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.
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?
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.