What is grief?: A personal and philosophical answer

This article was first published on Medium.

5 years ago, I lost my closest friend, Matt Wootton. Here, I tell the story of how the great grief I felt over his loss gave me one little silver lining: it enabled me to understand grief itself properly, for the first time.

A few years ago, I lost a very close friend. His name was Matt. I found this loss an appalling and bewildering experience, in part because I’d never lost anyone as close. I’d lost my grandparents, but they were all very old when they went; whereas Matt was 12 years younger than me. There is a difference between someone going ‘when their time has come’ and someone being untimely ripped away from one. Furthermore, Matt was exceptionally full of energy and life. He died utterly unexpectedly — ‘prematurely’ — while on a long sea voyage in a yacht, which was lost in a storm in the South Pacific.

This article concerns the philosophical issues that going through this death and mourning threw up for me. It might help midwife in another person less bewilderment than I suffered. Partly because, in the course of this article, there emerges a way of understanding what deep grief, unexpectedly, is. A presentation of its logic.

Once I realised that Matt was dead — once I understood that the yacht had definitely sunk, that he was drowned — I was surprised to find how little difference this made to my experience of him as still alive. By which I mean, quite simply (and paradoxically): While knowing that he was dead, I found myself unable fully to credit that he really was dead. The way that the latter non-belief was expressed in my life was as follows:

I kept seeing his smiling and cheekily-grinning face before my mind’s eye (I still do, occasionally) as if it were the face of someone alive, someone who might come around the corner at any moment; I kept half-thinking that somehow he would turn up or come back; I kept failing to think of the book that he and I had been preparing together as something that I alone would now have to complete; and so on.

I am inclined to express this in the following, also paradoxical manner: My acceptance of Matt’s death was necessarily partly expressed by denial! The process, over time, toward ‘acceptance’ in more than a thinly asserted cognitive fashion seemingly-ineluctably involves things like the assertion of apparent absurdities. What ‘denial’ really means is the profound difficulty of marrying one’s beliefs with the facts even as one tacitly assents to them.

I suggest in fact that all of the phases of grieving will normally include cognitive acceptance as an essential ingredient: one is not actually grieving at all unless one accepts that there is (was) a person, who has been lost, who one is grieving. I mean by using the term “cognitive acceptance” that one will accept the facticity of the loss, without necessarily accepting fully the reality of it. Without, that is, one’s horizons, one’s deep feelings, one’s dreams, one’s lived attitudes (for a long time after Matt had been lost, I kept not quite acting as if he were), etc., having shifted in the requisite manner to accommodate that facticity. One’s lifeworld lacks as yet the new shape that such accommodation will force.

We might think of this as a dialectical logic: very roughly, the thesis is acceptance of the facticity of Matt’s death, the antithesis is denial of it, the synthesis is the emergent new lifeworld as the griever’s (my) process proceeds.

Denial, properly understood, is a part of grieving in that it is far too crude to think that losing a person who was very close to one is simply a loss of one substitutable element in the lifeworld. It rather threatens and qualitatively alters one’s lifeworld. Denial in such a case is the not-unreasonable resistance to this loss, this alteration; the motivated rebellion against it. It is not believable that one has lost the person; the world would have to be radically different, in order for one to have done so. This denial may at first take the form of a temptation toward out-and-out disbelief; then perhaps of ghostly or spectral presences; then perhaps of a continued pattern sometimes of sporadic thinking and hoping as if the person is still alive. The lifeworld one inhabits in such ways resists the absence of the non-substitutable one.

Our very world has to change (for us to accommodate the death of a loved one, and for us in due course to emerge from grief). Denial correctly understood is not an irrational or delusive belief; it is the form of (painful) transition from one lived world to another. If there is to be complete acceptance, then there must be denial. For without some denial, one has not been acknowledging the character of the lost one as part of the ground of one’s world, rather than a substitutable element in it. Denial is not the opposite of acceptance; it is a transitional means to it.

Grief’s logic is processual; grief necessarily takes time and experience to unfold.

Grief radically differs in its logic from (ordinary) sadness over a loss, or from a sensation. If an acquaintance dies, or if a loved object is lost, this does not imply the need for one to construct a new or renewed ‘world’ in response. The logic of such sadness and of sensations might possibly be to some extent congruent with standard philosophical ideologies such as empiricism and/or rationalism. What I am saying is that the logic of grief — at any rate, of any deep or serious grief — is undoubtedly not cotenable with these ideologies. Deep grief amounts to a deformation of one’s lifeworld. Metaphorically, one might describe it as having a hole punched into (or ripped out of) one’s lived world. That is why, unlike perhaps some small sadness or sensation, grief necessitates a transformed lifeworld: to somehow repair or live with that hole.

As lived, grief then is not the removal of one object among others from the world; rather, the character of (that) world is altered. To put this in a gestalt metaphor: it is a change not in figure but in ground. Sadness is a figure on a world with a secure taken-for-granted ground. Grief involves rather the reconfiguring of the ground itself.

Grief springs from the depth of our interconnectedness, which could even be called our internal relatedness with one another, or our collective wholeness. Grieving arises because we are not detached from one another; because genuinely human connections cannot be understood as ‘external relations’.

We are part of each other. Matt was part of me, part of my very world, part of what it was for that world to be a world at all.

In grieving for him, what I have done is acknowledge the rip, the tear in that world that his passing made.

________

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Matt Wootton, 1978–2013.

The essay is based on ideas found in an article entitled “Can there be a logic of grief?”, in Kuusela, Ometita & Ucan (eds), Wittgenstein and phenomenology (Routledge, 2018).

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