Coping with bereavement and grief: lessons from history

Expressing grief is an essential part of human nature. Sasha Wolf/Wikimedia Commons.

The need for grief expression is apparent across history and cultures. But how do we know what works?

Since the first empirical study into acute grief by Erich Lindemann in 1944, the modern study of grief has intensified considerably. But management of grief is still a much debated topic, in part because the secularisation of society has increased the demand for new rituals and changed attitudes toward the display of emotions.

A recent study has argued that something has been lost in how we look at, and treat, sadness. Indeed, the increased medicalisation of treatments for depression and grief are seen as one reason for the neglect of the long-established tradition of consolation by the word.

Grief and the arts

One way of dealing with grief that’s on the rise is using the arts for managing bereavement. This approach, known as the “healing arts”, makes use of film, poetry, writing diaries, reading, and drama. It aims to empower those dealing with grief, loss and terminal illness.

The rise of this approach marks a growing similarity between modern grief management and the methods of our ancestors. Looking at historical material and appreciating this trend may help transcend the historical gap and counter the common belief that our ancestors were somehow inherently inferior, a phenomenon that C.S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery”.

Activities of the arts, such as reading and writing, have long been utilised in grief management. Kotivalo/Wikimedia Commons.

Striking similarities between ancient and modern responses to grief suggest that there are many universal aspects to bereavement. The ancients experienced loss in as many forms as we do: loss of a child, parents, pets, property, dignity and home country. It is said that Alexander the Great was inconsolable over the death of his horse and Cicero bemoaned his exile, while the philosopher Plutarch wrote a moving letter to his wife about the death of their two-year-old daughter.

Ancient sources show us that many pursued ways to use language as a cure. Perhaps we can extract lessons from grief documents, particularly about how reading and writing can help cope with grief. Modern psychological studies have shown that writing about emotional experiences improves our immune system and our ability to cope with grief.

Hidden meanings

Comparing public responses to grief across time also reveals remarkable parallels. At the funeral of Princess Diana, Earl Spencer’s speech was not only a well-planned eulogy in the classical tradition of public funeral speeches, offering consolation to the community, but also a subtle and subversive critique of the press and the royal family: “Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty…she was a symbol of selfless humanity…a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless.”

In his praise of the “people’s princess”, Spencer combines the eulogy for her character with implicit criticism of the English Royal family’s German background, lack of compassion and inherited nobility.

A striking ancient parallel is that of the hugely popular grandson of Augustus and designated heir of Tiberius, Germanicus, who died unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances in 19AD and whose death caused huge public displays of mourning in Rome and the empire.

A woodcut of Cicero writing his letters. Unknown artist from a book printed by Hieronymus Scotus/Wikimedia Commons

The historian Tacitus illustrates how eulogy could commemorate as well as criticise: “Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children”. With these words, he surreptitiously suggests that the Emperor Tiberius, suspected of the murder, possessed the exact opposite qualities.

Private treasures

Private documents also offer insight into ancient grief management. When Cicero, the orator and politician, lost his daughter after she had just given birth in early 45 BC, his letters to his friend Atticus show that he was plunged into a period of grief that lasted several months.

He had already lost his status as politician and had recently been divorced. The loss of his daughter tipped him over the edge and landed him in a depression. Cicero’s method of coping, it transpires, was to engage in the “healing arts” of reading and writing.

He not only wrote letters about setting up a monument, but also about his reading activities, perusing every possible book about grief and consolation. Unhappy about his findings he decided to write his own consolation to himself.

Princess Diana’s death caused a public outpouring of grief throughout the world. AAP.

After four months, he emerged from his acute grief and launched into a vigorous program of philosophical writings. Thus Cicero, author by nature and therapist by necessity, was able to lift himself out of his sorrow by doing what he did best: reading and writing. His adjustment of the process, creating a distinctly Roman consolation, was a marker of his character and cultural context.

Cicero’s reaction over two thousand years ago is that of the intellectual and closely resembles responses such as C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (1961) or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), to name but two. Both used reading and writing to cope with grief.

Comparing these coping strategies in historical grief accounts can increase our understanding of grief responses and what may help overcome grief. This doesn’t mean that there’s only one core notion of grief across time. What matters is the culturally embedded dynamics of human responses to death.

Grief management has come a long way, but there’s still no one method to apply to every individual case. This strikes at the heart of the paradox of grief and consolation: we all consider our grief unique, while seeing how the phenomenon is universally experienced.

We should make the rich resources of our cultural capital (accrued over centuries) available to cater for the variety of grief experiences. The ancient past has much to offer for today. But the choice of appropriate method will remain a personal one.

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