The Ethics of Grief

It seems each time I attend a funeral, I overhear someone being criticized for grieving too subtly, too gregariously, too privately, or while dressed inappropriately. I dismiss the critics as judgmental and ignorant cranks who should have better things to do. We all know that each person grieves differently. We should all be allowed to grieve in our own time and in our own way.

But I wonder whether there is am improper way to grieve. Many of us tell our loved ones not to cry for us when we are gone. We’d rather imagine they will have a party to celebrate our life. We would like for them to pay tribute to us through their own joy. And when people ask us to do this, we promise them we will, even though we know we won’t. We make an impossible promise out of respect for those we love.

But some people take such promises seriously. This past week, I came across a paper by Amy Olberding that discusses different approaches to grief by Seneca and Zhuangzi. In letter 63, Seneca counsels his friend, “We, however, may be forgiven for bursting into tears, if only our tears have not flowed to excess, and if we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow.  We may weep, but we must not wail.” But Seneca goes on to confess that he wailed excessively over the loss of his friend, Annaeus Serenus.

Seneca
Seneca (Photo credit: tonynetone)wailed excessively over the loss of his friend, Annaeus Serenus.

He admits the power of his grief, but admonishes himself, “I must be included among the examples of men who have been overcome by grief.  Today, however, I condemn this act of mine.” In describing Seneca’s position, Olberding says grief for Seneca is “a form of self-injury that neither effect relief from pain nor alter the event that stimulated it.” As a Stoic, Seneca claims that death should not be seen as an injury, so it is wrong to grieve something that is not actually harmful. Many Christians find themselves in a similar state. Should we not celebrate someone’s passage to a blissful eternity?

English: Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or ...
English: Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And Zhuangzi, the Daoist, finds himself in a similar state. Zhuangzi taught that death is a mere transition to another state and nothing to grieve at all. Olberding says the Daoist views death as part of a “global harmony that sustains the natural world.” But when Zhuangzi’s wife died, he also reacted with extreme emotion. He said, “I with my sobbing knew no better than to bewail her. The thought came to me that I was being uncomprehending towards destiny, so I stopped.” Unlike Seneca, Zhuangzi did not express any self-recrimination over his grief.

Whether we consider it appropriate or not, the feeling of grief when something of great value is lost is universal. We are shocked when someone seems unaffected by the loss of someone who should be valued. With later reflection, we can reassess our grief and our loss more rationally and understand death in a larger context, especially if we have, indeed, learned to live without our valued loved one.

In Buddhism, Kisa Gotami also learns to reevaluate her grief after some reflection and guidance from the Buddha and her neighbors. Kisa Gotami had a young son who died, and she carried his body from person to person seeking aid to revive him. Finally, she was directed to the Buddha who asked her to obtain a mustard seed from every house where no one had lost a child, spouse, parent, or friend. After she couldn’t gather even a single seed, she judges herself for being selfish in her grief while remaining ignorant of the suffering of others.

The Buddha tells her, “In whatever manner people think a thing will come to pass, it is often different when it happens, and great is the disappointment; see, such are the terms of the world.” Even when death is expected, it is painful, but surprise intensifies the pain. The loss of young and healthy friends, siblings, and children often shatters the narrative people tell themselves about how the world works.

The advice of Seneca, Zhuangzi, and the Buddha all seem to be good advice, so long as we acknowledge that no human can suppress an immediate expression of extreme grief when faced with loss of someone so valued. As time passes, we may benefit from reminders that death is a transition, that death is universal, and that we can, indeed, live on after our loss. I do realize there are cases where survivors do not seem able to live on after loss, and compassion should move us to try to help those who are crippled by grief or loss of support.

It is true that people grieve in their own way and their own time, but compassionate care, free from judgment, might help people reach acceptance of the reality of a world that often seems to lack moral order, fairness, and predictability.

Grief and the problem of meaning making

Kurt_Vonnegut_at_CWRU
Kurt_Vonnegut_at_CWRU (Photo credit: david_terrar)

I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut again. It is a bad habit I started as a teenager. When I began reading Vonnegut, I was a classic example of a depressed teenager, or at least that was how I saw myself.

Looking back, I realized I had many reasons to be sad. Extremely sad, even. A friend had died in a motorcycle accident when a car pulled in front of him in our own neighborhood, and then my uncle, who was 25 years old, died in a fire that consumed the mobile home he was living in. Of course, a few other bad things happened, too, and the world just seemed a little crazy to me, not fair at all.

My confusion was confounded by the fact that I would often hear family members ask one another, “Do you think someone is trying to tell you something?” They searched each devastating event for a message from God. If something bad happened, it was because we had done something wrong. At church, I learned that all the pain, all the trials, and all the trauma was part of God’s plan, even if no mortal could make heads nor tails out of the plan. I hadn’t read Kierkegaard yet, but I was told to take a “leap of faith,” and then I was thrown off a cliff of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard (Copenhague)
Søren Kierkegaard (Copenhague) (Photo credit: dalbera)

So, around that time, I read about Kurt Vonnegut’s unlucky sister. In the prologue to Slapstick, he told of how while his sister, Alice, was dying of cancer, her husband, who was to take care of their children after her death, died on “the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge.” It was bad luck—bad enough to make you feel a little depressed.

But Vonnegut always made me feel better about things. He said, “Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place.” Although I have received prodigious religious instruction and led a life full of blame, that one line has gotten me though many dark moments.

Over the years, I’ve heard many people tell me that bad things were part of some tortuous plan by some deity or other, I’ve heard that children are only on earth as a “loan” from God, and I’ve heard that God won’t give us more than we can handle. It seems to me that people routinely get more than they can handle. Many people die from stress-related illness or suicide, brought about by despair and a massive inability to cope with life’s tribulations.

Ah, but the people who didn’t survive just didn’t have enough faith to get by. The message I got from this was: “Be strong—or God may kill you.” If I had no faith in the purely accidental nature of bad luck that I learned from the Vonneguts, I am not sure I could have survived my life, which really only has the normal amount of sorrow and trauma. I haven’t been spectacularly unlucky, even by first-world standards.

Thanks to some of the interpretations I have heard of the meaning of traumatic events, I get a little nervous when anyone starts talking about making meaning of suffering. I’m quite happy to believe that suffering is just one of the vagaries of an existence fraught with peril. According to a paper by psychologist Robert Neimeyer and his coauthors, people have an intense need to “make meaning” after an extreme event disrupts their life narrative. Through a process of making meaning, individuals are able to restore a coherent narrative of their lives.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that most people believe the world has a certain moral order, and that people who are good will be rewarded with positive outcomes. So, when bad things happen, we will surely ask, “Why me?” This is a question Alice Vonnegut never asked herself, according to her brother, anyway. The horrible luck she had did not interrupt her narrative because her narrative was one of randomness and accidental events.

Regardless of what narrative one tells regarding the moral order of the universe, many people do see their own moral or spiritual growth as a result of suffering. Indeed, when we meet young people who are self-satisfied and callous, we often think that they will grow as they meet with grief and loss, and that growth will bring wisdom. It is good to know that our loss can make us better people, but I can’t think of a time when I would not give up my personal growth in order to have a loved one restored.

It seems somehow wrong, ethically wrong, to look toward loss as an opportunity for growth, but we do not seem quite so bothered by looking backward to a loss as a catalyst for growth. Herein lies some of my discomfort with focusing too clumsily on making meaning—it almost implies approaching loss by asking, “What can I get out of this?” Alternatively, it invites people to celebrate what they gained from loss. This, in itself, can create moral distress.

To be sure, psychologists such as Robert Neimeyer emphasize accompanying the grief-stricken on their own journey without guiding them down any particular path. People will, naturally, have to determine what their loss means and also what meaning they assign to life after their loss. If they fail to find any meaning, they may lose their lives all together.

In the quest for meaning, though, I hope we can accept that we live in a world full of hazards, and they do not affect us in any rational order. It turns out that some really awful people live rather charmed lives, and the purest and most compassionate people in the world suffer, though not always.

If we have the strength, we put one foot in front of another one more time. And, maybe, once again.

Montaigne: We’re all animals

I have a bad habit of speculating about what animals, usually my dog or someone else’s pet, are thinking. This leads people close to me to accuse me of anthropomorphism. They say I assume animals experience the world in the same way I do without any real evidence to tell me what kinds of  “thoughts” animals might have.

And it is true; I have no way to verify what animals are actually thinking, but I don’t have any reliable way to know what anyone is thinking, so I go about my day assuming animals, especially mammals, experience life more or less as I do, even if they can’t express it with language. I happen to think those of us who make this assumption are kinder than those who don’t. And if we must make assumptions, anyway, we might as well make assumptions that increase kindness in the world.

In Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum turns the tables on the critics of anthropomorphism. Rather than accusing people of projecting human emotions onto animals, she questions why humans are so insistent on denying that human and nonhuman animals share some emotional experiences. Rather than anthropomorphism, she says, we are guilty of anthropodenial.

Humans have a long history of placing themselves closer to angels than to other mammals. In fact, many humans see themselves as a sort of angel in waiting. We separate ourselves from other animals by drawing a supposed bright line between ourselves and animals. What’s more, humans have a tendency to separate themselves from other humans by projecting animal qualities on others. Humans in despised and marginalized groups are said to be vicious, savage, smelly, dirty, shameless, and stupid. Being no better than animals, members of such groups are often treated much worse than “angels in waiting.”

Nussbaum’s description seems radical in some ways, but the distinction between writers and thinkers who deny the shared experience of human and nonhuman animals and those who embrace the similarities is ancient. Writing in the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne wrote of his condition tha...
Michel de Montaigne wrote of his condition that, “I am at grips with the worst of all maladies, the most sudden, the most painful, the most mortal and the most irremediable. I have already experienced five or six very long and painful bouts of it.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

made many of the same points as Nussbaum. He notes, first, that the humans are the “most wretched and frail” of species yet also the proudest.

He says the human animal “attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions.” And he challenges the assumption, asking, “From what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them?” He points out that we eat, reproduce, protect our young, and generally try to survive right along with all the other animals. Of course, one of the most important similarities is the way we deal with pain, both physical and emotional. He says, “Our crying is common with the greatest part of other animals, and there are but few creatures that are not observed to groan, and bemoan themselves a long time after they come into the world.”

We suffer and bemoan our fate right alongside our animal companions on the earth. While we may wish to bring the heavens under our feet, as he says, we are lowly animals seeking comfort and refuge from fear, hunger, and loneliness. And if humans are wont to declare themselves superior to animals based on an alleged superiority and favor from God, humans are just as likely to attempt to declare themselves superior to other humans—largely by comparing those humans to animals in an effort to degrade them.

Thus, members of other cultures, skin colors, or practices are seen as being savage or beastlike. Their animalism is evident by their alleged smells, filth, aggression, or unchecked sexuality. Not one to shirk from the most extreme cases, Montaigne examines cultural views of cannibals. He describes in gruesome detail the methods of war, capture, and torture reputed to some classes of cannibalistic humans. After Montaigne has thoroughly disgusted his reader, he declares, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.”

Without shirking from the most horrifying practices of cannibalistic cultures, Montaigne then turns to examine his own culture. He says, “I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine . . . than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”

He then tells us of a case where cannibals are brought into “civilized” society and shown the pinnacle of human achievement. After they have seen all the finery, the king asked them what they most admired. They said “that they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”

Be kind to animals. Even human ones.