How we handle grief largely depends on our worldview. Here is how three famous philosophers handled the certainty of grief and despair.
Each one of us will experience something in life that transforms who we are. A human life is one of adventure and tempering. A lot of people today tend to use the language of “formative experiences,” but the idea of an awakening or initiation of some kind, is as central to the human condition as sleeping or falling in love. Those who study the stories and myths we tell point out that they often share remarkable similarities. For instance, they involve a separation from home, a test of character, and then a return home with new wisdom or strength.
One of these transformative trials comes when we lose someone we truly and deeply love. Those who have known grief understand something more about life. When we suffer the loss of someone we love, we know what it means to be left alone and behind. On an intellectual level, we know that all things must die. We can rationally appreciate the transience of life, the breakdown of biology, and entropy in the universe. But to know death, to feel and bear loss, gives someone an understanding that no poem, movie, or book could convey.
Many philosophers have explored the idea of grief and death, and for many, it’s the most important thing about being alive.
For many people, like the young or the lucky, there is no need to face mortality. They can walk through their days without a moment’s thought for the big questions about eternity. It won’t cross their minds to reflect on their own death or of those around them. They likely will never ponder that the people they have in their lives will, some day, be gone forever.
They never appreciate that there will come a time when we each will have our last meal, laugh, and breath. That there will be one final cuddle with someone you love, and no more.
Sure, they know it in some remote part of their understanding, but they do not feel it. It’s intellectually “objective” but lacks the emotionally subjective. They lack the deepening that happens for those who have held the hand of a dying parent, cried at a brother’s funeral, or sat staring at photos of a now-gone friend. For those who don’t know grief, it is as if it comes from outside. In reality, the despair of true grief is something that originates from within. It aches and pulses inside your very being.
The source of despair
For such a universal, sensitive, and poignant issue as grief, there is no one philosophical position. For much of history, philosophers were also usually religious, and so the issue was one for priests, scripture, or meditation.
The pre-Christian scholars of ancient Greece and Rome are perhaps an exception. But, even there, philosophers came stewed in a cauldron of religious assumptions. It has become fashionable today to read ancient references to “the soul,” for instance, as being poetic or psychological metaphors. Yet, with the possible exception of the Epicureans, the ancient world had far more religion than our modern, secular sensibilities might prefer.
For Søren Kierkegaard, that visceral sense of mortality we get after experiencing grief he labelled “despair.” And in the long nighttime of despair, we can begin the journey to realize our truest selves. When we meaningfully encounter first-hand that things in life are not eternal and nothing is forever, we appreciate how we passionately long for things to be eternal. The source of our despair is that we want that “forever.” For Kierkegaard, the only way to overcome despair, to relieve this condition, is to surrender. There is an eternal by which to lose ourselves in. There is faith, and grief is the dark, marble door to belief.
The philosophy of grief
After the Enlightenment and the rise of a godless philosophy, thinkers began to see death in a new way. Seeing death only as a gateway to religion no longer worked.
The ancient Greek Epicureans and a lot of Eastern philosophers (although, not necessarily all), believed this powerful sense of grief can be overcome by removing our mistaken longing for immortality. Stoics, too, signed up to the idea that we ache precisely because we wrongly think things are ours for all time. With a mental shift, or after great meditation, we can come to accept this for the false hubris it is.
The German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger argued that the presence of death in our lives gives fresh meaning to our being free to choose. When we appreciate that our decisions are all we have, and that our entire life is punctuated by a final coup de grace, it invigorates our action and gives us a “daring.” As he wrote, “Being present is grounded in the turning-towards [death].” It is a theme echoed in the medieval idea of memento mori — that is, keeping death close to make the current moment sweeter. When we lose a loved one, we recognize that we are, indeed, left behind, and so this in turn gives new gravity to our choices.
For Albert Camus, though, things are somewhat more bleak. Even though Camus’ works were a deliberate and strenuous effort to resolve the listless abyss of nihilism, his solution of “absurdity” is not easy medicine. For Camus, grief is a state of being overcome by the pointlessness of it all. Why love, if love ends in such pain? Why build great projects, when all will be dust? With grief comes an awareness of the bitter finality of everything, and it comes with an angry, screaming frustration: Why are we here at all? Camus’ suggestion is a kind of macabre revelry — gallows’ humor perhaps — that says we should enjoy the ride for the meaningless rollercoaster it is. We must imagine ourselves happy.
Three responses to grief
We have, here, three different responses to grief. We have the religious turn of Kierkegaard, the existential carpe diem of Heidegger, and the laugh-until-you-die of Camus.
For many, grief involves a separation from life. It can feel like the wintering of the soul, where we need to heal and make sense of existence again. It’s a kind of chrysalis. In many cases, we return to life with earned wisdom and can appreciate the everyday world in an entirely transformed way. For some, this hibernation goes on for a very long time, and many start to see their cold retreat as all there is.
These are the people who will need help. Whether we agree with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or Camus, one thing is true for all and everyone: talking helps. Voicing our thoughts, sharing our despair, and turning to someone else is the gentle, warm breeze that starts the thaw.