What is Grief Really About? – A Thought-Provoking Perspective on Grief



We never feel grief when we lose something that we have allowed to be free, that we have never attempted to possess. Grief is a sign that I made my happiness depend on this thing or person, at least to some extent. We’re so accustomed to hear the opposite of this that what I say sounds inhuman, doesn’t it? – Anthony de Mello

We may believe we are rational beings, but when we look at how people react in a variety of situations, we clearly see that it is not the case! We are told that it is natural to get angry in such or such situations or that in other situations we should feel sad. In fact, our emotional reactions are mostly the result of social conditioning. One of the biggest and most pernicious lies we have been made to believe is that we should feel good when people approve of us and feel bad when people disapprove of us. Does our self-worth really depend on how people around us perceive us? Do we automatically have to feel good when people praise us and feel bad when they criticize us?

One of the best ways we can bring awareness in our life is by observing carefully how we react in our daily life. Each emotion is a opportunity for us to better understand ourselves. It is through awareness that real changes take place. For instance, observe how you react to praise. Does it make you feel good? Why? What does it tell you about yourself?

In this thought-provoking article I would like to talk about grief and challenge our common assumptions about this experience. What is grieving really about? How much grief is necessary? How much of it is the result of social conditioning? Can we lessen our sufferings?

Warning: you may find this article controversial. However, I hope that this article will offer you a different perspective on grief and a better understanding of how it works.

N.B. What I mention in this article is the result of my personal opinion. I have no degree in psychology and I’m not a psychotherapist. Stay open-minded, ask yourself if what I am saying make sense to you or not. You can take some of the things I say or just ignore them.

What are we grieving?

Have you ever wondered why you grieve? What are you actually grieving? Who are you really sad for? For the dead person? No. The dead person is dead. Why do you want to be sad for him or her? You might say to yourself: “He/she was so young, he/she didn’t have the chance to experience X, Y, Z” but for the dead person it makes no sense! When you grieve you are most likely sad for yourself!

In our societies, there is this totally unchallenged assumption that the normal reaction to someone’s death is grieving. However, what you must understand is that, in human history, nobody’s death has ever caused grieving. Ever! Grieving is always in you, not in the person’s death. The reality is that you choose to upset yourself and grieve on the occasion of the death of someone you were close to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming anyone, I’m just underlying a simple fact: negative feelings don’t exist in reality, they only exist in our mind. The good news is that, since the grief comes only from within, we have some control over it.

Grieving is mainly the result of our social conditioning and our attachment to the dead person. Does it mean that we can get rid of grief? Probably not, as it would suppose a total freedom from social conditioning and a perfect alignment with the reality that nobody belongs to you, that death can happen at any moment, and that happiness is always in you, never in the other person.

Yes, you will grieve but the question is whether it is possible or not to lessen your sufferings through understand of what grief is. (see also: Nothing Has Ever Upset You!)

How Stoics deal with grieving

Stoics had an interesting way to deal with grief. They perfectly understood that grieving was due to attachment. In their every day life, they practice negative visualization, imagining their loved ones dying. As the result, they enjoyed and cherished every moment spent with their family and friends knowing they could be dead the next day. When someone they love died, they had less regret because they enjoyed their relationship with that person as much as they could. They lived much closer to reality than most people today because:

  • They understood that nobody belongs to them and didn’t take their relationships for granted
  • They acknowledged reality and knew that their loved ones could die at any moment
  • They focus on the present moment (reality) rather than on an illusory future

Grieving results from a lack of contact with reality

Grieving results largely from a lack of contact with reality. It occurs when we falsely believe that someone belongs to us and that we need that person for our happiness. As you become aware of what grieving is really about, while you will still feel the need to grieve, you will realize that spending excessive time grieving doesn’t make sense. It’s not like we suddenly realize that we were mortal beings on which life plays a trick. Dying is part of life and part of reality.

Lessening the suffering from grieving

Let me repeat: I’m not saying that you should not grieve. Repressing emotions is never a good thing. Emotions should always be felt as they come and fully expressed. Grief can be such an emotionally intense experience that often there will be no room left for any rational thinking. However, if at any point you can find some room within yourself to observe your emotions and create some distance from them, you may come to a better understanding of how your mind works.

By understanding what grieving is and by changing your perception of it, you might be able to better cope with the death of someone you love in the future. Here are several things that I believe are the roots of grief.

  • The belief that if we don’t grieve we are inhuman. Grieving is largely due to our social conditioning. Of course, we will all feel some need to grieve because we had attachment to the deceased person, but there is no need for “extra grieving”. There is no extra point for the one who will show the most grieving.
  • The belief that we must grieve to show respect to the deceased person. The amount of time you spend grieving doesn’t have to be in proportion to the amount of love you had for the person you are grieving. You might think “Oh my god, I need to spend more time grieving the death of that person or people will think I didn’t like him/her that much”. Again, that’s social conditioning. Of course, if other members in your family, or friends still need to grieve, by all mean show compassion and understanding but don’t grieve more or less than you need.
  • The belief that we need to feel pity for the dead person. The person who is dead has no problem, no ego, no need to be respected or to be loved. It goes for people who died of old age, but also for children. When a child dies, people feel sad not so much because this poor child didn’t have the chance to spend more time on earth enjoying the gift of life, but because these people had already created or were creating a future for this child in their mind, from which they were receiving some kind of joy. What I’m saying may sound outrageous but there is nothing judgmental in it, it is just how our mind works.
  • The belief that the person “belongs” to us and is the reason for our happiness. If you believe that you can’t be happy without that person, of course you will likely be in a mess for a while when he or she dies. Knowing yourself and recognizing that happiness is, first and foremost, something that comes from within, will likely make a loved one’s death slightly less painful.
  • The denial of reality and death. Most of us are largely denying reality. We behave as if death wasn’t part of life. Anthony de Mello recommends to do the following exercise every day: visualize yourself in your tomb. See your body decomposing, becoming bones then dust. Now look at your problems from that perspective. Many spiritual teachers will actually tell you that you can only start to live when you are ready to die. Are you ready to die? As cruel as it may be, death is part of life and thus part of reality. You might want to spend more time visualizing your own death and the death of your loved ones, as they will happen for sure!
  • The feeling of regret. We spend a lot of time in our mind thinking about the future; we may say to ourselves that we will spend more time with our kids, our wife/husband… when X or Y will happen. We take both our loved ones and our future for granted and because of that we end up postponing opportunities to enjoy time with the deceased person. Then, we feel regret for things that we could have done but didn’t. In fact, when we grieve, we partly grieve over a future that has never existed anywhere but in our mind, and partly over a past that is already gone.

When I think about my own funeral, part of me wants to have my family and friends gathering around my grave saying how awesome I was. However, I realize how stupid and selfish it is. How is it possible to be more selfish than to want people to love you, approve of you and praise you even after you death! Another part of me wants to throw a crazy party at my own funeral 😉 Why should I demand that people be sad and bored at my own funeral? Life is short and people should enjoy it, not waste their time grieving me. What about you? How do you envision your own funeral?

Do you believe it is possible to lessen the pain we feel after the death of a loved one? Leave me a comment below and let me know.

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Comments 2

  • What can I do to ease my grief .. my husband jumped from a roof to his death at age 38 from side effects of his anti depressant medications. I distinguish he did not give me happiness but I feel
    He was under duress that day and totally was acting irrational and feel there was no closure. We were married ten years.

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