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Life is Hard: Grief

Updated: Jun 19

By Dr Julian Kiverstein, Philosopher, University of Amsterdam

Grief is a painful emotion all of us will experience at some point in our lives. It is part of the inevitable adversity and unhappiness each of us must face in our lives. In this chapter Kieran shows how grief is part of living well. For grief is, he argues, an expression of love: when we grieve for the loss of someone, we do so as an expression of our love for the person we have lost. Kieran quotes C.S. Lewis who described his grief after his wife died as “integral” to his love for his wife, following his marriage, just as marriage had followed his courtship.

Kieran begins the chapter by describing the complexity of the emotions people experience when they grieve. People in grief spiral through a range of emotions from anger, to guilt to fear to moments of lightness and tenderness as they relive with fondness experiences they have shared with loved ones. In grief we lose our bearings in the world. We experience a deep void the person we love once filled. It can seem hard to imagine how life can go on. Grief doesn’t come in stages, as is commonly believed. Kieran suggests instead that grief comes upon us in waves. Grief is felt to come and go in oscillations.

The chapter is organized around an analysis of three kinds of grief. The first Kieran calls “relational grief” for the loss of a relationship. The second is the bereavement experienced when a loved one dies. The third, arguably a part of bereavement, is the grief one feels at the harm that befalls the person who has died.

Each of these kinds of grief has its reasons. Grief is not something we do in pitying ourselves; the fact that a loved one is dead gives us a reason to grieve. Our grief is a rational response to their loss. It is not a self-indulgence because grief is not, or not only, about ourselves. When we grieve for a relationship, the pain we experience is for what has been lost to us through the ending of the relationship, and for what we can no longer do together. 

Kieran suggests that to grieve well, to grieve as we should grieve, requires us to change how we sustain our relationship to those we love. He quotes form the novelist Julian Barnes writing about the death of his wife: “the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive but doesn’t mean they do not exist”. There is a sense in which even though they are lost to us they continue to exist. We may, for instance, have an uncanny sense of their presence. We can continue to speak to them (even though they will not answer back). We can do things to remember them, even though we can no longer do things with them.

If the loss of a loved one is dead is a reason to grieve, and this fact never goes away, why isn’t grief permanent? Some people unfortunately do experience chronic grief but many of us, following the death of someone we love, bounce back after a few months or perhaps a year, and find ways to go on with our lives. Kieran argues this doesn’t at all mean we cease to value the person who has died, or that their death ceases to mean anything to us. The change in grief is instead a consequence of working through the change in the relationship we have with the person who has died. It is true that there are no reasons why grief should diminish over time. For Kieran this is because grief is a process. At time passes, grief changes in much the same way as our love for a person does when they are alive.

Dr Julian Kiverstein 

Julian is Assistant Professor of Neurophilosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently writing a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan entitled The Significance of Phenomenology, and editing a comprehensive handbook for Routledge Taylor Francis on the philosophy of the social mind. He is associate editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences and was until recently Book Review Editor for the Journal of Consciousness Studies. 

Before his appointment at Amsterdam in 2011, Kiverstein was teaching fellow at Edinburgh University, where he played a lead role in developing and designing the Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition Masters Programme, of which he also became director. In 2006 he was one of the main architects of a successful cross disciplinary, Europe-wide project proposal on consciousness, part of the ESF Programme, Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context. 

He was Postdoctoral Research Fellow as part of this project, and subsequently became external partner on a cross-European follow up project on the topic of Understanding and Misunderstanding. In 2007-2009, Kiverstein was Project Leader of an interdisciplinary group investigating Subjective Time as part of the VolkswagenStiftung European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences and Humanities.

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