Grief and loss are universal human experiences. How do Stoics deal with grief?
And what good can you get by knowing how the Stoics, who follow an ancient school of philosophy, coped with this challenging emotion? How do Stoics deal with narcissists and selfish people?
The Stoic masters were clear that the average person should be able to grasp and apply their philosophy. So, by knowing the Stoic way, we can equip ourselves better to face life’s inevitable losses.
The classic Stoic texts frequently discuss death and loss. They give us a great wealth of knowledge on the Stoic approach to handling grief and loss.
We can learn from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom on this.
Virtue & Control
Stoicism, founded in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium, teaches that our happiness and well-being lie in cultivating the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline.
Central to Stoic philosophy is the distinction between things we can control and things we cannot.
Epictetus, a prominent Stoic philosopher, famously said:
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them” (Enchiridion, 1.1).
How Do Stoics Deal With Grief & Loss?
In the face of grief, loss, or tragedy, Stoic philosophy offers valuable strategies to help us cope, heal, and grow.
Here are Stoic practices to deal with grief and loss:
Accepting the Natural Order
The first step for Stoics in dealing with grief and loss is accepting the natural order of things.
Death and loss are inevitable aspects of life, and Stoics believe that to rail against them is to fight against nature itself.
As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher, wrote in his Meditations,
“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?” (Meditations, 10.5).
Understanding What Is In Our Control
When confronted with grief and loss, Stoics focus on what is within their control, namely their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
By understanding this, we can avoid becoming slaves to our emotions. Epictetus taught that,
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them” (Enchiridion, 5).
Practicing Negative Visualization
Stoics practice a technique called “negative visualization,” in which they imagine losing the things they value most.
Doing this, they prepare themselves for the possibility of loss and learn to appreciate what they have.
Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic philosopher, wrote:
“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand” (Letters, 98.5).
Focusing on the Present Moment
In the face of grief and loss, Stoics direct their attention to the present moment, recognizing that dwelling on the past or worrying about the future serves no purpose.
Marcus Aurelius wrote,
“Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present” (Meditations, 7.8).
Pursuing and Practicing Virtue
For Stoics, pursuing virtue is the ultimate goal in life.
For every Stoic worth their salt, anywhere on earth, virtue is the minimum requisite for life satisfaction.
By focusing on developing the four cardinal virtues – wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline, they believe that they can endure any hardship, including grief and loss.
Epictetus emphasized the importance of this pursuit:
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them” (Enchiridion, 18).
Remembering the Brevity of Life
Stoics remind themselves of the brevity of life to maintain perspective when faced with loss.
By acknowledging that all things are temporary, they can find solace in the impermanent nature of existence.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing” (Letters, 101.7).
Seek Comfort in the Uncomfortable
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Consider how much worse a situation causing grief could have been, and you would realize that even the most agonizing suffering is temporary and bearable.
Contrary to what we instinctively assume, focusing on how much worse things could have been can actually bring us gratitude and relief.
It is impossible to imagine what could be worse than losing someone we love, but we may take solace in that we loved them and served them our best while we could.
Worse would have been if we had ignored them while they were around.
“To lose a friend is the greatest of all evils, but endeavor rather to rejoice that you possessed him than to mourn his loss.” – Seneca
Even in the most painful situations, there are aspects to be grateful for by focusing on the worst-case scenarios.
Marcus Aurelius quotes in his “Meditations” these words by Epicurus:
“Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”
Keep A Journal
“Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
Writing in a journal can help you make sense of your emotions and experiences. By reflecting on your thoughts, you can gain insight and better cope with life’s challenges.
We are incredibly lucky to be able to read the philosophy of the most honorable and powerful emperor the world has ever known since Marcus Aurelius kept a journal called Meditations.
Today, psychologists often counsel their patients to keep journals as doing so helps them to find a logical pattern of their emotional and cognitive stimuli rather than overanalyzing and worrying.
Practice Amor Fati
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”
Learn to love everything that happens in your life, even the most challenging experiences. By embracing amor fati, you can find purpose and opportunity in every situation.
Embrace every experience, good or bad, as an opportunity for growth and learning. Find joy in life’s challenges and use them to create a more fulfilling and meaningful life.
None of This, The Good & The Bad, Will Last
Marcus Aurelius reminded us,
“Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.”
Keep in mind that nothing is permanent, and the pain of the present moment will eventually pass.
Life’s events, good and bad, are temporary; they fade away into the passage of time and won’t appear again.
Heraclitus, an ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, said,
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Marcus Aurelius encouraged us to,
“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”
Gratitude forms a core part of the Stoic philosophy for life. The simple fact that you woke up today is something to be grateful for.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoics practice gratitude even during grief by recognizing that hardships can lead to personal growth and resilience.
They focus on what they can control, find strength in adversity, and appreciate the valuable lessons learned through difficult experiences.
Develop a mindset of gratitude for all events in your life, including the setbacks and losses that have shaped you into what you are today.
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius
Embrace Your Grief and Loss
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes today.”
The Stoics would advise, instead of trying to ignore or suppress your sad feelings, confront them. When you examine your grief and loss, you discover greater healing and resilience, allowing you to move forward.
Seneca would advise you not to hide your wounds, but to tear them open; not push your misfortunes away, but “set them all down before you in a pile.”
By ripping open your emotional wounds and sharing your struggles with others, instead of keeping them to yourself, you’ll find that you have conquered your grief.
Transform your grief into a resource for growth, creativity, and understanding, finding meaning and fulfillment in the face of adversity.
Acceptance And Finding Strength in Adversity
Marcus Aurelius noted,
“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.”
The Stoics coped with grief by accepting the inevitable presence of pain and loss in life, rather than denying or resisting it.
By accepting grief, Stoics practice the art of acquiescence, which means giving up the fight against things outside their control.
This acceptance allows them to focus on what they can control, such as their thoughts and actions, and cultivate resilience in the face of adversity.
Thus, accepting grief helps them transform adversity into an opportunity for personal growth, in line with the core principles of Stoicism.
Embrace the Stoic practice of acceptance, allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed by grief and acknowledging the irrevocable change it brings.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” – Marcus Aurelius
“There is one blessing conferred by constant misfortune, that it finally brings strength to those it always plagues.”
Through hardships, we develop unshakeable resolve, becoming stronger and more resilient as a result.
Ask For Help. Reach Out To Your Community
Marcus Aurelius asserted,
“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle.”
Stoicism doesn’t require you to be invincible.
It’s okay to reach out for support when you need it. Remember, sometimes the bravest and strongest action is asking for help.
“Dependence starts when we are born and lasts until we die. … But in the middle of our lives, we mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those that help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help. … But the truth is that no amount of money, influence, resources, or determination will change our physical, emotional, and spiritual dependence on others.”
― Brené Brown, Rising Strong
The Stoic community offers a supportive network of individuals who share the same values and principles.
In times of grief and loss, Stoics can lean on their fellow practitioners for guidance, encouragement, and consolation. As Seneca wrote,
“Associate with people who are likely to improve you” (Letters, 6.5).
The Stoics also constantly remind themselves of their own death.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Marcus Aurelius
They hold that by remembering death, they can stay ready for its unexpected visit and live virtuously while there is still time.
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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