Ethics of Grief: Profiting from the Pain of Others

Imagine you and a friend go to see a documentary (or even fictional film) about the plight of victims of famine, war, disease, or oppression, and you bawl uncontrollably throughout the film as your friend sits next to you unmoved and indifferent to everything happening on the screen. You think anyone who isn’t moved by the extreme suffering you’ve just seen must be some kind of monster (or a sociopath at the least). You feel, in short, that crying is more moral than just sitting there.

You will admit, of course, that your crying through the movie didn’t help the victims any and your friend’s indifference didn’t really hurt anyone. Still, it seems that a moral person should have feelings for those who are suffering, even if you can’t find any real benefit for these strong feelings for strangers who get no benefit from your tears, heartfelt as they are.

In fact, your friend might point out that you are getting all worked up for no reason, and it might be better to keep your emotions in check. Your wailing for these strangers won’t change anything for them, but it might impair your ability to attend to problems you can change. What good are you to your children, for example, if your mind is on the poor souls in some far corner of the world? You should get your head together, friend, and get on with the business of life.

But, you counter, if you learn to be indifferent and unmoved by the pain of strangers, you may become indifferent to the pain of others, including friends and, yes, your own children. You don’t want to become the kind of monster you now suspect your friend of being. You want to be the kind of person who is moved by the suffering of others. You may not be able to help in every situation, but you do not want to become callous and cold. You want to be a caring individual. It isn’t about what you can do but about what you are.

And now your friend points out that not only did you cry during the movie, but you seemed, in some sense, to enjoy it. In fact, you apparently went to the movie with the prior intention of being moved to tears. You chose the movie because it was described as “moving” and “emotionally riveting.” Will you be happy when your children fall ill because it will satisfy your need to “let it all out”? Perhaps you are the monster, after all?

You didn’t enjoy the pain, you object, but you enjoyed the high quality of the film and its ability to elicit the pain. It was beautiful in its ability to enlarge compassion and trigger a caring response. The film will help, if nothing else, audiences develop a greater sense of concern for others, even if it doesn’t affect everyone (with a sly and disapproving nod to your friend).

And your friend now points out that people had to suffer in order to expand compassion and develop a greater caring response, so the suffering of others is used as a means to your own ends. You are actually acting selfishly after all, and the film makers are also exploiting the suffering of these people in order to teach a moral lesson and even to make a profit and perhaps sit in the spotlight after receiving coveted awards. You can just imagine the director’s teary expressions of gratitude and exhortations for a more acts of compassion at the ceremony.

In 2012, comedian Anthony Griffith told the story of his daughter’s cancer in a moving performance for The Moth. The video quickly went viral. You can see the video here:

The video on YouTube now has more than 1.8 million views. It is almost impossible to watch the video without sobbing, and people shared it by promising that anyone watching should have some tissues on hand. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we enjoy experiencing his grief with him. It might be objected that we are emotional voyeurs watching a sort of grief porn. By watching, we are not helping his daughter, we are not preventing future cancer deaths, we are not improving medical care, and it isn’t clear how we might be improving ourselves.

Paradoxically, we simultaneously want to avoid our own pain but glom onto the pain of others. Watching the story enables us to experience the pain without having to actually experience the loss of child. Doing this while watching a fictional account of loss seems justifiable in many ways, but to seek out a chance to cry and experience this kind of pseudo-grief that is provided by the actual grief of another person certainly raises an ethical concern.

We might say that Anthony Griffith needed to talk about his loss, and we are providing him with an audience. We are doing him a great favor by listening. We are honoring his loss. And he may agree with us. In this case, he is using us to help him along his healing journey, but this doesn’t seem to be what is going on. We want to see and hear his story. We want to be part of his grief story without having to do any heavy lifting ourselves. We watch the video, feel emotional excitement, hug our loved ones because one never knows when they will be gone, and then we are done with it.

We might say that we want to hear the story because it is well written and well performed. Griffith is extremely talented as a story teller, and we appreciate his talent and courage to share such a personal story. When we watch the video, we are paying tribute to his writing and his acting. The only problem is that he really doesn’t seem to be acting. He has merely put his pain on view for the world. He is certainly talented, and the story is well-written, but most people will be moved by anyone’s story of a lost child. It is relatively easy to evoke strong emotions with a story of intense pain and grief.

It may be that we want to hear his story so we can prepare ourselves for the times our story might be the main event. Someday we will have to do the heavy lifting. If we can live through Griffith’s pain, maybe we can face our own. By experiencing Griffith’s grief, we see that we can also face it and live through it just as he has done. We finish the video feeling somehow more prepared.

Or we may be drawn to the stories of others because it provides an evolutionary advantage. By hearing stories of others, we develop compassion and care. Other than providing an audience, we may not be helping Griffith directly, but we may be better able to empathize with others in the future. We are preparing not only for how to face our own struggles but to help others through theirs. If this is true, then we are actually doing something noble and beneficial by watching such videos.

Or, maybe we are just seeking the thrill of an emotional roller coaster ride.

Comments are welcome below. I appreciate corrections to typos and so forth (randall@ethicsbeyondcompliance.com).

The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example

Epictetus stated he would embrace death before...
Epictetus stated he would embrace death before shaving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In advising us on how to respond when we encounter someone who has lost a child or suffered an equally calamitous loss, the stoic philosopher, Epictetus said, “Don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.”  These negative emotions are dangerous to us and to others, so we must be sure to keep them in check.

This sounds harsh, but Epictetus also advises us not to beat ourselves up when we do give over to grief. He says, “Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.” Epictetus assures us that death is not to be feared, and our terror of it comes from within, but blaming ourselves for our feelings is also pointless.

Scottish philosopher David Hume, reflecting on the nature of tragedy in art, makes a comment about the best way to comfort a parent who has lost a child. Hume says, “Who could ever think of it as a good expedient for comforting an afflicted parent, to exaggerate, with all the force of elocution, the irreparable loss which was met with by the death of a favorite child?” I’m sure Hume is right that we shouldn’t exaggerate the loss, but I would also advise against minimizing the loss in any way, which is what Cicero’s friend, Servius Sulpicius Rufus,  did after the death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia.

David Hume
David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sulpicius said, “If you have become the poorer by the frail spirit of one poor girl, are you agitated thus violently? If she had not died now, she would yet have had to die a few years hence, for she was mortal born.” Sulpicius sounds harsh in this instance, but this is actually offered only after he introduced the topic, saying, “If I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow.” If he had been available, he would have comforted Cicero and perhaps avoided the need for such harsh and critical words later, apparently.

Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London ...
Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London (Herzog Wellington) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cicero expressed his gratitude for the comforting words laced with recrimination, but also acknowledged their ineffectiveness, saying, “For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you – a man of such wisdom – think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me.”

Cicero had also been writing consolations for himself, and he felt himself the inventor of this type of self-help. He said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”) Unfortunately, Cicero’s Consolations have not survived the passage of time, so we can only infer what they may have said. In a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero remarked that he wrote in order to heal, but his writing also kept him out of public view, preserving the privacy of his grief and avoiding a vulgar display of emotion.

Cicero also took his turn in consoling others, Baltussen notes, “In the examples where Cicero aims at consoling others, we find a subtle approach, developing, as it were, a ‘philosophy of empathy,’ in which he consciously or unconsciously takes personal and political aspects into account. He shows great sensibility in narrowing or widening the emotional gap between him and the consolee.” Cicero noted that one task as consoler was to establish that he needed consolation himself, as he was grieving for his friend’s loss. I think this goes a little beyond mere empathy. Cicero actually feels his own sorrow upon hearing of the sorrow of a dear friend. He understands the friend’s pain because it is a magnified form of his own pain.

I personally feel that Cicero’s struggle with his grief highlights a social failure to deal with grief constructively. Can we not manage to express and process grief openly without fear of censure from friends and counselors? Since the time of Cicero, we have developed grief therapy, expressions of support for the bereaved, and paid lip service to the process of healing. Yet, we still criticize those who can’t “get it together” within a short time. Sadness is seen as weakness, especially for men, and we do not tolerate prolonged grieving. Cicero was lucky to have friends and the ability to spend time grieving and writing his consolations. Men with less power would have had no option but to keep working without respite.

Grief
Grief (Photo credit: tombellart)

As for me, I don’t know the best way to console others, but I’ve thought a little about what kinds of consolations have helped me in the past, and these are the things that I appreciate. First, recognize that my pain is of such a magnitude that it obscures the horizon, and I can’t see beyond it. Second, do acknowledge the enormous value of the life I have lost. Third, do remind me that the person I lost had life filled with wonder, love, accomplishments, and happiness. Fourth, remind me also that this person is in a state of peace with no more struggle, pain, or discontentment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assure me that I am not alone in the world, my grief is justified, and that a future is possible.

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.