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: