What is it that we are grieving for?

When we grieve for someone, some being, or something, what is it that we are grieving for? Surely, we cannot grieve for some inanimate or inorganic thing; it follows that this being has to have–or, rather, has to be imbued with–life. Just as surely, we cannot grieve for some being unless that being has passed out of existence. And, thirdly, we cannot grieve for some being unless we take its life as mattering to us, as valuable to us, as having filled our lives with significance.

These basic claims about a being’s life, its transience, and its value make for preliminary remarks only and not just because a being could be finite in nature yet be of little value to us when it is gone and not just because a being may be of some value to us yet that value is not, somehow or another, the right kind or the right amount to take us over into grief. So, we must inquire:

What kind of value does the other have for us in order for us to be ‘warranted’ (if that is the word) in our grieving for this being?

I can answer only in a tentative fashion. I would venture that I grieve for another being if and only if

1.) I am  or I was once grateful to this other for something of great significance that he has given to me;

2.) I admire him for the kind of life that he led or embodied or for the kind of character that he had and that kind of life made a difference to my own; and/or

3.) I love him just because he is good and beautiful, and I want that goodness and beauty to continue.

The first reason is meant to bring out the supreme value of teaching and learning when the meaning of both of these terms is grasped quite widely. I take it a pupil of chess who was taught by a great chess teacher may, even if he has not been in touch with this man for some years, grieve over the death of his former teacher just because he believes that what the teacher offered him was of great significance to him. Had this teacher not come along, the young man may not have come to such a deep understanding or profound appreciation of chess. It is not necessarily the case that he wishes that his former teacher were still alive, for it may be that the teacher has nothing more to show him. The younger man may also have no regrets that he did not convey to the teacher his sense of gratitude; perhaps he did and on numerous occasions. It could instead be that the young man’s debt remains immeasurably large at the same time that his ability to express this is nearly impossible.

Conceivably, one may not grieve over the loss of one’s parents, for he may believe that though they gave him life (zen, i.e., the spheres of production and reproduction), they did not put him in touch with the good life (eudaimon). This is why the first reason specifies that this be ‘something of great significance.’

The second reason is a bit more wobbly, though it is on the right track. What makes it wobbly is that I can conceive of admiring, say, Nelson Mandela or Gandhi for the kind of character he had or for the way in which he lived (or both), but yet I may not grieve for him. The second case is easy: I cannot possibly grieve for someone who passed away well before I was born. But the first example, that of Mandela, poses a problem. It might seem as if I can only grieve for those I have met in person, but that can’t possibly be correct since I can grieve for those I have never met in person but have corresponded with in some way. But then must I have corresponded with him or her in some way? Not necessarily since I have heard of people grieving over the loss of major artists they admired. It could be (hence the rider attached to the second reason) that that kind of life, somehow or other, made a difference in the life I wish to lead or that his character made a difference in the kind of character I have also sought to cultivate.

(I would need to unpack what it means to ‘make a difference’ in order for this reason to have sufficient force. I beg off doing so in this post.)

The third reason seems unobjectionable if pithy. I do not believe that I can love another unless I take him to be kalon: good and beautiful in some significant sort of way. I suppose it is possible that I could love Achilles because of his nobility yet not grieve for him when he dies in battle on the grounds that I believe him to have died a beautiful, noble death. Perhaps I see his life as expiring at just the right time in just the right way. This is why I added the rider–‘I want that goodness and beauty to continue (on).’ Apparently, I believe that, in other cases, I believe it would be better (more life-enhancing, fuller, more expansive, etc.) if this good and beautiful person were to become more excellent were he to have been given more time. I see his fullness and believe that he could have become fuller still. I suppose this is what some people may have thought about David Foster Wallace’s writing. However good he was as a writer, he could have gotten better at it.


This account is no more than tentative. What has been assumed throughout is the hypothetical. ‘If P grieves for Q, then…’ Yet Socrates, in Phaedo, and Chuang Tzu both questioned whether grieving makes any sense once one grasps the nature of the soul as well as that of the cosmos. Wouldn’t, they asked us to considered, celebration or laughter be a more fitting enterprise?