From Vol. 4, Issue 7, July 2022
Stoic approach to grief
“I still grieve for my cat companion, to the point of feeling sadness and shedding tears, but I can also deliberately choose to shift my mind’s focus to the wonderful memories of the life we shared together."
We lost the last of the “four-legged family” my wife adopted, when they were two kittens and two puppies, two months back. Our 19-year-old cat Sassy outlived her sister (they were the two survivors from their litter) and her canine brother and sister. She was an assertive, curious, loving old girl. She was both my wife’s and my cat, but for over a decade she picked me out as her person, and we developed a close, deep, and rich relationship. There’s more that could be written, but I’ve done that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Sassy’s death, like the death of anyone close to us, presents a challenge for practicing Stoicism.
Grief is ‘bad’ to the person who suffers it
You can correctly say that when it comes to the emotions, the Stoics view grief as something bad. It’s bad to the person who suffers it. Grief feels bad, washing over you with waves of pain, loss, loneliness, yearning, and sadness. It can lead to isolating oneself, brooding, ruminating, especially if one moves in circles where after sympathy dies down one is encouraged to put the death in the past, to “get over it”.
For Stoics, grief is also problematic because like other types of “pain” or “distress” (one of the main genres of emotion), it arises from and reflects mistaken conceptions and reasoning processes. The grieving person views the loved one’s death, their absence, and the loss of the ongoing relationship – all of which are strictly speaking indifferents – as bad things. So in some respects, the official Stoic “party line” might be that grief is bad and that we should try to avoid or cut it off as much as we can.
Human attachment is natural
How would we do that, though? Should we take Epictetus’ seemingly austere advice in Enchiridion 3 and when we kiss our child, our spouse, or our pet, remind ourselves that they are mortal? Then when they die, we won’t be upset or troubled? One might read this and mistakenly think the Stoic approach is one of avoiding attachments. Don’t get too close, or you might get hurt! Don’t develop affection, let alone love for others, because that makes you vulnerable to a world that will inevitably snatch them away!
That’s actually not what Stoics suggest. In that very passage by Epictetus, he writes of “those who you feel affection towards”. The assumption is that, if you are a decently developed human being, you will become attached, you will feel and display affection, and you will come to love (in whatever form that takes).
Would the legendary Stoic sage feel grief? Probably not, but noting that isn’t particularly helpful for those of us who are just studying and practicing without unrealistic hopes of attaining sagehood!
Is there any helpful Stoic advice then about grief over those we love and lose? Seneca offers some, telling Lucilius who has lost a friend, that it is to be expected that one will feel some grief, and even express it, but that it is possible to do so in a way that remains within some rational limits. Extravagant gestures, words and wailing, those don’t serve the person who has died, the person feeling grief, or anyone else for that matter. Many people mistakenly assume that, if you cared for a person, you show it by the amount and intensity of grief you display, but a Stoic would easily recognize that as a mistaken opinion, judgment, or assumption.
Pay attention to your feelings
What if you do find yourself overcome by sadness and grief? Should you just push it away? Some people might think that’s what Stoicism requires of them, but they’re labouring under a misconception. Instead, one should pay attention to what one is feeling, and then examine it, unravelling the impressions, appearances, or imaginations (phantasiai) that are involved, assessing and evaluating them.
One can recognize what right, good, or true elements go into producing the grief one feels, while identifying what other thoughts one might do better to suspend or reject. Two months in, I still grieve for my cat companion, to the point of feeling sadness and shedding tears, but I can also deliberately choose to shift my mind’s focus to the wonderful memories of the life we shared together.
Greg Sadler of ReasonIO is an educator and the editor of Stoicism Today (ModernStoicism.com).