Review: Grief

Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of grief, why we grieve, and its importance in our lives.

The journey of the last several years has been a time of grief for many of us, losing loved ones to the pandemic or to other causes. A host of books have been written over the years, addressing psychological and spiritual dimensions of grief. What distinguishes this book is that, while referencing this literature, this work is a philosophical discussion that seeks to understand what grief is, who is the object of our grief, and how grief is important within the human experience.

Michael Cholbi observes that in much of the philosophical literature, grief is regarded as shameful, a sign of weakness. Cholbi argues otherwise, getting there through a sustained inquiry into the nature of grief. He admits that this may not help a person amid the tumult of grief, but may help prepare us to understand what is happening and how we may grow through it. He begins by considering for whom we grieve, why we grieve some and not others. He proposes that we grieve those in whom we have invested our practical identities, that is those who play important roles in our lives. He then considers what grief is, arguing that it is not a single emotion but a series of affective states, not necessarily those of Kubler-Ross’s five stages, or in that order. In addition, he suggests that grief is a form of attention, challenging us to interrogate the meaning of our emotions toward the one who has died, and what they reveal about our relation with the one who has died, a relation that has been transformed by death.

He then turns to some ethical questions. One concerns what he calls the paradox of grief. Grief is both painful and distressing, which seems detrimental to our flourishing and yet also capable of yielding insights and self-knowledge, shaping how we may live, moving forward. Can something so terribly painful be good? Cholbi moves on then and explores the rationality of grief. Instead of considering grief either arational or irrational, he argues that it is contingently rational, that is, it is “rational when we feel the right emotions in the right degree in light of the loss of the relationship with the deceased that we have suffered” (italics in the original). He then considers whether we have a duty to grieve. He argues that we do not have a duty to other grieving persons or to the deceased but to ourselves because of the good of the self-knowledge that may come when we attend to our relationship with the deceased and grow as rational agents. Most intriguing is that he wonders whether C. S. Lewis, at least on the evidence of A Grief Observed, grieved well in terms of growth in self-knowledge.

One of the most interesting questions Cholbi deals with is whether the peculiar “madness” of grief is a type of mental disorder. Cholbi would argue that grief is a human experience rather than a mental disorder, one from which most emerge, often with greater self understanding that shouldn’t be circumvented. Rather than treating grief as a pathology, he would want to treat the instances of pathology that emerge when grief goes awry.

In his conclusion, he distinguishes grief from other traumas, like divorce, contending that the loss of a person is more severe. I’m not so sure–sometimes the loss of a spouse or a parent to divorce is a living wound that never resolves. He also considers whether a considered philosophy of grief may change the experience of grief. While it may offer understanding of what we are undergoing, the emotional experience of grief and its course is unpredictable, nor can it determine what the specific content of our self-knowledge will be.

I suspect this is not the book to give someone amid grief, if one even can read books at some points during the grief process. I found the book helpful in reflecting upon what my experiences of grief have meant for me. I also suspect such a book, with its contention that we ought lean into the paradox of grief with attentiveness, is helpful. I believe attentiveness is the basis of various spiritually formative practices. It seems consistent that this would be so in the practice of grieving the loss of someone significant to us. Also, the careful discussion that distinguishes grief and mourning, that thinks about who we grieve and why, and that normalizes grief as part of the human experience are all important contributions of this work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.