Hello Fellow Philosophers!
Another student recently asked me about death, this time about how philosophy can be a comfort when coping with grief and loss.
This is not an easy question, but none of the great questions are. There is not even a single “answer.” Religion can offer comfort because it gives us answers. “Where did Grandma go? She went to heaven, and some day you will see her again.” This is very comforting. But philosophy does not offer such surety.
But philosophy as I was taught, does ask that we “stay in the question.” To do this is not easy, nor, I think, is it supposed to be easy. This is because it requires a special kind of effort, a different kind of attention, to stay in between the consolation of religion and the opposite, what we might consider the consolation of nihilism — that nothing happens.
So, the first way philosophy is a comfort, for me at least, is that it insists on my seeing very clearly that I don’t know what happens when death comes. I experience sorrow, but what causes suffering, rather than pain, is the story I tell myself about that pain. The Buddha taught: "Pain is certain, suffering is optional." Pema Chodron teaches, “feel the feelings, and drop the story.”
The pain of loss is our experience. With time, it eventually heals, or at the least turns down the intensity of sorrow. The suffering, however, is optional. Most of the suffering, in my experience, comes from the story that “this should not have happened.” For example, this person should not have died.
But notice how this assumes I know and understand what should and should not be happening. There is also a sense that death is wrong and bad. Thoughts like these cause the suffering rather than the pain.
If I stay in the question, I realize that for all I know, perhaps death is a good thing. When I think it is bad, I am making an assumption. For all I know, it may be a a “graduation” of sorts or at least a freedom from the pain of human existence.
Another perspective I have found helpful is what you might call the cosmological perspective. This means I make an effort to see death in the light of the size and the time of the cosmos. Then the question becomes “what is life?” The longest life is but a mere flicker of light, gone before it is even registered.
Another “comfort” is the reminder that loss brings the wish to cherish every moment and each person. Sooner or later, we must all face the great unknown.
This can encourage us to measure our lives by a different standard. As the great poet Maya Angelou says: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."
For me, thoughts like these are the consolation that philosophy offers to me when I experience the pain of grief and loss.