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Is Grief Self-Regarding?

Christiane Pohl considers grief from a philosophical perspective.

Seldom are we so preoccupied with ourselves as when we grieve. Taking leave of someone close to you – whether the occasion is separation or death – can consume immense spiritual energy and last many years. Often grieving also acts as a catalyst, bringing to the fore an awareness of our own mortality and transience. The inner preoccupation with the loss is accompanied by intense reflection, awakening numerous memories and perhaps heralding the search for a new footing in life.

In view of this intense preoccupation with oneself, the question arises as to whether grief is an expression of egoism. This idea gains ground when we ask why someone should grieve. Let us take as an example here the loss through death of someone very close to us, for although there are countless other occasions for this kind of sorrow, it is our response to the death of someone we love that provides the clearest insight into the nature of grief.

Why do we weep for someone who has died? Because he or she can no longer participate in life? Is it that we would have wished this life to have continued for its own sake, independently of our own needs and desires? Or is it that, in grieving, we are lamenting the loss we ourselves have incurred? Do we maybe wish that the deceased person might have continued to live for our sake, for the satisfaction and enrichment of our own existence?

I believe that we must answer both these questions in the affirmative, albeit with more or less emphasis. No-one would wish a person they love death rather than life, least of all in the absence of adversity, such as severe illness. Thus one element in grieving is most certainly a lament for a life which has ended, perhaps much too early. Nonetheless, it is only one element, and in no way the underlying ground, for this lies concealed much deeper. We suffer principally from the fact that the deceased person is no longer accessible for us and can no more play an active part in our life. It is our own loss which stands in the foreground. Might one then not infer from this that mourning is motivated by egoism?

The meaning of the other

To find an answer we must first establish what sort of fundamental meaning other people have for us. Only then can it become clear why the loss of a dearly-loved friend or relative can be so devastating, and what egoistic or non-egoistic aspects may play a role in this. And of course we will also have to clarify what we might mean by egoism.

Let us turn first then to the role that others play for us. What is the self for which others play a role?

Some of the most profound thoughts on this subject come from the Danish existentialist theologian, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Let’s take his reflections as a starting point for our own. The self, according to Kierkegaard, is a combination or ‘synthesis’ of various pairs of opposites, each of which are ever present in human beings – namely necessity and free will, the infinite and finite, the individual and the general. It is this last pair which are crucial for our problem. As an individual being, I am not yet a self, but become a self only in union with what is more general. The self isn’t something which exists in isolation, but rather it emerges only within a conscious relationship between one’s own individuality and that of other people. This idea has preoccupied many Continental philosophers since Kierkegaard, for example Sartre, Camus and Jaspers, but especially Martin Buber, who argued that an ‘I’ or ‘self’ is only constituted in conjunction with a ‘you’ (or ‘thou’) that is addressed, i.e. spoken to, not about. An ‘I’ in itself, a self which might arise without mutual communication is, for Buber, a nonsense: “If you observe the individual in himself, then you see of the person as it were only as much as we see of the moon; only the person with another person creates a rounded picture.”

Keep in mind the point of these reflections on the nature of the self, namely to explore the roots of grief. When someone with whom we have had a very close relationship dies, it is like losing a part of our self. Or, as we might also say here, the loss of our sense of identity. Of course, Mrs M, who has lost her (beloved) husband, still sees herself as Mrs M., who is a secretary, who has a specific home, friends, hobbies, and her own personal story. All this remains as a constituent part of her identity. Nevertheless, an essential part of her sense of identity has been wounded, namely that area where she had constructed her sense of self through him, through his affection, through the moments they experienced together, the exchange of thoughts, and so on. The ‘I’ is to be understood as a core of consciousness, as the logical point to which all spiritual contents flow, and can hence be understood as mine. This ‘I’ remains all through our life – after all, we are the same person from childhood right through to old age. But our self-understanding changes. And we attain our sense of self essentially through interaction with other people. When another person, who meant a lot to us, dies, the living exchange and with it our sense of self as it was come to an abrupt end. The response to this is grief.

For this reason, we grieve even though simultaneously relieved at the death of someone whose parting is a deliverance from long suffering. We may grieve, also, not for someone we loved but at the passing of someone who has been a scourge of our life, for their death too means a rupture in our sense of self. This is most evident in the case of married partners who have lived together unhappily for many years. Outsiders are then often bewildered at the sorrow of the surviving spouse. The reason for their sorrow may sometimes be that, in the process of grieving, the long-buried affection comes back to life. What is much more important here is that the surviving spouse has determined their self substantially through their rejection of the other or hate for them. Now that this antagonist is no longer there, they are in a similar situation to the griefstricken mourner who loves: they too must create a new self-understanding. However, that will in most cases be a good deal easier.

Because of this connection of the sense of self with the other person, death is experienced in a quite different manner to absence, be it ever so long. If the person is only absent, vanished from my life or missing, then they remain a part of my sense of self, since I may still hope to be able to resume a relationship with them. The other who is alive is ever present to us, though this does not of course mean that we think of them continuously, but that they are present as a part of our self. And it is just this part of our self that is ruptured when they die.

Grief and egoistic behaviour

To establish to what extent grief may be connected with egoism, we must determine what we mean here by ‘egoism’ and related concepts.

1.) Aggressive and naive egoism

Egoistic behaviour that deliberately tramples on and disregards the interests of others might be called aggressive egoism. It is still aggressive in character even when it employs devious means to achieve its ends. Another variety of egoism is, in contrast, ingenuous. What happens here is not that a person consciously and recklessly seeks to impose their will, but that they do not even perceive the concerns of other people. They are so preoccupied with themselves that they notice others only when forced to do so. This form of egoism is common. I shall call it naive egoism.

2.) Egoism as self-love

I should like to describe self-love – understood here as a fundamentally affirmative relationship to oneself – separately to behaviour. An affirmative relationship to oneself will itself substantially fashion the way an individual behaves. This conduct might well still be (aggressively or naively) egoistic – but is not necessarily so. On the contrary, self-love can put someone in the position to act with consideration.

Let us first examine the relationship between grief and egoistic behaviour.

Obviously grief we experience now can’t be related to our egoistic actions in the present or the future; the other person is irredeemably out of the reach of any actions we might undertake. The situation is somewhat different when we come to reflect on and maybe reassess the past. Confronted with the past, the meaning of our actions often gains in saliency. One indicator of this is the feeling of guilt which may arise when someone we know has died. Any reasons for harbouring a sense of guilt must have existed even during the life of the deceased. But now any possibility of making good is irredeemably lost. Precisely because we are not now subject to egoistic motives – the other person is no longer there – we are able to see more clearly the selfish traits in our past behaviour. It is as though the grief has stripped away a veil that concealed the other person. Nearly all of us are beset by memories of how we disregarded them hurtfully. The loving word unsaid, the letter unwritten or the lack of appreciation for their predicament: all this weighs heavy on the soul. Through the shock of loss, these feelings of guilt are exaggerated and put us in a darker light than is properly justified. For one has to accept that it is human – only too human – to live with the assumption of a future in which everything might be put arights again. If this future is suddenly cut off, our guilt remains without the possibility of rectification, and therefore it is, often, only now that it is actually experienced as guilt.

Grief and self-love

Many people speak repeatedly of the circumstances of death of a deceased relative or friend, and it is important for them that whoever listens should remain patient even when the story is being told for the umpteenth time. For this is nothing other than their working through what has happened and what has been by constantly bringing it to mind, and so eventually becoming able to put it behind them.

Not the circumstances of death alone, but almost everything is subjected to reflection: one’s own life, the life of the deceased, and shared experiences. It is seldom that a person is so intensively occupied as now with questions of the meaning and value of life, about God, and death. Freud described this psychic process as a ‘labour of grief’ and the process does indeed cost untold energy. For what is demanded of us is nothing less than that we should reconstruct our self anew without the other person. If we think of human personhood as consisting of a relationship to a ‘thou’, then it becomes clear how hard is the labour needed to overcome such a rupture.

In no way does coping with the loss successfully mean that we should erase the memory of the other person from our life; what it does mean is that we should learn again to live normally without their living presence. In our memory they can be of the greatest importance for us, and the feeling of deep attachment may remain for the rest of our life.

This last point becomes clearer if we conceive of the self as a process. People who were once in close contact with us have participated in creating this self, and after they have left our life, the self must reconstitute itself in a continuous process.

But where do we find the drive or the strength to regenerate our self? It is here that the second kind of egoism enters the scene, namely self-love. Only when this form of egoism is present is it possible to again gradually come to terms with oneself and with the world. The person who is not sustained by selflove will barely sense an impulse to heal themselves. Egoism in the shape of self-love is necessary for the process of grief to be taken up, worked through and eventually completed.

Grief is, then, not only a response to loss, but also a process mandated by self-love in order for the self to be able to regenerate itself. The means of regeneration include reflection and the relating of episodes from the life of the deceased. It is very helpful, if, the first shock past, the mourner looks for further forms of expression: in artistic creativity, in talking through things in a way that points the way ahead, in physical movement, too, for instance dance. The different nuances of the process of mourning can find expression in this way, for grief does not express itself in melancholy and pain alone. It knows also phases of indifference and impotent rage: Why did he, did she, not look after themselves better!

Even if it is true that such anger bears traces of egoism, it too points to the real roots of grief, namely the deep dislocation of the sense of self. Of course I grieve (and rage) about my loss, about the pain that has been inflicted on me. But that is a symptom not of outright egoism, but of the wounding of my spiritual integrity. We would not normally say of someone who complained of physical pain that they were conducting themselves egoistically. Whatever the area in which our integrity is wounded, mind or body, it is always a matter of reconstituting that integrity, in order again to be able to live fully. Preventing grief involves stopping the inner process of maturation. It means, moreover, that self-love is not given a chance to act as a regenerative force. The time needed for this process is dictated by the self and must be granted.

Unwholesome grief and egoism

Let’s turn now to the question of how the course of grief affects egoistic behaviour. There are basically two possibilities, which might be called the onedimensional and the reflective kinds of grief.

First, one-dimensional grief. This is without scope for development and lacks the character of a process, remaining stifled, going round in circles. Freud called this form of grief melancholia, and it is met with in a psychiatric context in the form of depression. One of its hallmarks is an inner paralysis, which nonetheless may find expression in frenzied activity. This kind of grief cannot propel us forward, for it obstructs the inner flow of development. Repressed grief or grief which we forbid ourselves to dwell on can easily turn into depression, which may indeed be understood as a grief which has not been lived out, that is, as an unredeemed pain.

When grief is suppressed, this can have various effects on egoistic behaviour, the cause of which lies in dislocated self-love. The suppressed grief fails to perform its task of producing a new and acceptable relationship between the person concerned and the world at large. (The wound does not close.) From here it is now easy to see how one-dimensional grief encourages egoistic behaviour. For the grieving person does not become reconciled with their fate, and consequently recourse to one’s own person is chosen as the only way of continuing to live. It is easy to see how an aggressive egoism can result from this. Such behaviour of course doesn’t resolve the inner drama of the sufferer. The grief which has not been overcome remains in place as a continuing or else an intermittent anguish.

I suspect, however, that it is not the aggressive, but naive egoism which is the more common consequence of one-dimensional grief. For even though one might describe aggressive behaviour as depression turned outward, a more common phenomenon is melancholia. Naive egoism will correspondingly play the greater role. The unresolved rupture leads the grieving person to a continuous occupation with themselves, which may indeed be expressed in aggressive conduct, but which often leads simply to others being ignored. Relatives of depressed people will often complain of this. Indeed, when depressed people are perceived as egoistic, the cause of their selfishness may well lie in an unresolved grief. Such unfinished grief obstructs a mature and responsible relationship between oneself and others. Or, to put it another way: a deficiency of self-love, which makes it impossible to live out one’s grief, can all too easily lead to egoistic behaviour.

Grief and temperance

What is the relationship between reflective grief and egoism? Here a concept taken from ancient and scholastic philosophy can help: temperance. In English the word is mainly associated nowadays with the ‘temperance movements’ of the last century, which called for self-discipline and moderation in the form of a pledge to give up drinking alcohol. Its original meaning, however, is rather broader. It means “the way to a realistic estimate of oneself and unpresumptiveness”. Wholesome grieving is connected with this sense of balance or perspective. For the deep rupture in our life can only be healed by attending to this rupture. The precondition for this is – as we have said – selflove, which provides the driving force for reflection. Experience shows that this reflection is very comprehensive. Not only is the immediate loss brought to mind, also long-forgotten memories return, or else thoughts which one had suppressed take on a new light. The pain experienced ensures that this reflection does not proceed in a selfrighteous or unrealistic manner. It protects against conceit and also from misconstruing reality, because we are aware more clearly than otherwise of our own finitude and the finiteness of all our relationships. Grief thereby trains the eye for what is essential. For instance, a person who grieves will find the world of material consumption intolerable. (The person who lives through their grief in an unwholesome manner, on the other hand, may veritably take refuge in this world and its insipid pleasures.) The process of reflective grief succeeds also in enabling the grieving person finally to say yes again, yes to themselves, yes to the world. For this reason, temperance is the appropriate concept for what reflective grief achieves and a key concept in clarifying the effects of grief on behaviour.

The realism attained through temperance can avert the sheer failure to perceive other people. Temperance makes it possible to produce a balanced relationship. Egoistic elements can certainly play a role in this, for without such elements life is scarcely conceivable. But what remains decisive is that, on the basis of the experience of loss, the regard is directed beyond the confines of the self in order to regain a footing by integration and interaction with the world. The person who fails to looks beyond these confines remains enclosed in their own world. Also something that seems to be the very opposite of egoistic behaviour is prevented by reflective grief: clinging to another person, or attempting to win love by performance, is inhibited by grief which is experienced this way. The person who has worked through their grief in this manner knows that our lives are finite and constantly vulnerable to loss. To give oneself up entirely for another means to close one’s eyes to this reality – and at some time to have to experience it with less protection than ever.

It is this that reflective grief teaches. It is to be understood as a teleological (i.e. goal-orientated) process. But what is the goal? The ability to again affirm life and oneself. But also to overcome the rupture between oneself and the world, in order eventually to establish a new harmony. This form of grief, then, addresses not only the life-denying forces within a person, but also the life-affirming forces, which make possible the constitution of a new self. To this extent, grief is a process which must of necessity concentrate intensely on one’s own person. Self-love, which we have described as a form of egoism, is a necessary precondition for a person to carry through the difficult labour of grief and finally also to overcome their loss. This kind of egoism must be alive in a person if they are to regain a footing in the world. Someone who has an encumbered, negative relationship to themselves can scarcely live through a positive process of grief, and this failure will inhibit them from entering fresh ties of friendship and love. In brief: Only when we love ourselves, are we capable of grieving. And only when we are capable of grieving, are we also able again to love others.

© Dr Christiane Pohl 1997

Christiane Pohl studied philosophy at the University of Kiel and recently qualified as a homeopathic healer in Hamburg.

English by Paul Gregory.

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