How to mourn like a Stoic

The death of people one is close to, either family and friends, inevitably triggers feelings of grief and sadness that will vary with the individual. In this article, Brian D. Earp says that how the Stoics mourned may have some lessons for us.

How should we grieve when someone close to us dies? Should we wail and gnash our teeth? Should we swallow our pain? Some would say there is no right answer. You feel whatever you feel, and heal however you heal, and that’s okay. But according to the ancient Stoics – those Greco-Roman philosophers making a comeback as preachers of practical wisdom in a self-help world – there is a correct answer to the question of how we should grieve. And the answer is that we shouldn’t. What’s done is done. There is nothing you can do to change the situation – so move on.

He says that this advice sound harsh and even impossible to follow and it would be for ordinary people. But he says that it is all part of the attitude and training that the Stoics subjected themselves to and developed throughout their lives.

That is what is so different about their intuitions and ours. To put it simply, if you are not a Stoic philosopher – if you have not been training yourself, year in and year out, to calmly face life’s vagaries and inescapables – and you feel no hint of sadness when your child, or spouse, or family member dies, then there probably is something wrong with you. You probably have failed to love or cherish that person appropriately or sufficiently while they were alive, and that would be a mark against you.

The training to face death that the Stoics suggest, as stated by Epictetus, is pretty brutal.

… remind yourself that what you love is mortal … at the very moment you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?

“What harm is it?” I dunno about this. If the other person is not also a Stoic and appreciates what you are trying to achieve and agrees with it, you could find yourself alienating everyone by constantly reminding them that either one of you or both could die at any minute and thus should mentally prepare for it. While one should try to have a Stoic attitude towards one’s own death, telling other people who may be grieving to learn to suck it up may not be the best thing.

I wonder if the Stoics were invited to many parties?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The original Stoics got that name from their meeting places, called in Greek stoa.

    That translates into English as “porches”, and makes them seem a lot more laid-back less sociopathic.

  2. lanir says

    I started reading this without much knowledge of the philosophy of stoicism. I largely lack any book knowledge of philosophy and have just picked up bits and pieces through an inordinate amount of thinking and stories where a philosophy is used as part of characterization (but not necessarily named).

    So I began reading with the idea I’d find this was just another name for what I feel when people close to me die. But it’s not.

    My immediate response to death is largely to feel numb. I think I’m probably more sad and definitely more thoughtful than normal but I can’t change it. So I just keep doing what I know how to do. It only really hits me hard enough to notice some time later, after the people who have been quick to feel that sharp edge of grief have cried themselves out and are ready to move on.

    I can never quite decide whether this is some form of personal failing or if it’s a trait that let’s me more easily be supportive of (and be supported by) those who experience grief at a different pace.

  3. Gethyn Jones says

    I think this is being a little unfair on the Stoics here. From Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic:
    “Had you lost a friend (which is the greatest blow of all), you would have had to endeavour rather to rejoice because you had possessed him than to mourn because you had lost him. … Grief like yours has this among other evils: it is not only useless, but thankless. 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. … “What madness it is, therefore, to lose our grip on that which is the surest thing of all? Let us rest content with the pleasures we have quaffed in past days, if only, while we quaffed them, the soul was not pierced like a sieve, only to lose again whatever it had received. There are countless cases of men who have without tears buried sons in the prime of manhood – men who have returned from the funeral pyre to the Senate chamber, or to any other official duties, and have straightway busied themselves with something else. And rightly; for in the first place it is idle to grieve if you get no help from grief.”

  4. Roj Blake says

    When my Grandfather died my mother organised a traditional funeral, along with a religious ceremony, even though were are no religious. After, my mother was so angry about the way the minister spoke as if he’d known Bertie all his life, that she vowed never again. My Grandmother, Father, and Sister have all simply been cremated, no ceremony, each of us left to grieve in our own way, or not at all.

    The day my father died I had just had the news of my second grand child’s arrival and had also moved in to a new house. I mourned his passing over a few beers at the pub and several renditions of his favourite song. I am sure he would have approved.

  5. says

    My mother, cheerful atheist that she was, died and was cremated without ceremony as she had desired. The fact that her ashes are nourishing our lemon tree would have no doubt have amused her greatly. Oh and the lemon tree is going gang busters.

  6. springa73 says

    Yeah, I think that the Stoic approach is definitely not for everyone, though aspects of it could be helpful for some people. I’m definitely of the opinion that there is no one right way to grieve. I’m actually fond of the traditional wake and funeral -- my brothers and I had one for both of our parents -- but I know that some people consider it a pointless expense, and that’s understandable as well.

    I just passed the first anniversary of my Dad’s death. In his case, the thing that hurt me even more than his death was the fact that for the last several years of his life, he suffered from worsening dementia which basically robbed him of much of the ability to enjoy life, along with the ability to take care of himself. The thought of that hurts me more than his actual passing.

  7. grasshopper says

    I have come to treat the dead as passing straight away into an inaccessible age of mythology, where all I have of them is grandeur and tales of how marvellous they were. Yet grief does creep up on me in soft-soled sneakers, and surprises me when I least expect it.

  8. mailliw says

    I wonder if the Stoics were invited to many parties?

    They weren’t, they didn’t let themselves get bothered about it though.

  9. Owlmirror says

    This anecdote, from Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi, emphasizes meditating on the universality and inevitability of change, rather than constantly focusing on the inevitability of death.

       Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Huizi. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going too far, isn’t it?”
       Zhuangzi said, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery, a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter.”
       “Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.”

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