Finding the right concepts for suffering is important. Without them pain lacks boundaries, it spills over and expands. Without them we are helpless and confused. By finding language for our inchoate suffering we give it a form. This is important, because we can navigate and manage things that have forms. By giving form I do not mean only that we create a conceptual map, I mean that we actually shape the suffering itself. Grief work involves bringing into form a mess of complex suffering. I have worked a lot with people who have lost their partner through death, and this act of finding words and concepts - of finding form - is vital. Today I want to speak about coping with a relationship loss more widely - I am thinking especially of relationship break-downs and divorce. This loose reflection is the first of a few, more specific ones, which I intend to write on this topic.
Many people have a curious habit of dismissing their suffering with respect to both its nature and its depth. I say "curious" because question marks should be placed over the behaviour. Indeed it often seems to me that the person doing this is using it as a defense against pain. To dismiss your pain is to fantasise that it is really that minimal. A consequence of such denial is that the unexamined suffering remains inchoate. Formless. And so the sufferer remains confused and helpless, more readily overwhelmed, and falls more often into crisis.
It sounds simple to say it, but people who are grieving a relationship need to acknowledge what they are doing: that they are grieving. It will help the immensely to grasp the nature of their loss, which is to say, the full spectrum of their experience. For they do not only grieve a person. Contemporary grief theory speaks of “secondary losses.” To lose your partner is to lose a range of things: many aspects of the present life you have created; the future you been creating and which has become a source of fundamental motivation in your daily life; the past, whose meaning is now undermined. Grief is complex in its multiplicity of dimensions. This is why people feel confused and overwhelmed, and why language and form matter.
The upcoming writing that I intend to do about grief after a relationship will show some of its deeper, existential dimensions. But for today I want to keep things simple. The philosopher Wittgenstein suggested that we often fail to see what is right before our eyes. In this reflection I want to avoid getting clever or complex, and note the physical dimension of grief. We are mammals. This directly impacts how we grieve, and what helps in response.
The feeling of aloneness can be deeply physical, for our world is an embodied world, and meaning and attachment is profoundly physical in us. Indeed we emerge from the womb, from loving arms, feeding off the substance of our mother, and we live our lives in the shadow of this fact. And so the physical desire to get back to our partner can be incredibly powerful. It can be like the desire of an addict for their drug. I say that literally, for neuroscience shows us that love has chemical elements on which we become dependent. In a sense romantic love functions like a drug. I think it is mistaken to reduce love to its chemical dimensions (there's a difference between a correlation and a cause), but as I say we should acknowledge the mammal in us and the way this shapes our desire and experience. Losing love involves a chemical withdrawal. No doubt this is one of the reasons why people experience nausea, physical anxiety, pain and depression when they lose their loved one. In rare cases people - especially those who are elderly - can die of a broken heart.
It is no surprise then that people do foolish things in this situation. They are driven by complex factors within themselves, which includes physical and chemical dimensions. Those who do things which, in hindsight, make them ashamed, should keep this in mind. I am not proposing that people abdicate responsibility for themselves or make excuses for shabby behaviour, but that they find compassion for themselves. The simple point I want to make today, before writing in future about grief from a philosophical and existential perspective, is that a person needs to tend to themselves as to a wounded mammal when they are going through this situation. They need to use their intelligence to recognise the form(s) of their own experience, and to respond accordingly. The concept of self-care becomes important at this point. Doing things that provide safety and comfort are necessary, whether they be massages, seeking out social support, giving more time to contemplation or meditation or prayer, and whatever else the individual does that helps them find their centre in the midst of strife. Many of the people who are attracted to my philosophical therapy are the sort who make their way through the world by means of their intelligence. This is a strength. But it means that they often overlook the kinds of care for the self that they need as bodies, as mammals, as social animals. Aristotle suggested that a life of contemplation requires a certain level of material comfort and freedom. We need to attend to the basic things first of all, in order to fully use our minds to find a way forward.
Human resilience diminishes under stress, and we need to take extra care of our selves if we are to cope well. Self-care that is mindful of grief's power and complexity is important at such a time. As I say, concepts and words become important because of the orientation they provide and because of the way that they, in turn, shape experience. However just as people often dismiss their grief, so they often dismiss the need to take extra care of themselves when they are suffering. I think that this, also, is a defense mechanism: people want to believe that they are resilient and clever enough not to need extra self-care. To admit their need for such care is to admit their weakness. But we are all weak, as well as strong, and our weaknesses and strengths are both finite. The failure to see this can cost us in many ways.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Fiona Byrne
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.