Four Ways to Grieve Unethically

My wife and I recently led a discussion on the ethics of grief with a group of psychotherapists. Wishing to challenge the claim that there is no wrong way to grieve, I asked the group to consider boundaries they would place on proper and improper grieving. For the most part, they were a cooperative group, but they were certainly reluctant to declare any way of grieving to be unethical or wrong. Sometimes our conditioning is strong. When the workshop was over, one of the participants asked me what sorts of grieving I think are unethical or inappropriate.

My answer is really simple. I think you are clearly grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt others. I also think you are grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt yourself, but I don’t think that claim is so obvious as the first one.

Some examples:

  1. Homicidal rage—I’m not saying this happens often, but someone overcome with grief Embodiment-of-revenge-by-Roneswho goes on a killing spree is acting unethically for sure. After Ivan López opened fire at Ft. Hood military base, killing three and wounding 16 others before killing himself, friends speculated that it was a reaction to grief over his mother’s death.
  2. Lying and cheating—In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed described the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. In her agony, she turned to casual sexual relationships and substance abuse for comfort, tearing apart her marriage and leading her to lie to her husband and other family members. She eventually found better means of coping, of course, but she still regrets the pain and harm she caused those who loved her.
  3. Alcohol and other drugs— The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, took a fairly standard Stoic response to grief, saying it is acceptable to grieve so long as it is not to excess. He says we should distract ourselves from our grief with other pursuits, so long as they are not harmful to us. In his words: “I do not of course deny that a man may be broken by sorrow, but I do say that every man should do his utmost to escape this fate, and should seek any distraction, however trivial, provided it is not in itself harmful or degrading. Among those that I regard as harmful and degrading I include such things as drunkenness and drugs, of which the purpose is to destroy thought, at least for the time being.” Self-harm is harm, and we do have ethical obligations to care for ourselves.
  4. Demanding but not offering emotional support—Many people repeat an unsubstantiated claim that most parents who lose a child will divorce within a year of the child’s death. This claim is not substantiated by any sort of study and seems to be more intuition than anything else. Nonetheless, it is true that some people who are overcome by grief are unable to provide emotional support to others even though they are receiving and expecting emotional support from those same family members or friends. It is a special kind of cruelty to ask someone in the vice-grip of unimaginable grief to provide emotional comfort and support while being left to drown in sorrow alone and adrift. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief and unable to provide support to the rest of your family, please help them or at least permit them to find other sources of support. If you can’t provide what they need, at least do not become an obstacle to their mental health and comfort.

Anyone who has grieved has probably felt judged for his or her style of grief. As a result, we rush to say that there is no wrong way to grieve, but this bold (and wrong) assertion prevents us from having discussions about the correct ways to grieve. When our grieving causes harm to others or ourselves, it is not merely unhealthy—it is unethical.

A conversation about ethical grieving is worth having, and we can have it without shaming those who are suffering from grief. We can improve our own grieving and our reactions to grief if we can establish an ethics of grief that seeks a path to greater collaboration, greater care, and greater health. Grief will never be easy, and it will always come with risks, but an open conversation can help us avoid its worst effects.

Is there a wrong way to grieve?

Over the past few months, I’ve written of several philosophers of the ancient past who taught that grief should not overwhelm us before themselves becoming overwhelmed by grief. Stoic philosophers taught that we should understand that death is nothing to fear or mourn, if only we can have the proper understanding, but the emotion of grief trumps rational explanations every time. I would conclude, then, that we should not attempt to suppress or diminish our grief but should let it unfold naturally and grieve for as long as necessary. Criticizing the grief of others seems counterproductive at best.

But this left me wondering whether there is a wrong way to grieve. What obligations can the bereaved have to others? Obligations to the dead? Does grief suspend normal obligations?

Like the rest of the world, I don’t know what caused Spc. Ivan Lopez to go on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. He certainly had experienced a great deal of stress in his life and had good reason to experience problems with mental health. According to a CNN article by Ray Sanchez, Lopez’s father said the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother, medical treatment, and changes related to transfer of military installations “surely affected his condition.” Grief often becomes unmanageable when it is combined with other complications, obstacles, and challenges. We do well not to ignore the impact of grief on those around us. We are part of a community, and the health of the community deals in part on how well we respond to grief.

For an example from fiction, I’m reminded of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily has much to grieve for: When she loses her father, she loses a loved one but also status, wealth, predictability, and honor. She responds by simply refusing to acknowledge her loss. In the beginning she denies that her father is even dead. Eventually, she relents and permits him to be buried, but continues her life as if nothing has changed. Her neighbors go along out of pity, not respect. As you probably remember, Emily eventually takes a lover from out of town, kills him, and sleeps with his body for the rest of her life.

Emily’s neighbors had tried to offer condolences to her when her father died, but she denied his death. After his death, the neighbors reacted to her with a mix of compassion, respect, suspicion, and disgust, but they also lacked the will to intervene as Emily continually pushed them away. They left Emily with her privacy and, as much as possible, a little dignity, which only led her to more extreme and destructive measures.

If I say that Emily grieved unethically, you may say that grieving wasn’t the core problem; rather, she was refusing to accept change. But grief is always a reaction to change, and all change is annihilation. The bereaved will often say the whole world changed, and that is exactly what has happened. Emily’s world changed, but she refused to accept either her father’s death or her change in fortune. By killing her lover, she tried to preserve a moment forever. Emily’s response to grief was understandable but not excusable. Then again, perhaps her neighbors did not respond ethically to Emily’s grief. The neighbors did reach out to Emily, even with follow-up visits, but failed to intervene more forcefully. Are they obligated to take matters into their own hands?

I recently had the opportunity to hear author Cheryl Strayed speak on her latest book, Wild, which is about Strayed’s own response to her mother’s death. Strayed is a talented and courageous writer and proficient speaker. As she talked about her grief journey, she only lost her composure once. She said that after her mother’s death she became the kind of daughter her mother would not have wanted her to be. She described her adultery, promiscuity, and substance abuse through tears that evaporated as she moved on to discuss how she began to manage her grief more positively (ethically?).

I ask whether there is an ethical way to grieve. We can see that people, overcome by grief, behave in ways that are certainly unethical in most contexts, but we may have such compassion for the bereaved that we soften our judgment of them. “What she did was wrong,” we may say, “But I can see why she did it. I might have reacted the same way.” But this may be true anytime someone acts unethically. In the exact same situation, I may have acted as Bernie Madoff acted. In fact, we have all acted in unethical ways. We had our reasons (grief, exhaustion, addiction, depression, or whatever), but our actions were unethical.

So what helps people behave more ethically? Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, says that with each of our actions we choose “the good.” He doesn’t mean we always make good choices, but given our options, we choose the one we thought was best, which means we write our ethical values for public view by the actions we choose. In this environment, other people become our hell. Nothing is more damaging to us than being trapped by the others’ perceptions of us.

When we choose an action, we are choosing the one that seems best to us at the time. The problem is that some of us have run out of good ideas for what to do. We often explain ourselves, rightly, by saying, “I didn’t know what to do!” If we had more ideas, we would have more choices and could make better decisions. Sartre claimed we have absolute freedom, but really we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of actions we have in our consciousness. Sartre saw others as our judge, jury, and executioner, but they can also become our community.

It is Sartre’s companion and lover who had a broader vision for existentialist ethics. Simone de Beauvoir was able to see the positive importance of others in our lives. Beauvoir declares “freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” If we want to be free, we must seek our freedom through the freedom of our community, and our freedom grows out of our love. Beauvoir says, “If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Without valuing others, our life truly loses meaning, and we will lose all hope.

When I was in China, I once thanked someone for helping me with a problem, and she responded, beautifully, “When we help each other, we are free.” Indeed, it is the only way for us to become free. And it is the only way for us to have more good ideas of what we can do.