At first glance Stoicism and bereavement might seem to be strange bedfellows. Stoicism may be one of the wisest philosophies of the ancient world, but it is precisely with regard to grief that it seems most un-wise. The love of rationality and suppression of emotions renders the philosophy tone-deaf and callous in the face of such loss. However, grief is not all flooding emotions, even if it often feels like that. I spent five years providing bereavement counselling after suicide, three days a week. I witness how grief goes to extremes, from a kind of emotional madness, to a need to quietly reflect on existential questions, and everything in between. There are aspects that are out of people's control, which at best can be simply accepted (rather than fought against). There are also aspects that are in people's control, especially over time as the madness wanes. Below are some stoic principles, with a discussion of how they can guide us in bereavement over the long term.
The first stoic principle that is relevant to bereavement is the concept of "amor fati," or the love of fate. This principle emphasises the importance of accepting the natural order of things, even when it brings us pain and suffering. Bereaved people have often complained to me about their loss that "it is unnatural." They are expressing multiple things in this statement which are usually worth unpacking, but my first response is always, "No it's not, death is natural." Young death is natural. Death by suicide is in its own sense natural. People die, at all ages and through all sorts of causes. I am not being callous when I say this, although as a strongly empathic person I had to train myself to do this as it can indeed feel confrontational and callous. But we need to accept reality if we are to cope and to find our strength. Otherwise we become lost in a room of mirrors, kicking against reality as we have falsely defined it. When we experience bereavement, we are faced with the reality that death happens, and can happen to us, to those we love. It is a natural and expected part of life. By accepting this reality, we can find a greater sense of peace in the face of our loss.
Another important stoic principle that can help us deal with bereavement is the concept of "dichotomy of control." This principle suggests that we should focus our attempts at change only on the things that are within our control, and accept the things that are beyond our control. When we experience bereavement, we may feel powerless and overwhelmed by our grief. However, by focusing on the things that are within our control such as our thoughts and actions - for example by going out of our way to be care for others who are grieving - we can increase our sense of agency and even of purpose. Life did loss to us, we can't change that, but what are we going to do with what has been done to us? What are we going to do with life.
The stoics also emphasize the importance of reason and rationality in dealing with emotional pain. When we experience bereavement, our emotions can be intense and overwhelming. However, the stoics suggest that we should use reason and logic to examine our thoughts and emotions, and challenge any irrational beliefs or assumptions that may be contributing to our suffering. Grieving people can become generally aggreived. Such people have often complained to me that nobody understands about grief. I would ask them about how much they understood or cared before their loss. Narcissitic people would delude themselves about this, but the majority could see the point, and that they were being unreasonable, were demanding things which they themselves fail to give. The losses and pains of life can tempt us to become bitter human beings, usually through irrational indulgences in framing ourselves as unique victims. Reason in this context is humility, and a love of truth and justice, and an empathy for others, which leads us to rise above our temptation to such irrational, narcisisstic delusions.
Stoicism also emphasises the importance of self-control and discipline in dealing with adversity. When we experience bereavement, we may feel tempted to indulge in destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse. However, the stoics suggest that we should cultivate self-control and discipline, and resist the temptation to give in to our impulses. This may have the form of drinking too much for a time as a way of coping, but then knowing when enough is enough, and exercising our will to bring things back to a better balance, now that we are more able to do that. By exercising such self-control and discipline, we actually increase our resilience in the face of our loss. We can return to who we are according to our values, and prepare ourselves for the next meaningful chapter.
In conclusion, the stoic perspective actually offers valuable insights into how we can deal with bereavement. By embracing the natural order of things, focusing on the things that are within our control, using reason and rationality to examine our thoughts and emotions, and cultivating self-control and discipline, we can find a sense of peace and resilience in the face of our loss. While bereavement can be incredibly difficult, the stoic perspective reminds us that we have the power to choose how we respond to our grief, and that we can find meaning and purpose even in the midst of our pain.