The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example

Epictetus stated he would embrace death before...

Epictetus stated he would embrace death before shaving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In advising us on how to respond when we encounter someone who has lost a child or suffered an equally calamitous loss, the stoic philosopher, Epictetus said, “Don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.”  These negative emotions are dangerous to us and to others, so we must be sure to keep them in check.

This sounds harsh, but Epictetus also advises us not to beat ourselves up when we do give over to grief. He says, “Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.” Epictetus assures us that death is not to be feared, and our terror of it comes from within, but blaming ourselves for our feelings is also pointless.

Scottish philosopher David Hume, reflecting on the nature of tragedy in art, makes a comment about the best way to comfort a parent who has lost a child. Hume says, “Who could ever think of it as a good expedient for comforting an afflicted parent, to exaggerate, with all the force of elocution, the irreparable loss which was met with by the death of a favorite child?” I’m sure Hume is right that we shouldn’t exaggerate the loss, but I would also advise against minimizing the loss in any way, which is what Cicero’s friend, Servius Sulpicius Rufus,  did after the death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia.

David Hume

David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sulpicius said, “If you have become the poorer by the frail spirit of one poor girl, are you agitated thus violently? If she had not died now, she would yet have had to die a few years hence, for she was mortal born.” Sulpicius sounds harsh in this instance, but this is actually offered only after he introduced the topic, saying, “If I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow.” If he had been available, he would have comforted Cicero and perhaps avoided the need for such harsh and critical words later, apparently.

Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London ...

Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London (Herzog Wellington) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cicero expressed his gratitude for the comforting words laced with recrimination, but also acknowledged their ineffectiveness, saying, “For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you – a man of such wisdom – think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me.”

Cicero had also been writing consolations for himself, and he felt himself the inventor of this type of self-help. He said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”) Unfortunately, Cicero’s Consolations have not survived the passage of time, so we can only infer what they may have said. In a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero remarked that he wrote in order to heal, but his writing also kept him out of public view, preserving the privacy of his grief and avoiding a vulgar display of emotion.

Cicero also took his turn in consoling others, Baltussen notes, “In the examples where Cicero aims at consoling others, we find a subtle approach, developing, as it were, a ‘philosophy of empathy,’ in which he consciously or unconsciously takes personal and political aspects into account. He shows great sensibility in narrowing or widening the emotional gap between him and the consolee.” Cicero noted that one task as consoler was to establish that he needed consolation himself, as he was grieving for his friend’s loss. I think this goes a little beyond mere empathy. Cicero actually feels his own sorrow upon hearing of the sorrow of a dear friend. He understands the friend’s pain because it is a magnified form of his own pain.

I personally feel that Cicero’s struggle with his grief highlights a social failure to deal with grief constructively. Can we not manage to express and process grief openly without fear of censure from friends and counselors? Since the time of Cicero, we have developed grief therapy, expressions of support for the bereaved, and paid lip service to the process of healing. Yet, we still criticize those who can’t “get it together” within a short time. Sadness is seen as weakness, especially for men, and we do not tolerate prolonged grieving. Cicero was lucky to have friends and the ability to spend time grieving and writing his consolations. Men with less power would have had no option but to keep working without respite.

Grief

Grief (Photo credit: tombellart)

As for me, I don’t know the best way to console others, but I’ve thought a little about what kinds of consolations have helped me in the past, and these are the things that I appreciate. First, recognize that my pain is of such a magnitude that it obscures the horizon, and I can’t see beyond it. Second, do acknowledge the enormous value of the life I have lost. Third, do remind me that the person I lost had life filled with wonder, love, accomplishments, and happiness. Fourth, remind me also that this person is in a state of peace with no more struggle, pain, or discontentment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assure me that I am not alone in the world, my grief is justified, and that a future is possible.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in dignity, ethics, Grief, Medical Humanism, Philosophy, Psychotherapy, Suffering and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example

  1. Pingback: Why I Am Afraid To Die | Ethics Beyond Compliance

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