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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 For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us.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