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The Nature of Grief

An old joke about philosophy goes: “What is matter? Never mind! What is mind? No matter!” The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell says that he heard often it when he was a boy and told someone he was interested in philosophy.

It’s not a very good joke, but it captures a problem that Russell, like countless other philosophers down the centuries, wrestled with throughout his career. What is the relationship between mind and matter? How does the solid brain turn signals from the nerves into mental experiences: the colours of a sunset, the sweetness of an apple, the melody of a song? It’s a mystery, but all of us meet it every day.

Part of the mystery is the way the mind can affect the body. We’re used to the idea that material things can affect the mind. Alcohol and drugs are one example: they change the way our brains work, so our mental experiences change too. But sometimes it works the other way: something in the mind can affect the body. Bad news can make people fall ill. Sometimes it can even seem to kill them. There are many cases of husbands and wives who die within a short time of each other, as though the one left behind can’t bear to stay behind.

That’s extreme, but many people have felt the loss of a loved one like a heavy weight crushing the body or a pain inside the chest. The word “heart-broken” can take on horrible new meaning to grieving people. It really can feel like that. But how does this happen? The loss of a loved one isn’t a physical attack on the body. It’s an idea in the mind: someone has passed away. But it can seem to weaken and harm the body.

Of course, thoughts have physical traces in the brain, so some say that there is nothing mysterious happening. Grief and depression can be seen on a brain-scanner, so it’s not surprising if a change in the brain can produce changes in the body, even dangerous changes that lead to illness or death. But the mystery of how this happens is still there. And some people wouldn’t want to the mystery to be solved. Grief may be painful, but would it not be worse to feel nothing?

Grief can sometimes be so powerful that the bereaved person is sedated, giving them respite from their pain. That’s usually a decision taken by those around them, who can see that it’s in their best interests not to continue grieving so strongly. But suppose doctors could offer a pill that took the grief away entirely, so that bereavement really was nothing but an idea, not an emotion. Would a parent who had lost a child want to take that pill?

I don’t think so. That would seem unnatural and wrong. If we value someone, we don’t want to feel nothing when they pass away. Grief is something to be accepted and lived through. Drugs should be a last resort, not used unless grief becomes too strong or lasts too long, interfering with our ability to care for ourselves or for others who should be important to us.

But there are natural ways to face grief and to come to terms with our loss. A funeral is an obvious example. It’s a ritual that stretches back all the way through written history and into the distant past. Throughout all those thousand of years human beings have been treating the dead with respect, saying goodbye to them with special ceremonies, placing their bodies or ashes carefully in the earth or in the water of a river or ocean. Funerals are important in many ways, but one of their functions may be to help us understand that the departed person truly is gone.

If we can accept that, we can face our grief more easily and begin to move back towards everyday life, when thoughts of the departed person no longer fill us with constant pain, but occur more naturally and can be accepted more easily. Happy memories of the departed may rise more easily and we may be able to pass beyond grief to acceptance. Matter isn’t mind, but mind matters a lot.