How to manage grief – ideas from Stoicism and Psychology

“Even if those memories make me sad, I have to go forward, believing in the future. Even when I realise my loneliness, and am about to lose all hope, those memories make me stronger.”

 – Shelter, Porter Robinson

What a way to describe grief. And the recovery process. I wish I had written those words, but I didn’t. Those words are taken from a music video, for a Porter Robinson song called Shelter. The music video is an anime short film about a girl who has been saved from the apocalypse by her father. It is short, sweet and beautiful. 

Anime and animated films and series are big sources of inspiration for me as they are brilliant at conveying the deepest and most complex parts of the human experience that is difficult to find in Hollywood (for many reasons, but if you think about the moments in movies that emotionally affect you, I bet Disney and Pixar are usually high up that list). But that’s not the topic for this post, though I will be talking about it in the future.

I was motivated to write/script this after a listener, let’s call her K (she knows who she is), messaged me about her friend who is going through a …hard time shall we say. Rather than talk about depression, darkness, whatever you want to call it, I’ll be saving that for a future episode. Instead I wanted to share some thoughts, philosophy and research about grief, something all carers and all people go through.

When the people we love die (sorry but no nice way of saying it on my blog like ‘pass on’, it is what it is) the pain is immense. It’s hollow and overwhelming at the same time. It’s a cacophony of confusion, regret, anger and fear. I remember speaking with a friend of mine who had recently lost someone and called me in a moment of desperation looking for help, knowing I had been through something similar.

I said two things. The first was: life sucks and I’m sorry. That’s not much help. Seneca puts it much better: 

We have entered the kingdom of Fortune, whose rule is harsh and unconquerable, and at her whim we will endure suffering, deserved and undeserved.”

So here is the second thing I said, which I am so proud of I wrote down and waited for the right opportunity to make a post about it. 

The sadness you are feeling right now is precious. It is a gift the ones you love have given you.

This is the only thing I can say to those who are grieving that is consistently true. Whatever circumstance someone is in that has lead you to grieve them, the fact you are shows how big an impact they have had on you. Whatever sadness and conflict you feel is a beautiful, twisted reminder of how beautiful and twisted the experience of love is. 

It is the best thing we do, but it bloody well isn’t easy.

Sometimes the feeling is so intense we get wracked by guilt for wishing we never loved them at all. 

What does the field of psychology tell us about grief?

The 5 stages of grief, put forward by Kubler-Ross (1969) is perhaps the most well known and publicised theory or ‘map’ of grief, but it has many criticisms mostly deriving from the theory has little to no empirical research showing the stages are discrete, that people move through the stages and that little to no weight is given to environmental factors.

Most studies around grief now tend to be focussed on complicated grief and bereavement, essentially a grieving process that has been termed as lasting too long with too negative an impact. 

According to Marie Lundorff  et al. (2017), prolonged grief disorder, as it has been termed, seems to affect around 1 in 10 people who have experienced a non-violent bereavement. It is also interesting to note that the grieving experience begins before the point of death, yet the factors predicting the intensity of the grief were, to me from my very brief reading, unclear. 

To put it down to an emotional resilience is far too simplistic.

In an interesting article detailing theories of grief and bereavement, Christopher Hall (2014) details the need for those grieving to reorganise their relationship with the deceased, not letting them go but instead to recognise the bond can continue: a motivation, a source of guidance, a symbol for personal standards. 

I have a photo of my mother on my wall I look at every morning, sometimes encouraging me and sometimes reproaching me after I have acted particularly against my own ideals or morals (she gives a particularly withering glare for me as I write this for eating some unhealthy food). Whilst in Sweden I visit her grave and stand there, speaking with the image of her I hold inside myself. 

Later in his article, Hall nicely talks about the need for a reconstruction of meaning after a bereavement, having to balance the seeming senselessness of the loss with their own worldview. Seneca and the Stoics seem to loom large here. Stroebe & Schut (2015) formalises this, putting forward a dual process model of grief resolution, which proposes that individuals, families and friendship groups oscillate between loss-oriented coping such as accepting the fact they are gone and adjusting to life without them, and restoration-oriented coping, in which world views and contexts are changed and adapted to be without the deceased. Whilst still simplistic as a model, it does have the benefit of including wider contextual information such as a family setting in a model of individual grief. 

As is quite common to me, I often turn to stories to work through difficult moments and understand the complexities of the human experience. Earlier I mentioned that Disney and Pixar films are often high up peoples lists of movies that have had an emotional impact on them. I mean the first 10 minutes of Up is legendary in its ability to wrench the tears from you, and in a few powerful frames portrays loss and grief in a way that is so difficult for flesh and blood actors. 

But films like A Single Man, which starts with Colin Firth monologuing a dark, grief stricken frame of mind that most of us can relate to, is just fantastic at seeing what can happen when grief becomes complicated, as a counselling or clinician might say. Grief is often portrayed as a motivator for action in films, spurring the character to act or change their life. In A Single Man, it shows what happens when it takes hold in a very dark manner and refuses to let go.

 I won’t spoil this film as I think it is one everyone should watch, but you will be hard pressed to find a more nuanced and courageous film in theme than this which touches on uncomfortable topics like death, depression and suicide. 

The issue has, and will always be, that grief and bereavement is so personal. There is not really much in the way of a standardised approach that can help. This brings me back to philosophy. There will be many writers and philosophies out there that might help you through that moment and whether you are going through that hard time or trying to support someone who is, there is no need to provide the right answers, because there is no one right answer. 

When looking into this, what I have essentially come across is the counselling psychology community only seems to agree on one thing: everyone will deal with grief differently. When it becomes a problem in their life for an extended period of time therapy can help.

If you are grieving someone, or know someone who is, I hope some of this helps. Time is the thing that consistently, in most cases seems to make it better. Until then, read, process and move forward, carrying them with you. Whether it is a person, a relationship, a pet, whatever, step by step it gets better. And never feel afraid to seek help.

Seneca has this point I’d like to end on:

“Has it then all been for nothing that you have had such a friend? During so many years, amid such close associations, after such intimate communion of personal interests, has nothing been accomplished? Do you bury friendship along with a friend? And why lament having lost him, if it be of no avail to have possessed him? Believe me, a great part of those we have loved, though chance has removed their persons, still abides with us. The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been.”

This was the script used as a basis for my podcast episode: Responding to grief – ideas from Stoicism and Psychology. To listen to the full show, and my other episodes click here:


Anxiety, Depression and Attention

Philosophy Psychology Stoicism

The Futility Of Anger

Lately, I have had a lot of conversations with people about anger and frustration. It is always an interesting conversation to have with someone because I think anger is, on some level, the hardest emotion to let go of. We all would like to get away from anxiety, stress, sadness, jealousy, obsession, but anger seems to be the aberration. Whilst we may not like being angry (though some unfortunate souls do) we feel like we need it. Anger is justifiable. Anger proves our rightness and the offending parties wrongness. If you were to ask me what the biggest problem facing people in an attempt for better mental…wellbeing, I would say anger is the danger. We have, largely, legitimised anger. If you don’t agree with me, think about this: Amazon is having to patch Alexa to apologise to people if it detects frustration in their voices if this amazing piece of technology get a music request wrong. That can only happen in a world where people feel their anger is justified.

I believe it is time to redress this point.

Let’s have a look at what makes anger. Anger is a primary emotion that has, traditionally held use for triggering a fight or flight response. It allows us to use violence to improve our immediate situation. It can be beneficial to recognise we are angry as it is a clear indicator, like anxiety and sadness, that something is wrong. Anger almost always involves two parts, the intense emotional arousal, and the need to correct the problem. The need to strike back.

The need for vengeance.

Dramatic language, I know. I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. But stick with me and see where it goes. Maybe vengeance is too harsh a word, but the need and desire to correct is something you could almost certainly agree with. When someone or something makes us angry there is a need to show them that they were wrong to do that. If someone barges into you at the wrong moment how easy is it to turn and passively aggressively say ‘Excuse Me!’ whilst looking at them in disgust. What about if you are driving along and someone steps in front of your car whilst texting. You might swerve them, loudly beep your horn and start swearing profusely as you, in a half terrified, half outraged state try to let them know how stupid they have been. Or when someone says something to you that you find unpleasant or untrue and explode in a fit of rage to let them know just how wrong they are, because you are actually a very fun person and don’t have to get drunk in order to have a laugh unlike some people we know.

Nobody who has ever achieved vengeance is happy. People set off with the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ in their head thinking it makes a lot of sense and sounds fair. However, how likely is it that the individual whom you subject to your righteous vengeance accepts it in good grace. I think of a time at school when, like many young boys do when playing there was an accidental coming together and one boy accidentally got hit. Naturally, Boy A was a bit upset and insisted it was only fair that he got to hit the person who harmed him, Boy B (these weren’t their actual names).

An eye for an eye.

Needless to say we all agreed, we were young, and so injured party became the injurer. The rest of us thought we could get on with the game, but Boy B decided that he had been hit harder than he had hit Boy A, and because that was an accident it wasn’t fair he had been hit this hard. He wanted a go back.

A tooth for a tooth.

You can imagine how this continued. This comes from the code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest example of codified laws, and whilst it appeals to our red hot, angry, righteous and vengeful selves, it will never end well. Setting out with the code of Hammurabi in ones minds, we should also pay attention to paragraph 21 of that same code:

If a man make a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and they shall thrust him therein

Eventually it stops and the vengeful force is spent leaving one feeling a little bit ashamed of how far removed they were willing to be from the image of who they would like to be. I assume most of us like to think of ourselves as kind and reasonable and fair, but how many kind people are vengeful?

Anger occurs because a belief or expectation we have about ourselves or the world has been violated. Our plans have been frustrated. To be angry is to forget a core truth, we only have control over ourselves and everything else is not up to us. So what can we do about it?

Remember that anger requires maintenance. Whilst we may not be able to control the initial flush of anger which arises due to an unconscious judgement about what something means about us or for us, we can decide what to do afterwards. If we find ourselves becoming angry we must resist the temptation to maintain the cycle.

When someone wrongs us, we add to the story. We say things like ‘they are always like thisand often keep adding and interpreting what they meant until we can’t stand it anymore. The problem with this comes when we inevitably strike back. We strike back too hard and then find ourselves with a vague sense of horror at just how unkind we are able to be.

Correction may be required, reasonable and justified. If someone has wronged us, we should tell them so. But in the appropriate manner, and anger does not have ‘appropriate’ in its dictionary. The best thing we can do is wait until we cool off before deciding what kind of correction is reasonable and, importantly, if we had committed such a violation (which we almost certainly will have done at some point in our lives), how would we like to be dealt with.

Seneca has two fantastic little quotes on this. The first allows us to realise just how skewed our thinking can be, and help us redress our expectations:

“Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive.”

Seneca, Of Anger (III)

The second is some sage wisdom on how and why to prevent anger:

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it. The enemy, I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line: for when he has once entered the city and passed its gates, he will not allow his prisoners to set bounds to his victory. The mind does not stand apart and view its passions from without, so as not to permit them to advance further than they ought, but it is itself changed into a passion, and is therefore unable to check what once was useful and wholesome strength, now that it has become degenerate and misapplied

Seneca, Of Anger (I)

What Seneca has correctly written about here is that emotion and decision making occupy the same region in the brain and interfere with each other. It is hard to accurately make decisions and judgements when we are highly emotional. If we allow anger in, we do not think clearly and become quickly swept away with it, often until we have ‘vented’ and are left spent and ashamed.

The enemy must be resisted from the first. Not so we can forget the transgression, but so we can better judge what to do. If we can remove ourselves from the situation, ask ourselves what really got us so angry and what response is appropriate, we will be acting in a manner we can be proud of. We will learn something useful (such as what we actually think about ourselves) and act in a kinder manner.

Kindness is, to me, one of the most important and valuable traits an individual can have. Don’t expect to be perfect and never get angry, but when you do…

Try and be kind.

As always, please leave a comment and share this around!


Philosophy Stoicism Wellbeing

Wanting The iPhone 11

Apple has, at the time of writing, just announced its newest smartphone, the iPhone 11 and variants. This has, of course, proceeded with all the usual fanfare, and prompted my own yearly self-examination. Namely that examination into why I want a new one.

This may seem like an odd thing to write about, yet I think it is actually the right moment to write about this particular subject. Not the subject of the iPhone, but the subject of wanting one. Of wanting anything of the sort. Perhaps its best to begin from my current standpoint (and maybe yours as well) and then explore what could make us feel desire for a product that logically we know to be no better that our current magical piece of metal that connects us with the world

I currently own a phone that is two years old, the iPhone 8. I chose this phone instead of the more extravagant iPhone X at the time as a negotiation with myself. I read up on them carefully and though I desired the new appearance of the X I realised that, a camera aside, they were essentially the same phone, and not worth the price (then again, technology wise, I could make the same argument for my current phone). This was a decision I remember inwardly agonising over. I thought about how lovely it would be to have the new design, the extra camera to finally unleash the inner photographer I knew was there. 

I desired it. I will admit, I also desired the slight uptick in social standing that would accompany the phone for a time. It would be a talking point. I would imagine myself, with new phone and new glow. It had made me seem slimmer in my imagination, and more muscular too. When I walked with it, I had a swagger otherwise not present. I was undoubtedly a more attractive version of myself. My (then) girlfriend would have no doubt been instantly more attracted to me (even though she is the wonderful kind of person who never cared for that sort of thing).

This was a self image I had constructed based upon the artificial desire created by a company. It’s not just Apple, Samsung, or any of the other technology giants that do it to us. It is everywhere. The oldest, most common technique in sales is to identify a need and then show the client how you have the solution. I used to work in advertising sales many years ago. At the core of the whole conversation, would be an attempt to find out what hurts in their business and show them how advertising in our paper would take the hurt away.

The genius of Apple et al. is that the hurt, the pain, is a social one. We are social creatures, and live in societies of constantly comparing ourselves to others (thanks to Facebook, Instagram etc.). To not have the newest gadget is to be left behind and invite judgement akin to being back at school and not being a part of the latest fashion. I distinctly remember feeling left out at primary school when the whole school was mad on yoyo’s and I didn’t get the message. Managing to procure one a week later I couldn’t do anything remotely impressive with one and was still unpopular, before naturally, the whole fad ended a week after that. 

The pain is all the worse as we relate to the people who buy these things. We don’t begrudge a footballer or a movie star the expensive taste as they clearly have the financial might, but people we work with or are friends with? We invite jealousy into our lives with that nasty unconscious thought ‘why should they have it and not me? We are the same…aren’t we?’

This is precisely the same as our current obsession with technology. The new phone is fawned over for a few weeks before a new one is announced. We have got used to it in a few days, feeling much the same about it as we did about our phone before. Whilst there may be a small burst of pleasure every time someone asks “is that the new iPhone? Is it good?” there is nothing else. This is the same with clothing (I distinctly remember just a few months ago desperately wanting to buy a particular pair of shoes that I was certain would make me look handsome and elegant like Eddie Redmayne). Yet once the pleasure of acquiring goes away (usually after we have worn/used/presented whatever thing we have bought once), we are left feeling much the same as we did before. 

Had I bought the more expensive phone two years ago, I would have been the same weight, walked the same way, with just as wonderful a (then) girlfriend). We construct a story about why having the thing is so much better than not having it. But as we do not want to admit it is because of the social implications of a new phone, or desiring positive comments about the way we look, we invent reasons.

“It will be good for my business to take better pictures or videos”

“If I look smarter people will think I am more respectable’

“A new laptop will make me more productive”

I think you get the idea.

This cycle of wanting, fulfilling, and wanting again is often referred to as the hedonic treadmill. This is the notion that humans will always revert to a base state of happiness. Something good or bad happens, we feel good or bad, and then revert to normal. I believe there needs to be an addition to this. By staying within the cycle, we condition ourselves to associate feeling happy and positive with fulfilment of these shallower wants. But our standard level of happiness remains the same. We disconnect ourselves from paying attention to our deeper needs by focussing on what some companies cleverly tell us we want.

The promise of popularity. Of an easier, more attractive life.

To escape the cycle, to get off the treadmill, is to be willing to recognise this as the primary desire we are feeling. And to recognise that we can opt out of it. We can choose to not buy the phone/laptop/shoes. It is always within our power to decide how something affects us, emotionally. So we can decide to remain unaffected by the new phone being released. Especially when it costs around £1000. We can resist the shoe, the laptop, the fad. 

And we can feel proud of ourselves for mastering what we know to be a shallow desire. Two years ago I negotiated myself down to the least impressive new phone. This year I plan to negotiate with myself to be just as satisfied with what I have. Epicurus, though not a Stoic, puts it well, and I owe Derren Brown’s fantastic book Happy for bringing this quote to my attention: 

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

 – Epicurus

This is very true. I referred to a phone as a magical bit of metal earlier and it truly is. They are performing things that were only in the realm of science fiction when I was growing up. Whenever I see someone paying for something by using their phone at a shop, or stop and think about the fact I am accessing the entirety of the internet on my phone, I am once again filled with a bit of childlike joy at the thought. These things are already incredible and magical. I can be satisfied with that.

So, around this time of year when new phones are announced and we start feeling like we want one, it is a good thing to turn our attention inwards and examine why. There is no question anymore they are vastly overpriced, with ethical considerations about their manufacture, contribute to a habit of consumption and obsolescence that in the modern world we should be moving away from (my fathers disgruntled question of ‘why don’t they build things to last anymore’ I find myself identifying with). But finally, they condition us to seek happiness and worth through the acquisition of goods. 

They may make life a bit easier, but no happier. For that we need to look inwards. And true happiness is being satisfied with what we have. We often say, usually in reprimand to someone who is spoiled, that they ‘want for nothing’. But in that statement is a huge truth. If someone ‘wants for nothing’ then they are happy.

Learn to want for nothing. You, most likely, already have what you need. 

Please comment on this post, like it and share it around…and if you have something you’d like me to write about in particular let me know and I’ll make it happen!


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Philosophy Wellbeing

Docking Your Boat

Good morning, or at least it is morning here, now, when I am writing this. I want to write about having a tranquil moment as a practice of good mental wellbeing. 

That was a rather blunt opener wasn’t it?

I’ll give you some context. I’m sitting here, drinking my first mug of tea for the day, listening to my newest piano obsession, having just taken my bit of calm for the day. What I mean by that is a period of time, just five or ten minutes, to be able to sit in peace. At pretty much every other moment of our days, we are always doing something else, stimulated by something external. The only time this usually isn’t the case is when we go to sleep, but then again how often have you been watching a show on Netflix or listening to podcasts as you drift off. 

There isn’t much peace there. Not really. Distraction yes. Peace, not so much.

In many of my half-started scribblings (I frequently flesh an idea out in a journal before deciding to actually sit and write at a computer), I have praised these private moments of tranquility many a time. They are calm islands in which the ship can dock before once more heading out into the maelstrom. 

Dramatic imagery aside, what do I mean here, and how can it help you?

There are many metaphors used to describe our consciousness and our mental wellbeing. For me, and my understanding I tend to use two. The first I unashamedly admit is taken from Derren Brown and his fantastic book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine. This is one trotted out in my client sessions and talks a lot and points out that we tell ourselves stories. That much of how we think and feel about ourselves and the world is simply a story we have made up, with influences from certain areas. 

The second I use, I am not certain if it has a source or if it is an original creation, either way I give it much less ‘public air time’ but I shall do here. That our experiencing, conscious self is akin to a ship and crew sailing an ocean. This ocean is sometimes clear, kind and easy sailing, but on other occasions, it has been stirred by a tempest of emotion and misfortune. The wind turns against us, the ship is battered and the crew is strained. Now, a skilled crew and sturdy ship can weather such weather (forgive me); but the crew who is tired and the ship that is damaged? 

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this.

Many of us get out of bed in the morning, or perhaps halfheartedly crawl (I used to hear my alarm go off and, whilst lying face down, repeat to myself, in the style of Trinity from the Matrix: “Get up Alex. Get Up. Get Up. Get. UP.”) and immediately start my day. 

Breakfast, shower, teeth, dress, commute, work, sit in the toilet to avoid work, work, break, work, lunch, stare at a wall or my phone, work, make a tea, work, commute, kiss (then) girlfriend, Netflix, dinner, Poirot or Jonathan Creek to fall asleep.

I found myself feeling under strain and sad quite easily. Is it any wonder. Where in that routine was there somewhere my poor crew and ship could have a break? “Well, when you were sleeping!” I hear you cry. And yes, that would be a fair point to concede. I argue back that sleep is the rest but not the resuscitation. In the day I highlighted above, there was no space for one to be at peace, to reflect on oneself, and have a moment of conscious calm. We tend to restrict that to relaxation holidays, lying on a beach or by a pool. More and more, and of course you may do this already, meditation has become a popular practice. 

And I can see why, after all it is spoken of glowingly by attractive people (often physically, but socially too). Yet how often have I spoken with clients who say they meditate but don’t find the time to do it regularly, and even those who meditate twice or even three times a day sometimes are no better than the most overworked C-level executive. 

So what am I getting at here?

What is it that makes a successful meditation session, that also connects my little mental island of peace. Nothing. They provide one and the same. I do not connect well with meditation as it is promoted, guided or otherwise. For me, my island of tranquility is sitting in my pyjama’s and dressing gown, drinking a cup of tea or coffee and spending 10 minutes just sitting and listening to gentle, calming, soulful piano music. To experience a subtle shift of emotions that makes me feel delightfully human. And then, most importantly, to just write whatever is on my mind. To engage in a period of self-reflection and instruction.

This is the equivalent of ensuring the crew is ready and the ship is in good order before setting forth into the days ocean. If the night has been unkind to the ship (for instance because of poor sleep or an argument with your partner that has bled over until the morning) then it’s a sensible, as well as a kind and considerate, thing to do. It means lingering emotional stress can be dealt with and we can fortify ourselves for the day ahead.

By giving ourselves just 10 minutes, at some point during the day (though at the start I find to be most invigorating) means that we have had, no matter what, a moment that was purely for us. Enjoyable. Peaceful. Tranquil. Necessary.

Everyone has 10 minutes for themselves. Away from distractions and stresses. Where you can practice distancing yourself from an issue in order to achieve a calm, quiet mind. Thats a good practice to have. Meditate if you want to and enjoy it; but if you don’t, just a cup of tea and some quiet does the job just as well.

Stop off on an island every now and then. Your ship and crew will thank you for it.


Philosophy Stoicism

Making Peace With The End

I was trying to type something on my phone the other day and it autocorrected me. I had spelled the word correctly, but for some reason, my phone (brand shall remain nameless but it’s got a fruit symbol)  would not let me write the word I wanted to write. For that reason a friend of mine got a message that I was “going to due laughing”. My phone would not let me write the word ‘die’. This seemed so strange to me, until I really thought about it. Perhaps, in my semi-reflective, pseudo-intellectual state, I took this to mean that as a society we are so desperately trying to divorce ourselves from the idea that one day we will die, that we are even programming our phones to avoid the word.

The hugely popular Harry Potter books tells the tale of the Three Brothers, with the ‘wisest’ one written as the brother who spends his life hiding from Death with his cloak on invisibility until he is ready to die, at which point he greets death ‘as an old friend’. Whilst this isn’t such a bad idea it has one, terrible flaw. We can not truly run from Death, and we do not get to decide when we are ready. We have to be ready to make peace with it at any moment. For all our distractions, Death can see through our cloak of invisibility.

The Stoics reminded themselves every day that death is a part of life, and it is not for us to decide when it comes for us. This is wonderfully echoed by the character Gandalf from the Lord of The Rings books (with a line famously uttered by Sir Ian McKellen in his portrayal of the wizard): “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This is a very Stoic thought, and yet one we have become largely intolerant of. For reasons which would take up far too many words to adequately explain, even if I could do the explanation justice, as a culture we are very much of the idea that death is the enemy to be battled and avoided at all costs. Indeed, psychologically we may be hard wired to avoid, fear and feel disgust at the idea of death. Death is evil, and Life is good. That is what we are told, and what we believe. At least, until we become acquainted with it. I will put it to you here that, in the words of Epictetus, “Death is nothing terrible, otherwise Socrates would have thought it so”. 

If you have lost someone, especially in circumstances you felt were unfair, such as through an accident, act of violence or illness, I won’t lie – this post may be triggering for you. I am writing this post from a place of personal significance, the house where I used to spend holidays with my mother in Sweden. She is buried not far from here, and it was my most recent visit to her grave that gave me one of the final paragraphs of this post, and inspired me to write it. She died at an age some might call young with a terrible disease and I have felt intense anger, fear and a sense of injustice and truly believed that Death is the enemy. I understand the fear, and negativity towards Death and I do not seek to glorify it. Life is most certainly preferred, but as Death will come for us all one day, I see no reason to not make peace with it.

To begin, we’ll look at what it is that makes Death so…repulsive. Then, I will dedicate some time to explaining my thinking around Death now, with the philosophical background that lead me to this place.

Why Death Feels Like The Enemy

As I mentioned earlier, there are many reasons, far too many for me to be able to adequately explain, why we feel like Death is the enemy.  But if I were to ask you to consider your own demise, the image would be unpleasant and rejected immediately. We do not like contemplating our own oblivion. I still remember the horror of recognising and really understanding the concept that we are not alive for infinitely longer than we are alive, literally

The endlessness of pre- and post- existence is so vast that it is too much to think about. Doing so now, granted in my slightly inebriated state (A later version of me editing this has made some minor spelling and grammar corrections but is, on the whole, pleased with the coherence of this post), makes my mind spin. I once, to my shame, gave a rather banal retort to a friend when discussing why death is nothing terrible. They, a devout believer in their chosen faith, was trying to understand why I did not believe in the afterlife. The discussion began to degenerate, drink had been had, and upon asking me if the thought of being dead frightened me I lied through my teeth and said no. As if sensing my weakness they pounced: ‘why not?’. I gave the hackneyed and unconsidered reply: ‘well it didn’t bother us not being alive before we were born so why would it bother us being dead?’. 

This point may seem to carry validity but it doesn’t do any good at winning that argument. It also isn’t convincing. Clearly, something better is needed. I want to introduce you to two concepts to help explain any existential angst you may be experiencing at this point in a (potentially) vain attempt to prevent you from clicking away from this post. The first is the Terror Management Model, and the second is the idea that death takes something very specific from us, our ability to start anything new.

So, starting with the rather dry sounding Terror Management Model. This model states that we are adapted to avoid things that might cause us to contract an acute case of deadness. It is why we feel disgust at contaminated sights and smells such as excrement or rotting food. It is why we have an aversion and moral disgust to things like murder, war, famine. It is also what many governments pin their hopes of changing health behaviours on. Look at a packet of cigarettes, and chances are the front of it is plastered with gruesome images of the results of smoking. When we are not faced with images of death we seek more spiritual, transcendental fulfilment (which is the subject of another post), but the moment we see something that reminds us of our own mortality, we are motivated away from the spectre and scythe. 

The effectiveness of using gruesome images to change behaviours (otherwise known as fear appeals) is a hotly debated topic, and on a personal level they only seem to be used in three domains: anti-smoking, drink and drug abuse. The other problem domain of obesity seems to be one that is protected from fear appeals, instead focussing on the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. The effectiveness of that approach also seems to be up for discussion, though in my personal opinion I would prefer this life affirming message spread to those with smoking, drink and drug habits and to cease the demonisation of those with those habits whilst other, just as destructive tendencies are given a free pass, but this is not the forum for my views on this.

This model seems to make sense, intuitively. We don’t like being faced with death, so we are motivated away from it. This doesn’t do much to explain why we don’t like the thought of death. Yes, evolutionary adaptation makes sense, but it isn’t a fulfilling explanation. We require something to satisfy our conscious mind that is, as far as I know, unique in desiring meaning and not being satisfied with the basic wants fulfilled like all other creatures we know of. Then I came upon this explanation that seems to make sense to me, so I’ll do my best to present it to you here, with my own little additions and spin on it. Death seems terrible to us because it is the end. We live our lives one project to the next, and we take solace in the fact that there is always something new on the horizon. In the English language many of our colloquialisms revolve around renewal of purpose and mission when faced with disappointment.

Turning over a new leaf.

When a door closes a window opens.

A new chapter.

All of these things said to steel ourselves to make the best of our existence, but with death there is no new chapter. All doors and windows close. The party is over, at least for us. There is no new project to take on board. The projects we have started may be left unfinished.

Death then seems to take this from us. It robs us of the thing we have been doing our whole life. From birth there has been a drive towards the next project. From desiring to function as an independent human, to then focusing on school to get certain exam results, to achieve a particular job and social standing to acquire x, y or z. To finish this task to get that thing to feel this way. It all is over. People feel most alive and motivated when they are completely engaged in that process, but death takes that from them, and worse still, seems to do so when we least want it to happen. How many people have died with projects left unfinished? 

It may not have been the biggest project. It might have been finishing a letter; seeing if their flowers will bloom as they planned; or even finishing a conversation that was cut short on Tuesday.

Maybe, it was just telling someone how much you loved them.

If it wasn’t just us that ended, but everyone and everything, then oddly it might not be so bad. Because as bad as it is to know our story is ending, it is somehow just as bad to know that for others, the book goes on. They get a new chapter where our final one ends. Maybe some of those projects we worked so hard to finish are going to be carried on by someone else, and the knowledge of that, that unknowing theft of purpose, hurts just as much. Maybe what makes death terrible is we feel it is the end of our story, before we have decided we are ready for it to end. We are cheated of writing that fantastic climax we feel all these projects have been building towards our whole lives. 

After all, what good is a story if it is only half finished?

Death as a Positive

Death, far from being a point of fear, can be a motivator and is the source of meaning. 

This is a very Stoic idea at its core. They lived in a time where death was common but grief was no easier. The Stoics charge us to live the best lives we can without fear of death, as it is something we ultimately have no control over. It is only terrible because we make it so. We attach ourselves to things that are never wholly ours. Even your friends and family are not yours. They are separate entities with their own stories that so happen to cross over with you to a greater or lesser extent. And because of that enjoy them whilst they are there, but when they depart you can accept it. That doesn’t mean be happy about it, or even not feel sad. Just don’t feel cheated or deprived. Derren Brown, in his fantastic book Happy, makes the point that it is at the point when we are closest to death that we should be taking the fullest ownership of our lives (if you want recommendations for other books on Stoicism, read this post). Yet it is often at this point that the focus of their story shifts from the individual making their exit, to the family members. The tale becomes one of sorrow and loss. How the person lost the fight and departed this life, and how the family and friends lost someone close to them.

This is the tragic narrative that robs the purpose and meaning from the person doing the dying. What should be an ability to write their final chapter, that culmination of their life, instead becomes simply a participating role in someone else’s story. Others take centre stage until we become a cameo in our own lives. That is terrifying. It is all too easy to allow that narrative to take place as well. I remember when my mother was on her way out. Honestly, she had gone a long time before, her body was just waiting to follow her, but even so, the narrative stopped being about her. It was about me and my family. How we were coping. How the doctors were helping here or not helping there.

And throughout all of it, my mother was an oddly peripheral main character. Of course she had dementia and so wasn’t there anymore, and in a way became the absolute embodiment of what we fear death to be. 

Her ability to write her own ending forcibly taken from her before she had a chance to decide it. The same happens to those lost to accidents or other tragic events. But for many of us, when Death comes calling we will have had a feeling for awhile. Whether due to the creaks and wisdom of old age or a sombre faced medical professional, we often have a sense of when it is coming. And that is the moment that we can all make the choice to write our own final chapter. How many stories do we hear of people being diagnosed with a terminal illness start to do incredible things. A story that touched me recently is of a man a friend of mine knew who was unremarkable his whole life. Until he got diagnosed with cancer, told he would be dead in 6 months and then promptly quit his job and climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for Cancer Research. He did that knowing his story was coming to an end and wrote a blinder of a final chapter.

There are other cases of people using the time to reconnect with friends and loved ones, or just spend more time with their families and doing their favourite hobby. A film I am proud to have seen is called About Time, a shameless rom-com by Richard Curtis involving Rachel McAdams (be still my beating heart), her love interest Domhnall Gleeson who has an ability to travel back in time to different points in his own life, an ability shared with his father played by Bill Nighy. The real relationship in the film isn’t that between the lovers, but between father and son. When the father finds out he is dying he and his son use their abilities to spend more time together. Just something as simple as playing table tennis or reliving a walk on the beach one last time.

Cue the tears (at least for me).

That is, perhaps, what we all wish we could do. Wind back the hands of time and write ourselves a different story. The question I pose for you here is…why wait?

Why wait for the tragedy? Why wait for the dour doctor with exhausted sympathy? Why wait for the creaks of wise old age?

Why not accept the inevitable now? Yes, I will die. Yes, I do not know when it will come for me. But when it does, whether that be at the hands of a bus driver having a bad day; or the same disease that took my mother (as is very possible); or maybe when I am a ripe old age, I will be ready to greet Death.

I will make sure each day I am writing the best story I can, and one I can be proud of. Yes, maybe if I have time to write that next chapter it might be a bit better. But as of right now, it is one I am proud of. I am proud of the character I have ended up being. I am happy with his motivations, and values, and virtues, and actions. 

And, if I wake up tomorrow, I am happy to have another day to write another page. To start that next project, whilst just being aware that I might not finish it. But that’s OK, because starting it was the right thing to do. If we can accept Death, then we won’t be so afraid when we have to meet them. Indeed, we can use Death to motivate us to ensure we are telling the best story. To make sure that at no point we are selling it short. That doesn’t mean quitting your job and travelling the world or raising hundreds of thousands for charity. 

Maybe it just means making sure you are proud of your actions each day. Being the kind of person you are proud of. Forgiving that person who annoyed you. Finishing that project at work. Making the effort to speak to someone who might need it. Giving an hour to a charity close to your heart.

Telling someone close to you how much you appreciate them.

Concluding thoughts

We think of graveyards as sad places, Death’s victory ground. I think they are libraries, full of stories that have been told, read and loved by so many. The end of the story may be sad for many people, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty, or the joy those stories gave people. And whilst we can’t know every story there, we can still learn from them. Even when the story didn’t end according to the plan of the author, it still gave people joy. Now, all we need to do, is ensure the author stays in charge right until the last page.

Death is not the enemy. Far from it, Death is our best source of motivation. Death is that teacher who you thought you hated but managed to drive you to do better in ways you didn’t realise. Yes, Death can come calling when we’d rather have just a bit more time, but that is not for us to decide. To use that quote from Gandalf again:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”

I hope you enjoyed this post. I’m planning on turning it into a video/podcast as well, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, but also this style of post. If you found this an enjoyable read please let me know and I will write in this style more.

Other posts are coming soon.


Philosophy Stoicism

The Beginners Stoic Reading List

When starting to become interested in Stoicism, or working on one’s wellbeing in general, it can be a bit intimidating to think of all there is we have to learn. It is in our best interests to start our study of a new topic with a clear roadmap of what it is we will be learning and a guide to follow. If we have this map, then we are less likely to be daunted at the sometimes incomprehensible amount of information ahead of us (and starting with Stoicism can definitely feel like that). 

lost in books

This is actually the first idea I wrote down when I decided to launch this project. Many of my clients, after our discussions about Stoicism, would ask me where to begin, and after awhile I decided to collate my own little list which I believe to be a good place to start. Forgive me for being like many others, but I do have affiliate links for these books, so if you were to purchase a book via that link I would make a commission in the order of a few pence. However,  a non affiliate link is also available and clearly labelled. All of these books are available from any good bookshop, and I actively encourage you to spend a bit of time in the philosophy section of any bookshop, as you never know what gems you may find. 

Without further ado then, first comes the book list, and then comes a brief explanation of how I would suggest go about reading them.

Letters from a Stoic – Seneca

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Dialogues and Essays – Seneca (especially On The Shortness of Life and On The Happy Life)

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Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

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Enchiridion – Epictetus

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Discourses and Selected Writings – Epictetus

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Happy – Derren Brown

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How To Be A Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci

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The classical Stoics (Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) are represented with some of their best known texts here. It might be tempting to rush out and buy almost everything, these books can all be acquired fairly cheaply and will take a while to read and understand. I often find myself flicking through them, scanning until a passage really strikes me and then rereading the whole letter or essay. 

The last two books, Happy and How To Be A Stoic, are written by modern authors and, in some ways, are the best introduction to the philosophy. Happy, written by Derren Brown, was my introduction to Stoicism and is, in my opinion, one of the best written books available. He provides a  brief and fascinating history of how we have come to define and develop a problem with seeking happiness; and then very clearly and very naturally introduces the reader to Stoicism with great care, compassion and humour. I have always been an admirer of his work, so I am perhaps biased, but his book is a wonderful companion to the classic texts, and brilliant for a more easily digestible message.

Massimo Pigliucci’s book How To Be A Stoic, is another wonderful read and again, makes the Stoic principles easy to digest and put into practice. When I was creating the Stoic training for my research this book was never far away and I believe it should be a staple on the shelf of anyone looking for a practical interpretation of Stoicism.

There are, of course, many other fantastic books by other authors, some of which I’ve read and some I haven’t. Over time I will update this list, but I wanted to keep it fairly short and most of all, useful. I want you to go and be able to buy one or two of these books and enjoy reading them without getting overwhelmed. 

If you were to ask me what I would do when faced with this list, I’d choose one of the books by modern authors, one by a classic author, and begin there. You can add to your collection over time and, all being well, you will in time have a collection of books that you can turn to for both joy and instruction.

Please leave a comment recommending some of your favourite books or additions you would make to this list, and give this post a like and share if you enjoyed it and wish to do so.

I’ll be back with another post soon!