, derisively, about a philosopher from a competing school, ‘knows that if once a child is born, it will no longer be in our power not to love it or care for it.’

But is it not part of loving one’s child to feel at least some grief when it suffers or dies (you might ask)? Surely feeling no grief would itself be contrary to Nature! For just as virtue cannot exist without wrongdoing, as some Stoics held, so too might the prospect of grief be in some way bound up in love, so that you cannot have one without the other.

Yes, that is right – some grief. Even the Stoics (or at any rate, some of them) seem to concede this as we’ll see in a moment. But far less grief is truly – or you could say naturally – entailed by such love than common sense would have most of us believe. As the classicist Margaret Graver argues in Stoicism and Emotion (2007):

The founders of the Stoic school did not set out to suppress or deny our natural feelings; rather, it was their endeavour, in psychology as in ethics, to determine what the natural feelings of humans really are. With the emotions we most often experience they were certainly dissatisfied; their aim, however, was not to eliminate feelings as such from human life, but to understand what sorts of affective responses a person would have who was free of false belief.

Therein lies the importance of mental preparation. It is a systematic means of freeing oneself from false beliefs, including wishful thinking about life and death. If, when we are free of such thinking, we still feel sadness when our child dies, that feeling will be in accordance with Nature – and hence something it is permitted to feel. As Seneca says:

there are certain feelings which claim their own rights. Tears fall, even when we try to suppress them, and shedding them is a relief to the mind. What is it, then? Let’s allow them to fall, but not summon them up. Let what flows be what emotion forces from us, not what is required to imitate others. Let’s not add anything to our genuine mourning, increasing it to follow someone else’s example.

What is this ‘genuine’ grief, then, that remains in us when false beliefs are trained away? I think it must be the kind of sadness that is bound up, somehow, in the experience of authentic love – which is, as Epictetus put it, when:

What you love … has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.

And what does this training look like?

‘What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die

From Marcus Aurelius: ‘In all your actions, words, and thoughts, be aware that it is possible that you’ – and by extension the ones you love most dearly – ‘may depart from life at any time.’ From Seneca: ‘Let us continually think as much about our own mortality as about that of all those we love … Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.’ And from Epictetus – notoriously:

… remind yourself that what you love is mortal … at the very moment you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?

According to the philosopher Peter Adamson at King’s College London, this might be ‘the most chilling single passage in all of ancient philosophy’. But if chilling, perhaps the most misunderstood. As we have seen, Epictetus is not counselling that we should take no joy in our children, much less that we should cultivate an attitude of cold indifference to protect ourselves emotionally in case they go before their time.

Instead, if anything, by actively reminding ourselves of our child’s mortality – even as we delight in kissing her goodnight – we render all the more salient what is most precious about her existence. As Seneca says: ‘Let us greedily enjoy our friends,’ as we should also enjoy our children, ‘because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.’

In other words, Stoics can ‘afford’ to grieve as little as possible – that is, as little as Nature will allow – because they have spent their lives training in philosophy. And that means: ridding themselves of false beliefs, learning how to face the inevitable, and carefully matching their desires with the will of Zeus. So, when the worst things happen, when a child, friend or spouse is struck down in an unplanned hour, the Stoics’ muted response will reflect their hard-won preparation, not a lack of prior love or affection (as it might for you and me).

In fact, the quality of their love for those closest to them might be even richer than ours – assuming that we are not Stoics – because in every moment they remind themselves how valuable that moment is. Then, after some shocking blow, though their souls might at first reflexively feel the sting of sadness, they can soon shift to reflecting fondly on those same enriched relationships. As Seneca says: ‘Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us.’

Let’s finish on a practical note. How hard is it – really – to avoid falling into despair, or dragging out one’s grief after a loved one has died, and for this to still be compatible with having truly loved that person while he or she was alive? It might not be as hard as one thinks.

First, as Moller notes, there is a lot of empirical evidence that people do, as a matter of fact, ‘move on’ from even great personal losses much more quickly than they would predict. Taken together, this evidence suggests that ‘most people do not experience significant long-term distress when they lose the person they have committed their lives to’.

But importantly, this is not a flaw in the system. Instead, Moller argues, ‘resilience to losing those we love plays a deep and systematic role in making us the kinds of creatures that can overcome the frequent and inevitable setbacks that we must suffer over a lifetime’. In other words, adapting to loss is part of who we are – a part of our nature, and so in line with Nature – and we are better at such adaptation than we think.

And second, this in-built adaptive capacity is precisely what allows us both to love someone fully while she is alive, and not be totally disabled by grief long after she is gone. As Moller writes, this capacity explains ‘how someone could be willing to risk her life for her husband while failing to be significantly traumatised by his death … It just turns out to be a remarkable trait of our species that caring very deeply about someone is compatible with a strongly muted reaction to their death.’

This is the Stoic position almost to a word. They just take ‘strongly muted’ and go running with it – consciously and deliberately exercising the adaptive coping mechanisms with which we are all equipped, speeding them up and fortifying them with practice and rational judgment. You don’t have to be some sort of alien creature, then, to be or become ‘Super-resilient’ in Moller’s sense. You just have to be a human philosopher. A Stoic.