Stoic perspectives on death and bereavement

New Year’s Eve 2020 was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have finally destroyed her personal papers (see my earlier post) but the memories, both happy and sad, remain. Many other relatives and friends of my husband and myself have also died in recent years, and we are getting old ourselves. I had a lot of professional exposure to death and bereavement during my medical career, but the personal experience is very different. I’ve been exploring what the ancient Stoic philosophers had to say about this subject, hoping it may prove helpful for coping in future. The Stoics believed in facing up to death as a natural process which is nothing to be afraid of.

A central tenet of Stoicism is that only our own judgments and voluntary actions are “up to us”. Other aspects of life are not, and although some of these “externals” are to be preferred over others, they are best regarded with indifference. Death, an external that is inevitable for all living things, is only bad if we consider it to be so and sometimes may be welcome.

Epictetus: Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born.

The Stoics believed that the timing and manner of death, random and cruel as it may seem, is determined by fate and not up to us. This is less true now that advances in medical science have enabled more control over health and longevity than was available to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but much unpredictability remains. We and those close to us are all going to die one day – maybe tomorrow. Frequent contemplation of this prospect (the Stoic practice of memento mori), is not intended to promote morbid obsession, but to emphasise the importance of making the most of the “festival of life” every day, not wasting time, and appreciating our loved ones while they are still here.

When a loved one dies there will inevitably be distressing reactions such as shock, grief and anger. While negative emotions in the short term are natural, the Stoics advised aiming to move on as soon as possible towards a calm acceptance of the person’s death; continuing to remember them often, but with love and appreciation rather than with sorrow.

Seneca: Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still.

This approach will appeal to some people, while striking others as unrealistic or heartless. It is rather different from today’s prevailing view of mourning as a gradual process of working through the “stages of grief” over many months, perhaps with the aid of bereavement counselling. Everyone is different, and the best way of coping depends on individual personality and circumstances. One idea I have found helpful myself is to think of the deceased as having been “reclaimed by nature”, as all living things will be one day, rather than “lost”.

Epictetus: Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been returned.

What about the soul or spirit, and the question of an afterlife? As I understand it the Stoics believed that death is probably followed by the same oblivion that existed before birth, and that individual immortality is unlikely.

Marcus Aurelius: Just as on earth, with the passage of time, decaying and transmogrified corpses make way for the newly dead, so souls released into the heavens, after a season of flight, begin to break up, burn, and be absorbed back into the womb of reason, leaving room for souls just beginning to fly. This is the answer for those who believe that souls survive death.

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