An Essay on Grief and Stoicism

On November 2nd, 2017, I spoke at a public Bereavement Evening held by The Irish Hospice Foundation at the Alexander Hotel in Dublin. After receiving some requests to post the essay I delivered that evening online, I post it below.


Stoicism has been misrepresented in our time. It was a school of philosophy that positively flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until around the 3rd century AD, when it went a little out of fashion. But it has informed philosophers and psychologists through the ages, and provides the theoretical groundwork for the way we think about some central concepts in psychology and even modern therapeutic methods like cognitive behavioural therapy today. Now, we think of a stoic person as repressing their emotions, as being cold. That is not stoicism in the philosophical sense. Stoicism was designed to teach us to conquer our emotions by facing them, processing them, dealing with them, and doing it now, before they conquer us.

Though I write for The Irish Times, my day job, as it were, is in academic philosophy and psychology. My research is on emotions, because I don’t like them, and because I want to understand them better. They’re inconvenient, uncomfortable, and, I think often appetitive. They remind us that we are made of meat. They are the vehicle of all our bad decisions. Unfortunately, they are also one of the things that make us uniquely human, and uniquely vulnerable. Nothing makes us more vulnerable than death. Despite its being a complete certainty in life – sometimes the only one, we never seem to be prepared for it. The knowledge that we ourselves will die tends to be something most of us avoid addressing. Worse and harder still is acknowledging this truth about those we love.

It is rare that, when someone we love dies, we can feel peace about it. Grief is, at base, about the bereaved person, and not about who they have lost. We are never content to lose the people we need – no matter the circumstances, their death will never feel just. My mother’s death was not just. It was not fair. It did not make sense, and it left my brother and I without any sense of peace, or justice.

Being honest (after all this seems like the right setting for it) I was reluctant to come here this evening and tell the story of my mother’s death. If you know me at all, it might be from my column in The Irish Times. In 2015, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, I decided with her blessing to write a column called Leavetaking, to document the experience, selfishly, to give myself an outlet, and, hopefully, to help other people who could relate to the experience.

That column was frank, to say the least, but I’m reluctant to go back to that place in my life, and that space in my mind. We are all veterans of grief here – my bereavement is no bigger than yours, my sense of loss no deeper. So I am reluctant to trot out the details of my mother’s life to prove how cruel and unjust her death was. I’m reluctant to compare wounds with you, or display the shrapnel that is lodged still under my skin.

So I will be brief – my mother was an outlier (I’m sure we all think the same of the people we have lost), but you’ll permit me the indulgence. Her life was, on paper, difficult. She was born into an abusive family, carried her lack of self-esteem and perspective into an abusive relationship. She had my brother, and then me. She took us from the toxic situation in our home, but never spoke a single bad word about our father in our hearing, and encouraged us to see him when he was sober. When we got older, she worked two jobs, six days a week, to keep us fed. We had very little money and nearly lost our home, but she pulled us back from that, alone, and by force of will. She didn’t get the education she deserved, so she encouraged us academically. She sent us both to third level education to postgraduate level. While staying in it herself, my mother pushed my brother and I up and off the poverty line, again, by sheer force of will. When she was in her mid-fifties, and I my mid-twenties, she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given a maximum of a year to live.

We had to sell her house – she couldn’t work and there was no money for the mortgage, which she was just a few years off paying, by herself.  Five months to the day after her diagnosis, she died at Milford Hospice at six o’ clock one frozen November morning almost two years ago. Their excellent care of her was the one comfort in a sequence of horror and loss. These are the facts. What lies between them is the substance of who she was, and, from my own perspective, the relationship I had with her. That is the more important part of the story. If you’d like to read about it, the columns are still available online. You’ll find something of who she was in there. But, as we all know, bereavement is the experience and responsibility of the people left behind. It is the work we have to do after we have lost someone. In that sense, it is ours alone.

So…almost two years later, here I am with you. In the interim, none of those pointed, painful facts about my mother’s life and death have changed. None of the injustice has abated. I have no less cause to be angry, to be lost, to be aggrieved. What I have had is a lot of time to think about what bereavement is, the mechanisms of grief, and what might be rescued from the ruins. Naturally, I turned to philosophy, which is simply the theory of how we might best think and live.

The Stoics understood hardship and loss. Though they were in general – at least in my opinion – a great bunch of lads, Seneca is probably my favourite. He’s the guy – the Hendrix, the Bowie, the Springsteen of Stoic philosophy. He wrote a letter to a woman named Marcia, who was unable to get past her grief at her son’s death three years before. She was still mired in it as though he had just died. Seneca wrote to her in an attempt to help her out of the emotional well she had become trapped inside. Grief, he knew, is something we can conquer, though ‘Conquer’ in this sense is not as straightforward a concept as it might seem. It is more complicated than ‘getting over’ our grief. After all, we experience grief because we love, and loving people – any kind of love – makes us vulnerable to the vicissitude of grief.

Seneca told Marcia “We have entered the kingdom of Fortune, whose rule is harsh and unconquerable, and at her whim, we will endure suffering, deserved and undeserved”. Not very comforting so far, right? He’s basically writing to this desolate woman that bad stuff happens. Yeah, thanks for that Seneca, we’d noticed. But he isn’t really just saying that. He is articulating something we all know to be true – that people die. People we know die. People we love die. People we need die, and it hurts, usually very, very badly.

We use poetic language to talk about grief – the collection of emotions and impressions we experience after someone we love has died – but it isn’t poetic. Writers, in particular, have a way of taking pain and passing it through a linguistic beautification machine in an attempt to make something that is very much of this world, otherworldly. We are creatures made of meat. Poeticism can be comforting, and can help us to articulate the things we struggle with, but grief doesn’t feel poetic when a lady in the supermarket tells you she likes your hat, and suddenly you feel the urge to run into the vegetable aisle and pathetically, cry a little next to the carrots. That very thing happened to me about a year ago. Seneca likely wouldn’t have approved. A man came over and asked me if I was alright, and I was so embarrassed by my own display of emotion that I pretended I was crying over vegetables. ‘They’ve run out of parsnips!’ I snort-cried at him, a carrot dangling helplessly in my hand. He looked at me like I was a lunatic, and in a way, I was. Grief is stealthy like that. It isn’t poetic, it is physical as well as emotional, and it doesn’t operate along a continuum. You can only manage it. Managing it is conquering it, because if you don’t manage it, it will surely conquer you.

When my mother was sick, I took up a habit of going into the bathroom to swear. It was a way of venting the arbitrariness, the injustice, of her diagnosis at just 57. I was angry – not necessarily directly at the seeming injustice of her situation – but those early stages of grief began while she was still living, and simply manifested that way. I didn’t have the time to think about why that might be – she needed me. I simply had to manage it. I developed several methods to assuage the frightening rage that boiled inside me, and one of them was going into the bathroom at whatever time of day or night I needed to, shutting the door, and shouting expletives at the top of my voice. The apartment I lived in at the time was very small – there was nowhere else for a private moment. My partner Jules was understanding about it. He would give me an almost imperceptible little nod when I came out, and pass me the cup of tea he’d started to make me when he heard me go in. The more obscene the expletives that drifted from the bathroom, the sweeter the tea got. If it was a particularly tough day, and the words were mostly four letters, I’d find a chocolate digestive on the saucer beside the tea when I came out.

Interestingly, most of my revelations during that time and after my mother’s death occurred on the loo in the middle of the night. The world sleeps, and you can sit there with your behind going numb on the seat, thinking in the quiet gloom. I was never short of reading material. At that time and afterwards, the place was, to use a phrase of my mother’s, ‘coming down’ with pamphlets and books. With the finest intentions, a friend had given me a dreadful book on loss and I had taken to reading whatever was lying about (provided it wasn’t sad) when I had an idle moment, because action is the enemy of thought, and grief can suck you under in a heartbeat, and though permanent distraction is not a method of managing grief, at four a.m. it’s the most I’m up to, I don’t know about you. The book was on that atrocious Americanised concept of ‘closure’, the idea that in order to progress in our lives after something traumatic, we need a tangible sense of a process finishing, of loose ends being tied up, of questions being answered.

Seneca knew that grief is a process, and bereavement the period of time you conduct it in. Only by taking charge of our grief, by forcing the courage to accept and manage it, can we conquer it. We cannot hide from it, or ignore it, or hasten it by avoidance. He wrote to Marcia “It is better to conquer our grief that to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and occupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us… 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 … 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.”

Closure, as it applies to grief, suggests that the period of grief or bereavement ends, and we set it aside in some way, or that it ceases to inhere for us in the present. If you are here because you have lost someone essential to you, you will understand that idea to be a lie. Bereavement doesn’t end. Grief doesn’t have closure. There is no point at which you can stop and think ‘I’m alright with that person being gone’, no point at which you don’t think, when you have happy times (and you will), ‘this would be better if they were here’.

‘Well’, you might think, ‘how terribly depressing’. ‘I came here to get another perspective on my grief, and you’re telling me it’s a permanent state of being. Excellent.’ I’m not really saying that. I’m saying that if it is never something you can entirely let go of, you haven’t failed in any way. To conquer grief is not to cut a burden from your back and drop it with a thud behind you on the road. Thinking about the person you have lost every day, no matter how long ago you may have lost them, doesn’t mean that you are dealing with bereavement in the wrong way, or represent a failure to heal. Bereavement is a period of coming to terms with a loss, which really means learning how to live with it. That sort of pain changes us. We should carry grief forward with us, but we should resist becoming consumed by it like Marcia. She is absorbed by her grief to the point that she cannot forge ahead into a life without her son in it, because refusing to allow the overwhelming sorrow she feels to be moderated by the good things in her life is a way of clinging to her son. But he is gone, and she only harms herself and those left around her by subsisting in a vortex outside time, where she loses her son anew each day.

The early stages of grief, which last precisely as long as they last, are unkind. We isolate ourselves when we someone we love dies, and we turn inward. This sort of grief is so catastrophic because it seizes us when we are at our most vulnerable, and purports to tell us things about the nature of reality, and our lives. In our right minds, we would know not to trust the account of our lives grief gives us, but flayed with the fresh horror of loss, we are often unable to resist.

It tells you that joy is gone, that life will always be worse without the person you have lost, that you are less now, a lesser person than before. These things, though they catapult through us with the force of revelation, are not necessarily true. If you internalise them, and leave them there to fester, they can indeed become reality, as they did for Marcia. We can get mired in self-pity, fear and loss so deep that all perspective is lost. But grief isn’t poetic. Coping with it need not be, either. If we acknowledge it, accept that we cannot make it disappear or feel less painful; if we talk about it, weep for it, rage over it in our own way, its capacity for destruction is tempered. We are necessarily different after loss, and we must mourn the life we had planned as well as the person, but whether we are lessened by it is often a matter of how we cope with grief.

This is a difficult thing to do. It is in direct contravention to the Irish way of being, for starters. We don’t phone a friend or sit down with family and say ‘I am really struggling here. I cried about parsnips in Tesco earlier.’ We are not feeling less intensely when we refuse to express the grief we feel. We are simply denying ourselves the perspective we could gain if we said what we are afraid to say. The confusion, sadness or numbness inside us feels indomitably large. When we push it outward for someone else to see, it looks smaller, and a little more manageable. Left in there to fester, grief is a thing with teeth. It gnaws dully and becomes consuming. Then life becomes about appeasing rather than accepting it. When this happens, we are in trouble. We become avoidant, unkind to others, and completely absorbed by our own suffering. It can be tempting to deceive ourselves, to hide, to run. But there is no thought, no fear so terrible that it does not look smaller when you get it out of you. Can you think of one now? The one (perhaps one of many) that you have been too afraid, or feel too disconnected to say to someone you trust? If we can all go home and say aloud (to ourselves or someone else) one unsaid fear that grief has carved into us, we are managing it. Distraction makes us comfortable in the short term, but paying attention to grief is what will heal us in the long term.

Nietzsche, a far less cool philosopher (the fella with the huge moustache that sent women running from him in utter terror), expressed a truly stoic sentiment when he described the key to human greatness in a little Latin phrase; Amor Fati, a love of fate. It is that compelling contradiction of completely accepting, down to your bones, the things outside your control. The death of the people we love is outside our locus of control. Amor Fati charges us with making the best out of anything that may happen. You may not love what has happened to you, or to the person or people you have lost. It doesn’t come naturally to embrace with an open heart the things that we never wanted to happen, or perhaps feared above all else. My upbringing was not secure. My father disappeared often, sometimes for months on end, until finally he disappeared altogether. I was instilled with a crippling fear as a small child that my mother would leave too (though she never would have), or die, and that I would be alone. Her death made me four years old again, sitting on the stairs and waiting for her to come home, terrified of who I would be without her.  But we cannot spend our time wishing that things were different. To do so is to be ruled by grief, to try to will our lives backward into another time.

We are where we are. Part of accepting our loss, and our new present, is relaxing our grip on the person who is gone. We run the risk, when someone dies, of trying to live the life we think they might have wanted for us, to keep them in some way near to us, and to continue to feel their influence on our lives. This should be avoided. My mother and I were incredibly close, and I truly valued her advice and guidance. Being an Irish mammy, she certainly gave it. In wheelbarrowfulls. I miss it now. Often, her advice was invaluable. Sometimes, it was absolutely terrible, because she was a human being, like all of us. She was not perfect, she was not a saint. Too often, we think that honouring someone’s memory means rewriting history to make them perfect. Doing this severs the living connection to them that resides in us. My mother was an excellent baker, but a distracted cook. I used to joke that the smoke alarm was actually the ‘dinner’s ready’ alarm. She underestimated herself, which didn’t surprise but genuinely irked me, and she had a tendency to be judgemental of others sometimes. We rarely had disagreements, but it happened occasionally. Once, shortly after I started working for The Irish Times (I was a penniless student from Limerick, it was a huge thing for me), I got off the phone to my editor, and my mother tried to engage me in a lengthy and detailed conversation about some disappointing washing up gloves she had just bought. When I told her (perhaps churlishly) that I was pretty busy with some work I needed to finish, she declared, hand on hip, ‘Oh I see! So you’re too high falutin’ for rubber gloves now, is it?’ She was genuinely annoyed, but when I erupted into laughter, she joined in. She was a whole person – warm, kind, good, giving, maddening, demanding, and sometimes difficult. She did not belong to me. She does not belong to me now. I have no wish to calcify her in my memory as something more than a person. There were likely sides to her I never knew, and experiences she never shared with me. I don’t get to decide who she was, or wasn’t, or how she should be remembered. She was larger than my capacity to remember her.

So when it comes time to make a decision about my own life, I don’t think ‘She would have wanted me to do this, or not to do that’, because I can never really know that, and because I trust the influence she had over who I am to come through in my decisions. She taught me to do what I thought was best, and I honour her by doing that. We cannot become living memorials to the people we have lost, making choices on the basis of what we guess, or even know, they would have wanted for us. If the finality and caprice of death and grief teaches us anything, it is that our lives are brief, and can end suddenly, so we should live them honourably, and honestly, and pursue happiness not because it is or was someone else’s wish for us, but because we owe it to ourselves.

To do this, we have to survive the first horrific stages of loss, which are usually rich with distraction and sympathy. There is endless dull bureaucracy to see to. Physical objects to deal with, events to arrange or attend. For quite a while after, other people will cut us come slack. They are mindful of our loss, and though they can be hamfisted, or say stupid things, they are usually well intended. Then, the slack tightens again and others move away, and forward, seemingly unconscious of the new weight attached to our ankles, drawing us back to the past rather than into the future. This is a crucial time in bereavement, because it is when we realise that though we may have (and hopefully do have) people around who will support us, listen to us, care about us, our grief is our own responsibility. As we try to settle into a new version of our former life, one which is unrecognisable, littered with the shrapnel of our sense of injustice and disappointed hopes, most other people won’t notice. Though it can feel like it, the rest of the world is not engaged in an active policy of not caring, it is rather engaged in a passive policy of being indifferent. This can feel like a deliberate cruelty when we sit amidst the bombed-out wreckage of our grief, seething at the injustice of other people going about their lives, apparently without pain.

This is when grief is dangerous. When, rather than actively reminding those around us what we need from them, we expect them to intuit it, and deliver it to us in an act of pre-emptive empathy. Like many injustices in life, grief creates a responsibility in someone who doesn’t need or deserve another one. But though grief is an internal process, it can be a communal one too. We owe it to ourselves to find the balance between running from grief and indulging the most heinous lies it tells us. It can be managed. And we owe it to those left around us, who hurt for us too, to tell them how we are doing and what we need from them. In order to prevent grief from shrinking us, and dictating the terms of our bereavement like Marcia, we have to accept what has happened, take control of our bereavement, and embrace, if not love, the new life we have now. Amor Fati.

Do this for yourself. To feel your grief is not to allow yourself to sink irretrievably to the bottom of your fears. Though it murmurs and tears at you, grief is not inherent truth, but feeling. So feel it. Parse it. Strip away your expectations, your sense of what you are entitled to, your sense of having been wronged. There are positives left amid all the unpleasantness. They wink brightly out at us from the wreckage, if we can only bring ourselves to see them. Accept the grief. Sit with it and do not succumb to the fear that it will overwhelm you. You have come this far. Carry it forward into the changed reality of your life in the knowledge that it is a part of being alive. This is what conquering grief looks like.

Despite appearances and a tendency for tough love, Seneca wasn’t a pessimist. If you have time, he is well worth reading, and reading about. He had himself a strange, interesting life, and it ended sadly, but with bravery. He reminds us that while we grieve for what we have lost, we can forget to honour what we had, and I’ll leave you with this. In another letter to a bereaved friend, he writes “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 than that which has been."