By Kai Whiting & Santara Gonzales
Stoics And Grieving
In a letter to Polybius, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:
Let your tears flow, but also let them cease, let deepest sighs be drawn from your chest, but let them find an end. – Seneca to Polybius 18:6.
He is advising Polybius, who had suffered the loss of his brother, that grief is to be faced and processed, not avoided nor suppressed. The counsel Seneca gave Polybius indicates that Stoics should not be emotionless. This contradicts the common misconception that Stoics should be stoic (lowercase “s”, meaning cold and distant).
In the same letter to Polybius, Seneca wrote:
Nature requires from us some sorrow, while more than this is the result of vanity. But never will I demand of you that you should not grieve at all (18:4-5).
Accept Your Feelings, But Don’t Indulge In Them
In other words, we should accept our feelings without indulging in them, because while it is natural to respond to death with tears, death doesn’t need to be tragic or rob us of our joy. Indeed, should we find ourselves grief stricken, we should think about whether the person we have lost would want us to suffer. If they truly and rationally loved us, then it is more than likely that they would want us to wholeheartedly celebrate the beauty of life and death.
Be Mindful Of Your Attitude
Death is an integral part of human existence, but the act of dying has no bearing on our character and says nothing as to our progress (or lack thereof) towards eudaimonia, the state of complete human happiness. Rather it is, as Epictetus reminds us, our attitude towards death, illness, and other forms of human hardship, that either builds or destroys our path to flourishing:
What, then, should we have at hand to help us in emergencies? Why, what else than to know what is mine and isn’t mine and what is in my power and isn’t? I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.21-22
It is neither death, nor exile, nor distress, nor anything of that kind, that causes us to do something or not do it, but rather our judgments and opinions – Epictetus, Discourses 1.11.33
In both passages, Epictetus’ point is not that we should never express emotions but rather that we should reflect deeply on how our emotions (or the suppressing of them) are affecting our judgment of the situation at hand. After all, why be overwhelmed with grief or consumed by sorrow if we can turn grief into gratitude and transform sorrow into joy? Why refuse to deal with our emotions if that decision is adding to our inner turmoil? Why focus so hard on the ceasing of a person’s life when we can instead honour them by making the conscious decision to remember and rejoice in their memory?
Epictetus also teaches that it is not particularly Stoic to go around telling others that they shouldn’t feel the need to grieve. He gives this lesson when he responds to someone’s statement that their “mother grieves at not seeing me” by saying:
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make an effort to stop her from grieving, but that we shouldn’t wish at all costs for things that are not our own. Now, someone else’s grief is not my own concern, but my own grief is. It is thus my responsibility to put an end to it at all cost, because that is within my power; as to the grief of another, I’ll strive to put an end to it so far as I am able but won’t strive to do so at all costs. Otherwise, I will be pitting myself against the gods – Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.22-24
We Can’t Always Prevent Hardship, But We Can Choose Our Response
During our lifetime, it is almost certain that hardship will befall us. In all likelihood, we will grieve the loss of a loved one. While the Stoics encourage us to allow for a natural release of emotion in the form of grief, they also remind us that in our mourning we should not become so overwhelmed that it prevents us from flourishing. We cannot always prevent hardship, but we can always choose how we to respond – whether that be wallowing in self-pity or cheerfully expressing our gratitude for the lessons that life is teaching us.