Stoicism and Grief:
The Art of Experiencing Loss
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
“No one can tell you how to grieve!! The process is different for each of us!!”
I was a little surprised to read the above comment, to be honest. I guess I didn’t realise that the “How to” angle could be seen as… maybe… confrontational?
You no doubt have noticed my recent announcements, dear reader, regarding TODAY’s panel discussion, “How to Grieve” (taking place at Noon EST), and featuring a superbly knowledgable panel.
I want to assure you all, in case there are others that share the above sentiment, that we won’t be telling you what to do.
You see, philosophers have been discussing death, loss, grief, emotions, resilience, and different ways to handle the difficulties of life for… well, millennia.
(Check out today’s article, below, regarding how the Stoics specifically handled it - including Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius)
These ancient thinkers also went through a lot of that hard stuff themselves. So what we’ll be doing today, is talking about different tactics and perspectives that have worked… or not worked…. throughout history. We’ll look at historical examples and compare how they may (or may not) be relevant in our modern lives.
We also have the honor of welcoming some serious intellectual heavy-hitters, which alone is an opportunity not to be missed.
Indeed, we’ve already had over a 1000 sign ups! It really does promise to be an excellent, thought-provoking and extremely important event.
Make sure to join us: https://how-to-grieve.eventbrite.ie
And if there is someone you know who would benefit from this all too human event, please remember it is completely free and open to everyone. So feel free to share it:
Even if you aren’t able to join us live, you can still enjoy this excellent overview of the Stoic view to grief below, as exemplified by three famous Stoics.
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. If you aren’t already a Classical Wisdom Member, check out our different membership packages to see what suits you… and help support our efforts of promoting and preserving ancient history, mythology and philosophy:
Stoicism and Grief: The Art of Experiencing Loss
By Andrew Aulner
Grief is common to all human beings. Ranging from the loss of a pet or a livelihood to the bitter agony found in the death of a loved one, grief finds its way into all of our lives. The ancient Stoics, who lived in times that were harder and more perilous than our own, developed a unique and firm perspective on how to cope with grief.
Epictetus: Nothing Lasts Forever
One of the most well-known Stoic philosophers, a Greek named Epictetus, understood that many things in life are outside of our immediate control. This makes sense in light of Epictetus’ personal history. Born into slavery in modern-day Turkey, Epictetus knew from an early age what it meant to be unable to have a direct influence on the world around him.
Epictetus didn’t receive freedom until sometime after his late teens or early twenties, by which point he was living with a leg that had been crippled thanks either to a childhood condition or the violence of a slave master. If anyone could be said to have been dealt a poor hand in life, Epictetus qualified.
Despite this, Epictetus did not wallow in misery or begrudge his life story. Instead, he formulated a philosophy that emphasized the importance of personal responsibility in the face of unfair external events. In fact, Epictetus went so far as to say that the only control that a person has is control over himself.
Because of this, Epictetus argued that the best shield against grief was not finding ways to guard ourselves from loss, which is impossible, but rather to teach ourselves to react to it better. Instead of hating the gods or the universe after the death of a loved one or some other significant loss, Epictetus said that we should find peace in the fact that nothing in life lasts forever, including the time we get to spend with our loved ones.
Since everything on this side of eternity is temporary, we must accept that they will come to an end and, so we should savor the time we have.
In his Discourses, or lectures, which were written down by one of his students, Epictetus teaches that people should view everything and everyone in their life as a gift for them to enjoy in its proper time. Once that gift has left someone’s life, they must acknowledge that the time for enjoying that particular treasure is over. Just like you wouldn’t expect to be able to enjoy a piece of fresh fruit out of season, so too you shouldn’t expect to be able to savor time with a loved one beyond whatever amount of time has been appointed for you to spend together.
Seneca the Younger: Weep, But Do Not Be Swallowed Up by Grief
Seneca the Younger was a prominent Stoic philosopher and playwright who lived in the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. By this time, Stoicism was a well-known philosophy with many adherents, as well as detractors. According to Seneca, opponents of Stoicism criticized the philosophy’s view of mortality as too harsh and strict because of its supposed lack of tolerance for the emotion of grief.
On the subject of grief, Seneca admitted that tears fall naturally without our prompting, and sad events will inevitably produce mournful feelings in us. However, just because we experience certain emotional responses in the face of loss does not mean that we have to be ruled by them.
Seneca argued against conjuring up additional feelings of sadness just because someone else is expressing such emotions. If your father or mother dies, it’s okay if you cry less than your sister or brother does. You won’t be able to avoid feeling rightfully sad at such a great loss, but if you are emotionally reserved, you don’t need to feel obligated to cry more just because your siblings do.
Social convention and the opinions of others should not determine the extent of our grief.
Marcus Aurelius: You Must Control Your Own Mind
Although he was the most powerful man in the world when he ruled the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius nevertheless admonished himself with the reminder that the only thing he could ultimately control was himself. Natural disasters and the choices of others are outside of our power, but each of us can practice self-discipline.
“Realize this,” Marcus says in his Meditations, “and you will find strength.”
Instead of being battered about by external events and distressed by the decisions of others, Marcus made a conscious, daily effort to control the way that he responded to these things. Our emotions can’t be switched on and off like a machine, but we can condition our minds over time to respond to events in a certain way.
For example, if you hate getting up early in the morning but love a brisk walk, pairing the enjoyable activity with something you initially recoil at can eventually condition you to appreciate—or at least tolerate—the less pleasing thing.
Along these same lines, Marcus says, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” The mind can be conditioned to be more resilient in the face of loss. While it can be easy to let our emotions, including a powerful feeling like grief, get the better of us, Marcus urges us to choose the path that leads to resilience and strength.
Memento Mori: Remember That You Die
Instead of diminishing the impact of death or avoiding the subject entirely to spare their emotions, the Stoics frequently urged themselves and their adherents to meditate upon death, even daily. The theme of memento mori, Latin for, “Remember that you die,” can be found in the writings of the prominent Stoics, from Seneca the Younger to Epictetus to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
It is not that the Stoics were unfeeling or lacked normal human emotions. They were human beings with human emotions, but they actively chose to practice resilience and self-control in the face of grief. Something that can only be possible as a result of regular, dedicated training. Just as we understand that a football player can kick a 60-yard field goal only because of constant practice, we must realize that a true Stoic can stay strong in the face of tragedy only after a lifetime of preparation.
For example, Marcus Aurelius told himself in his Meditations that it is beneficial to regularly consider the transient nature of all mortal things. Such frequent remembrances will strengthen your ability to prepare for the imminent loss brought by death, either your own or that of your loved ones.
The wisdom of Stoicism regarding the grieving process may sound harsh to our modern ears, but we shouldn’t be quick to discount it. The Stoics urged a focus on self-control and self-discipline as an antidote to being tossed about by life’s difficulties. Grief will always hurt, but we shouldn’t be carried away by it or influenced to exacerbate our grief just because others expect it of us. You can train yourself to control your reactions to loss, especially by remembering the transience of life. Over time, you can make yourself a mentally stronger, more resilient person.
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Aurelius, Marcus, Meditations: A New Translation, trans. Gregory Hays, New York, Random House. 2003.
Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, trans. Robert Dobbin, New York, Penguin Books. 2008.
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell, New York, Penguin Books. 1969.
'Experiencing Loss' is not an art nor an act of conscious recognition, but the unconscious awakening and unbridled release of deep core emotions as a physiological reaction, immediate or delayed. From experience there is no preparing for this anguished onslaught of unbearable emotional, mental and physical weight.
When notified of the inevitable death of my father, for which I'd prepared over the years of his illness, I was overcome with the peace and calm of knowing he had finally moved on from pain and suffering. I rejoiced. Then time moved on to dealing with family and all that went along with his death, their loss experiences.
Again time moved on and I found myself alone within a crowd, reflecting and remembering deeply my father. That's when my loss hit me, what I assumed to be the weight of my grief, and I broke down into anguished tears and gasps for breath. I just let it all flow, making no attempt to suppress or hide my bared emotions, and that's when it hit me -
"Grief is really just love. It's all the love you want to give but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go."