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A Stoic Response to Grief


“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 For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us.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 for ever. I am not therefore 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

Death is a recurring theme in the classic Stoic texts because it is a recurring theme across all human life. People we love die, people we need die, people we don’t know die, and eventually, we will die ourselves. For this reason the Stoics were pioneers of the ancient practice of remembering our mortality (memento mori) and using it as a tool and a compass to orient themselves. They kept death in mind, and they never wanted to forget how limited our time on earth is.

Epictetus went as far as suggesting, as you kiss your child and tuck them into bed at night, to imagine what it would be like to wake up without them in the morning. Because it can happen. Because tragically it does happen. And it’s our utter lack of preparation or belief of this fact that makes those terrible surprises hurt even more.

The Stoics wanted to conquer their fear of death, use death productively and see it objectively—a natural event that we will all face. As Seneca wrote in his consolation letter to Marcia, after she has lost her son, “We have entered the kingdom of Fortune, whose rule is harsh and unconquerable, and at her whim we will endure suffering, deserved and undeserved.”

His point was a serious but not exactly reassuring one: People around us will die and it will hurt. Often, quite badly.

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?

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.”

Another practical advice Seneca would give is to invite your friends and family to praise and share memories of the person you’ve lost. Most people will not know how to conduct themselves around you, and would usually remain in silence, deriving you from one of the greatest pleasures of recalling past memories. It is why Seneca would instruct in a letter a grieving mother to “invite talk in which his actions may be told, and open your ears to the name and memory of your son.”

Seneca asks us to recall and cherish our memories and chides us for “remembering only that final appearance of Fortune.” The past is ours and we can look back with gratitude on moments together and be grateful that we were lucky to share them. As he wrote, “If you admit to having derived great pleasures, your duty is not to complain about what has been taken away but to be thankful for what you have been given.”

Just like Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations opens with a list of people he is grateful to and for the lessons learned, you can sit down and do the same now—before you’ve lost them. It’s one of the best ways to honor someone—a deep sense of gratitude for them being a part of your life. And even better: living all the lessons they have taught you and made you better.

And in closing, remember that you are 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.

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