Grief and its role in the Value of Death

Throughout much of human history across creeds and cultures death has been considered, for lack of a better term, bad. Whether death itself is bad, relationally bad, or extrinsically bad, there nevertheless seems to be something negative or undesirable about it. Intuitively, I take death to be bad in some sense and I presume the majority of people both past and present (and future) to share this intuition. And the aforementioned would explain why so much of human thought has been fascinated with death: what it is, why it is important, and what lies on the other side (if there is one).

misty mort 3Further still, for those that do not believe in an afterlife, an explanation for those that do accept a life after death would be that those people view death as bad and are attempting to mitigate the evil they see in death, or at the very least make death not as scary or not as bad as it otherwise would be. If people did not think death was bad, then it seems hard to explain why one would need to postulate a life-after-death.

But if my tutorial classes are anything to go by, it appears my presumption that people presently take death to be bad is wrong: according to just over half my students death is not ceteris paribus bad, but to ask such an idea is nonsensical. That is, death is not bad (nor good), but simply sits outside the purview of value judgment. For the other half the goodness or badness of death depends on circumstances. Nobody took death to be bad (or good), and nobody was undecided. What perhaps was more interesting was that nobody could understand what the problem exactly is; why ask questions about death? The problem of death for my students was poorly motivated.

I found this to be striking. I hope I am not alone in that. Sure, I might be wrong and my students might be right, but this is hardly obvious and there seems to be good reasons to support the view that death is bad or that we as a majority treat it as a bad thing.

Now, it is important to note the difference between death being bad for the person who has died and death being bad for the people it has left behind. Most, if not all, students believed death is bad for those left behind rather than for the one who had actually died. I am not entirely sure how death can be bad for people who have not died, especially when these same students thought that death was value-neutral, but nevertheless this was their position. Putting that perplexing contradiction aside, students generally thought the evidence of why death is bad for those affected by another dying was grief: we grieve for those who have died because we have lost something. In particular, we grieve because we have lost a relationship with the deceased. Death is bad because it denies the living of something and we grieve for that loss.

Now while I did not agree with my students for the majority of our discussions on the topic of death, I at least understood how they could hold or have come to such positions. But this particular one – that we grieve because we lose a relationship – struck me as incredibly bizarre. I thought we grieved because we feel bad for the person who has died, not that I have lost something. It grieves us that such badness has befallen a person we care about; we take it that something bad – perhaps the greatest of evil – has happened to the person.

In simple terms: when I grieve it is not because I feel for myself, it is because I feel bad for the other.

If we did not think death was bad (or evil) why would we grieve? Grief seems to me to be extremely good evidence to support the widespread intuition that not only is death bad but that death is bad for the individual to whom it befalls (even if such intuitions are mistaken, this is good motivation for the problem of why is death bad in the first place). However, once again, my students did not agree: they thought that when we grieve we grieve over the loss of our relationship with the departed, rather than the departed themselves. I other words, I grieve for what I have lost, rather than what the departed have lost.

the-punished-son-by-greuze
The Punished Son – Jean Baptiste Greuze, 1778

I honestly do not know what to make of such a suggestion, other than it strikes me as supremely selfish. But let me make it clear: I am not doubting that we feel anguish at something we have lost, nor do I doubt that our relationship plays an important part about whom we do, or do not, grieve over. But it is certainly not how I experience grief over a lost one, and I do not think my students suggestion makes sense of much of the linguistic data expressed by those in the throes of grief. For it seems clear to me that our personal loss is not the focal point of our thoughts in grief, nor does it take a primary position in it.

A family who has lost their mother will grieve because the mother has lost something, namely their life, and all the goods that life allows us to experience. I should make it explicitly clear that while I agree with my students that when we grieve to grieve over our loss, ‘I have lost my mother,’ but it seems this does not take precedence over the feeling of anguish over the losses suffered for someone we care about. Death is bad for those left behind, but it is additionally bad for the person who has died.

But in light of this my students deny this: when they grieve, they say, they have grieved over their own personal loss, not thinking (or caring) about the dead themselves.

I still do not know what to make of this. Perhaps I have failed to properly explain the point, or maybe my students are solely concerned about themselves and see others as only having value inasmuch as they add to their own personal enjoyment? Or maybe they are being completely honest. Maybe they simply miss the point? Or maybe I am crazy and have a completely warped sense of grief and its role that it plays in death.

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