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063 - On The Proper Measure Of Grief - Moral Letters for Modern Times

If you would treasure your times with true friends, you will every now and then permit yourself to imagine life without them. Not to make yourself sad by hastening or even bringing about the loss, but to remind yourself never to assume too much.
A seaside pier with a gold-domed white pavilion - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Your friend Justinus has succumbed in his battle with cancer, and we mourn. You are right to be sad, but I would have you avoid turning a pure thing into a selfish thing by mourning to excess. If I were to tell you that you should not mourn at all, you would think me to be asking too much, although in truth you’d be better for it. But it takes a person of rare self-possession to be above all bother about what occurs on the mortal plane. Even such an elevated person would note the passing of a dear friend, but their noting would not turn into a drawn out dirge. In our case we may let our sorrow show, so long as we can then show that we have let it go.

You do not need to harden your heart to feeling strong emotions. That is not what I am advising. You need merely observe the cries and carrying on that accompany the bereaved, though, to be warned of over-acting. “Acting,” you say, “are my feelings for my friend not genuine?” I do not doubt your feelings are real, Deuteros, but consider whether they are well-placed, and, equally, well-timed.

Some people seek to demonstrate the depth of their feeling by the depth of the tears they shed upon a loved one’s passing. Too often this is a display for the benefit of the living, to prove as it were, that their feelings were real. Were their feelings as intense when their friend was still among us? Did they lavish attention on their friend as they now lavish it on their grief? We take for granted what is all around us, losing moments to hours, then hours to years, to inattention and neglect. “I will see him next week sometime. I am busy with other things and I don’t have time for him today.” Only when we have lost them forever do some start to appreciate and value those we had with us all along. In such cases, our grief should be real, but it is grief for ourselves having wasted valuable parts of our time with others.

And what of the one who says they are inconsolable? None of their living, loving friends will do, because of the one who is gone. A friend who puts the dead above the living deserves no friends among the living. Because if you know the true worth of your friends you will value their words of comfort. And if you say you have no friends who understand you, then you have little understanding of yourself or others. Do you think you are alone in feeling lonely, feeling sad, feeling lost? Do you think that none has suffered an unfairness or injury before you? The conditions of mankind’s existence are such that, though blessings are spread unevenly, suffering is widely shared. To think you are uniquely suffering is to risk adding arrogance to ignorance.

There are multiple ways to prepare yourself against the pain of loss of companionship: you can reflect on and savor the good moments as they are happening, and so build up a store of memories that will last as long as you do; you can build up reserves in your relationships, in the form of multiple friendships; and you can anticipate the end of all things, including your loved ones, not in dread and fear, but in simple acknowledgement that all things end.

Time you spend mindfully with your friends leaves a lasting impression. You are not only listening, but hearing. You are not only talking, but being heard and understood. The laughter that arises spontaneously represents a shared joy. You may revisit this treasure-house of memories at your leisure, when you are merely temporarily parted from your friends, or when they are permanently taken from us. How would you have your friends remember you? With this thought in mind, make it your habit to build memories of your current interactions so that you have good times to act as a bulwark against the bad.

When you are at peace with yourself, you make it easier for others to interact honestly with you. You may teach without judging. You may observe without criticizing. We think we want praise, but in our hearts we know that flattery is a compliment that makes one uglier over time. Be a good friend, and you will find friends. Fortune can be fickle indeed, but having friends you can count on counts for a lot. You will then have companions to understand and share your feelings when one of you is taken out of order.

If you would treasure your times with true friends, you will every now and then permit yourself to imagine life without them. Not to make yourself sad by hastening or even bringing about the loss, but to remind yourself never to assume too much. If you are aware that every parting could be your last, you will hold the embrace that much longer. The casual “See you later,” betrays an unthinking optimism that creates the conditions for bitter disappointment. If you never expect other than to see your loved ones again, of course you will be grieved if they are taken away. Better to think and to say “We may never meet again, dear friend. I am happy for the times we had together. Take care.”

It is with sorrow, but not grief, that I bring this letter to a close. I rejoice for the time we have spent together, Deuteros, and you are never far from my thoughts and memories. I am happy to extend our time together through our correspondence. For even though we do not meet, something is better than nothing, and in this case that something is everything to me.

Be well.

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