“It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, 17.1b
Death and loss are recurring themes in the classic Stoic texts because they are recurring themes across all human life. People we love die, people we need die, people we don’t know die, and eventually, we will die ourselves.
The question for the Stoics then was how to make sense of this fact, how to come to terms with it. How does one deal with the natural grief that loss provokes?
In this article, we’re going to give you 10 time-tested (and timeless) strategies for coping with grief. Each strategy comes to us from the ancient Stoic philosophers, who developed, tested, and proved them in dealing with loss, not unlike your own.
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How Did The Stoics Cope With Grief?
 Amor Fati
This is how the folks over at the Grief Recovery Institute define grief:
“Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.”
The Stoics believed situations that cause grief unfold like this:
Something happens—we wake up to reports that the stock market has taken a dive, we get screamed at then fired by our boss, the doctor delivers the news we were praying they wouldn’t…
And this provokes a reaction—not a good one either. A scared one. Or an angry one. Something emotional. Or we go the opposite way and we just shut down, paralyzed by the events.
The Stoics called these involuntary and immediate impressions that we form in response to bad news or loss phantasiai.
Contrary to what you might think, the Stoics were quite sympathetic to these reactions. They understand them as natural, and largely out of our control.
Stoicism is not a philosophy meant to show you how to stop that. Instead, what Stoicism is about is what to do next. What to do after the involuntary first impression has been given its moment. As Donald Robertson writes in his wonderful book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, “The Stoic tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.”
The Stoic transcends their phantasiai. And so can you.
The Stoics are often stereotyped as suppressing their emotions, but their philosophy was actually intended to teach us to face, process, and deal with emotions immediately instead of running from them. Tempting as it is to deceive yourself or hide from a powerful emotion like grief— by telling yourself and other people that you’re fine—awareness and understanding are better. Distraction might be pleasant in the short term—by going to gladiatorial games, as a Roman might have done, for example. Focusing is better in the long term.
That means facing it now. Process and parse what you are feeling. Remove your expectations, your entitlements, your sense of having been wronged. Find the positive in the situation, but also sit with your pain and accept it, remembering that it is a part of life. That’s how one conquers grief.
And then, ever the optimists, the Stoics would urge you to look for positives in the situation. As Seneca said,
“Has it then all been for nothing that you have had such a friend? During so many years, amid such close associations, after such intimate communion of personal interests, has nothing been accomplished? Do you bury friendship along with a friend? And why lament having lost him, if it be of no avail to have possessed him? Believe me, a great part of those we have loved, though chance has removed their persons, still abides with us. The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been.”
The Stoics also found comfort in knowing they were not alone in any of this.
“Who maintains that it is not a heavy blow? But it is part of being human,” Seneca would say, and looking to point to examples of great men and women who have overcome adversity, he insists how much harder it is to find families who have avoided any disastrous occurrences. So remember, if it offers at least a bit of consolation, you are not alone. We are all in this together.
If you want to take a deeper dive into Stoicism and learn how to apply the philosophy to your life, check out our most popular course, Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course that will equip you with the tools to live as vibrant and expansive a life as the Stoics. Along with 14 daily emails, there will be 3 live video sessions with bestselling author Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. Learn more here and make sure to register before the live cohort begins on March 22nd!
“I am guiding you to the place where all who seek to escape from Fortune must seek refuge, philosophical studies: they will heal your wound, they will pluck from your memory every rooted sorrow. Even if you had not made them your constant companion before, you would need to make use of them now.” — Seneca
Kai Whiting, a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism, was reading Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is The Way when he found out his grandmother died. At the time, he wasn’t a devoted student of Stoicism. He picked up the book after listening to an interview with Holiday. When he got the news of his grandmother’s passing, “I took a deep breath and understood that I had a choice over what I did next. Death is irreversible. It is final. What you do with it, however, is not. I dedicated the following two years to reading and learning.” Sadly, two years later, Whiting’s grandfather. Coincidentally, this time, he was reading Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic. “At that point,” Kai told us, “I decided Stoicism was for me. It had helped me put death into perspective. It helped me process the loss of loved ones.”
Philosophy wasn’t created for the classroom. It wasn’t a parlor trick or made for show, Seneca liked to say. It isn’t about abstract questions or debating whether we live in a computer simulation or not. Philosophy is for life. It’s something that helps you with whatever you’re struggling with. As Seneca wrote:
“Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel.
For thousands of years, the wisest minds have been offering counsel and wisdom to those who seek it out. Will you be one of those people. Or will you endure your trials just hoping one day they will magically change? Will you stick to your own guidance? Or will you let those wise minds help you?
Our problems are the same problems humans have always struggled with. Which means: a guide for this gauntlet exists and has existed for thousands of years: Philosophy. It offers counsel. It offers you help. But only if you avail yourself to it. If you make use of it…and actually listen.
“Consider that, whenever illnesses become so life-threatening that their virulence grows despite treatment, a cure is often effected by opposite methods. Accordingly, I will display to the afflicted mind all its sorrows, all its garments of mourning: this will be no gentle path to working a remedy, but that of cautery and the knife.” — Seneca
Viktor Frankl liked to cure neurotic patients with a method called “paradoxical intention.” For insomnia, instead of standard therapies, his cure for the patient was to focus on not falling asleep.
Seneca had a similar cure for grief.
In a span of less than two years, his father died, his firstborn son died, and twenty days after burying his son, he was banished from Rome. One of the first things he did in exile was write Consolation To Helvia—a long letter consoling his mother, who had lost her husband, her firstborn grandson, and her son. Her instinct, he knew, would be what ours often is: to try not to think about it, to distract her mind, to hide her wounds. Seneca’s advice to his mother, and now to us, was to do the opposite.
Don’t conceal your wounds, he said, tear them open. Don’t push your misfortunes away, “set them all down before you in a pile.”
“What form of consolation is this, to call back suffering that has been consigned to oblivion and to set the mind, when it can scarcely endure one tribulation, in full view of all its tribulations?”
Seneca thought you might ask. Consider, he said, when the severity of a person’s condition peaks. The cure is often found in opposite methods. The angry man needs gratitude. The hateful man needs love. The grieving need acceptance.
Seneca’s prescription would come a couple thousand years before it had the supporting research. Psychologist and professor James Pennebaker, PhD studied the effect of concealing your problems, struggles, and feelings. “Among those who had traumas,” Pennebaker concluded, “those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost forty percent more often than those who openly talked about their traumas. Later research projects from multiple labs confirmed these results…Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk.”
Fight your inclination to hide your wounds and instead do the opposite: tear them open, talk about them, set them down before you. Do it “in a spirit of boldness,” Seneca says, “determin[e] to conquer your grief, not to confine it.”
On May 1, 2015, Sheryl Sandberg woke up as a wife and went to bed as a widow. On vacation in Mexico with her husband Dave, her children, and some friends, Sandberg found Dave that day in their villa’s fitness center, lying in a pool of blood. His heart gave out while he was jogging on a treadmill.
After her tragic loss, she co-wrote Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy with her friend Adam Grant, author, organizational psychologist, and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In it, she explains:
“Shockingly, one of the things that helped me the most was focusing on worst-case scenarios…during the early days of despair, my instinct was to try to find positive thoughts. Adam told me the opposite: that it was a good idea to think about how much worse things could be. “Worse?” I asked him. “Are you kidding me? How could this be worse?” His answer cut through me: “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” Wow. The thought that I could have lost all three of them had never occurred to me. I instantly felt overwhelmingly grateful that my children were alive and healthy — and that gratitude overtook some of the grief.”
Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist and author of How To Think Like a Roman Emperor observed that Marcus Aurelius mentions several times in his Meditations the famous line from Epicurus: “pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”
In his own cognitive psychotherapist practice, Robertson calls this “Depreciation by Analysis.” To help people cope with loss, Robertson steers their focus to “the knowledge either that their painful sensations are temporary or that they could be much worse.”
After we experience loss, we want to reach for positive, happy, joyful thoughts. It makes sense—hopefully those will drown out the painful thoughts. But, similar to Seneca’s advice above in our first strategy for coping with grief, we encourage you to try the opposite. Think about how it could have been worse. Like Sandberg, you will likely experience an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Which brings us to our next strategy…
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius
The word Epictetus uses for gratitude—eucharistos—means “seeing” what is actually occurring in each moment. He said, “It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance, and a sense of gratitude.”
On the surface, much of what we’re upset about or wish hadn’t occurred is so objectionable that gratitude seems impossible. But if we can zoom out for that more complete view, understanding and appreciation can emerge. First off, you’re alive. That’s the silver lining of every shitty situation and should not be forgotten. But second, everything that has happened and is happening is bringing you to where you are. It’s contributing to the person you have become. And that’s a good thing. This understanding, Epictetus said, helps you see the world in full color—in the color of gratitude.
The Stoics believed that we should feel gratitude for all the people and events that form our lives. We shouldn’t just be thankful for the gifts we receive, and our relationships with friends and family. We should also be aware of and grateful for the setbacks, the conflicts, the losses. Why? Because it’s all of those things, interconnected and dependent on each other, that made you who and what you are today. It is only by seeing the totality of things, good and bad, that you gain the understanding necessary to be truly grateful.
It could be that terrible relationship that imploded spectacularly, but which led to you meeting the love of your life. It could even be the passing of a relative, something that caused you great sadness but which also spurred you to build stronger relationships with your loved ones.
“The spirit must be trained to a realization and an acceptance of its lot…There’s no ground for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on…Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties.” — Seneca
Laura Kennedy started her thoughtful “Coping” column in early 2016 at age 27 after the passing of her mother, as an “attempt to use philosophy as the pragmatic skill it is to navigate the very natural and frightening grief.” When we interviewed Laura a little while back, we asked what she would tell someone dealing with loss. Given all the thinking and reflecting she’s done on grief, what would she say to someone who just lost a significant other, a close family member, or anyone important in their lives?
She gave the caveat that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but “it truly does help a little (even the most helpful things only help a little), to adopt a Stoic attitude.” She clarified that:
“I do not mean any form of self-struggle or denial, but rather that most comforting element of Stoicism — acceptance. Stoicism is less concerned with how we feel than what we do with how we feel. In the midst of grief, there is little internal space to do anything but feel overwhelmed by the new terrain and trajectory of your life. Both are suddenly and irrevocably altered when someone integral to you dies. Accepting the sense of despair and loss this brings about is important. ”
It’s hard. It’s not fair. Yet we have to accept it. “Letting go is a necessary, if sometimes heart-wrenching gateway to genuine transformation,” is how the always-zen Phil Jackson put it. The Stoics called it the “art of acquiescence”—the giving up and the assenting of whatever has happened rather than fight it.
Again, this is very hard. If only it were otherwise. But it is not. We are tiny humans, we are bound to a universe and a fate that is much bigger than us. We must accept what it outside our control, give up and let go of whatever is no longer ours to possess.
We will be better for it. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.
 This Too Shall Pass
“Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” — Marcus Aurelius
It has been written that Lincoln’s own experience with debilitating depression—melancholy as it was called then—probably contributed to his unique abilities as a leader. He came to embody the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward. Do what you can, endure what you must. Make the best of it.
But Lincoln’s real strength was his will: the way he was able to resign himself to an onerous task of leading the country through one of its most difficult trials, without giving in to hopelessness, the way he could use his own private turmoil to teach and help others, the way he was able to rise above the din and see life and politics philosophically.
While he seemed to possess an extraordinary amount of strength and fortitude, it was a simple phrase that made all the difference throughout Lincoln’s life. In 1859, before he was president, before the Union tore itself to pieces and around 750,000 people died in the Civil War (the total number dead is still unknown), Lincoln shared that phrase in a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair. The subject of the speech was supposed to be agriculture, but Lincoln decided to go a little deeper.
He told the story of an Eastern king who asked his wisest philosophers to provide for him a sentence that would be not just true in each and every situation, but always worth hearing too. “They presented him the words,” Lincoln said, “‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”
Marcus Aurelius similarly wrote that it’s helpful “keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come.” The events of your life—good and bad, beautiful or tragic or terrifying—flow past us quickly. None of them are stable, each of them disappears with due time into the rush of the water, and is never seen again. Remind yourself: This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass.
“Those whose years have all been spent in disasters bear even the harshest blows of Fortune with a strong resolution that nothing can shake. There is one blessing conferred by constant misfortune, that it finally brings strength to those it always plagues.” — Seneca
Marcus Aurelius’ life was in many ways defined by loss. His father, Verus, died when he was three. In 149, he lost newborn twin boys. In 151, he lost his firstborn daughter, Domitia Faustina. In 152, another son, Tiberius Aelius Antoninus, died in infancy. That same year, Marcus’s sister Cornificia died. Shortly after, Marcus’s mother, Domitia Lucilla, died. In 158, another son, whose name is unknown, died. In 161, he lost his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius. In 165, another son, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus (twin brother of Commodus), died. In 169, he lost his son Verus, a sweet boy, during what was supposed to be routine surgery, whom he had hoped would rule alongside Commodus, as he had ruled with his own brother. That same year he lost that brother—his co-emperor—Lucius Verus. He would lose his wife of thirty-five years not long after.
Of Marcus’s boys, five died before he did. Three of his daughters as well. No parent should outlive their children. To lose eight of them? So young? It staggers the mind. “Unfair” does not even come close. It’s grotesque.
How easily this could shatter a person, how easily and understandably it might cause them to toss away everything they ever believed, to hate a world that could be so cruel. Yet somehow we have Marcus Aurelius writing, after all these twists of fate, a note that captures the incredible resilience of the human spirit. “It’s unfortunate that this has happened,” Marcus writes, “No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”
In the letter Seneca wrote to console his mother that we mentioned above, he first reassured her not to worry about him. Though he lost his father, his son, his life in Rome, he was not grieving. He likened himself to the seasoned “trained soldier.” He talked about the comfort of knowing he’d been through worse things and overcome them. This is the “blessing conferred by misfortune,” he told her, “that it brings strength to those it plagues.”
If you can’t find any other blessing, take this one: You will be made stronger for having gone through this.
“Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.” — Epictetus
As Ernest Renan observed, Marcus Aurelius wrote for an audience of one. “Never,” Renan said, “has one written more simply for himself, for the sole end of emptying his heart, with no other witness than God.” That’s what journaling is about. Getting the thoughts out of our head, the anguish out of our hearts, and onto the page. It’s a way of clarifying and alleviating, excising and exercising.
A few years ago, Moma Estrella, a designer who had gone through a painful divorce, wrote about how he overcame his depression. Prompted by his work computer to change his password every 30 days, he decided to use this medium as a chance to change his life. The password he chose: Forgive@h3r. And multiple times a day for the next month, he found himself writing that phrase over and over. Each time he got to work, each day when he got back from lunch, when his computer would go to sleep while he was in a meeting or on the phone: Forgive her. Forgive her. Forgive her.
Jamie Pennebaker, whose research we cited above, would not be surprised that the act of writing healed Estrella. In his book, Writing To Heal, Pennebaker talks about how “the evidence is mounting that the act of writing about a traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health.”
Here’s just a few examples from that mounting evidence:
[*] A study by Cambridge University proved how journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events.
[*] A University of Arizona study showed that people were able to better recover from divorce and move forward if they journaled on the experience.
[*] Keeping a journal is a common recommendation from psychologists as well, because it helps patients stop obsessing and allows them to make sense of the many inputs—emotional, external, psychological—that would otherwise overwhelm them.
And as Estrella proved, your writing doesn’t need to be Nobel Prize-worthy prose. You can write one word, one phrase, one sentence, over and over. You can break your writing up—a few minutes here, a few minutes there. It doesn’t matter how or when. Just do it. Do what works for you. Just know that it may turn out to be the most important thing you do all day.
 Don’t Be Ashamed To Ask For Help
“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?” — Marcus Aurelius
One of the misconceptions of Stoicism is that it’s about creating invincible, untouchable super heroes. That it reduces you to an island, a person all alone, sitting in perfect contentment under a tree somewhere. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. Stoicism was created by, and used by, regular people. People who had to interact with—and depend on—other people.
But they also have to be able to ask for help. Because sometimes that’s the strongest and bravest thing to do.
In his memoir, Bruce Springsteen talks about how his new interest in music saved him from the grief he felt from losing his grandmother when he was a teenager. Twenty some years later, however, he realized music was more a bandage than a cure. “At thirty-two,” he writes, “[I] just exceeded the once-surefire soul-and-mind-numbing power of my rock ’n’ roll meds.” He hit a wall. Music, touring, loading up the car and hitting the road—all his usual remedies stopped working.
When an old friend saw him for the first time in a little while, there was no small talk, “You need professional help.” Bruce went to therapy for the first time. He continued going for thirty years. It didn’t just change his life, “it gave me the rest of my life,” he said in an interview with Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell. “The way that I would describe it is you’re standing in front of a brick wall and you think you’re seeing all that the world is, and then suddenly you start pushing and suddenly a brick drops out, and you look through into this complete other experience and existence and you go, “Fuck. Woah, I’ve been living on such a limited level. And it just expanded my vision. It also helped rid me of my depression.”
Marcus Aurelius—a guy who literally ruled the world—said: “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”
Exactly. So what? If you need a minute, ask. If you need a helping hand, ask. If you need therapy, go. If you need to lean on someone or something, do it.
It’s okay to ask for help.
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.” — Epictetus
The writer Jorge Luis Borges said:
A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.
We can learn to find joy in every single thing that happens. We can understand that certain things—particularly bad things—are outside our control. But we can use it all—if we learn to love whatever happens to us and face it with unfailing cheerfulness. And again, not just artists. Issues we had with our parents become lessons that we teach our children. An injury that lays us up in bed becomes a reason to reflect on where our life is going. The tragic loss of a loved one can be an opportunity too. Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, took that tragic experience we talked about above and launched a nonprofit organization with the goal “chang[ing] the conversation around adversity.”
The line from Marcus Aurelius about this was that a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. That’s how we want to be. We want to be the artist that turns pain and frustration and even humiliation into beauty. We want to be the entrepreneur that turns a sticking point into a money maker. We want to be the person who takes their own experiences and turns them into wisdom that can be learned from and passed on to others.
Nietzsche said, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” Find purpose and opportunity in everything. Love it.
You love everything that happens. Because you make use of it.
“It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever.” — Seneca
“I am not going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.” — Seneca
“Let us, then, refrain from unprofitable tears: for our grief will carry us away to join him sooner than it will bring him back to us.” — Seneca
“Grief is only excusable as long as it is honourable; but when it is only caused by personal interests, it no longer springs from tenderness” — Seneca
“The very fact of one’s grief being shared by many persons acts as a consolation, because if it be distributed among such a number the share of it which falls upon you must be small.” — Seneca
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” — Epictetus
“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” — Marcus Aurelius
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese A. Rando
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Bearing the Unbearable (Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief) by Joanne Cacciatore
Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome. by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner
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