The subject of grief and depression has fascinated and captured the minds of philosophers and thinkers since time immemorial. From Buddha to Marcus Aurelius, the ancient world has sought its own ways to provide a deeper understanding of this very strong driving force in a person’s life. Traumatic experiences can incur lasting lifetime effects for people: the tragedy of losing a loved one, facing death itself, etc. Although, it’s also worthy to note that there always seem to be people who always get up no matter what trouble ails them in their journey through life. In this three-part article, we will explore the deep and mysterious phenomenon and hopefully, shed some light into a rather dark episode that one may encounter in living through this life.
In this first part, we will look at the rudiments of how major ancient cultures have viewed grief and suffering as a subsequent cause of the concept of evil. In the second part, we will take a look at the well-known five stages of grief and how the theory came about. And in the last part, we will explore the limitations of this concept, what psychological resilience means as well as some time-tested methods on how to overcome grief, especially when coping up with the loss of a loved one.
Part 1: How Suffering is viewed in the Ancient World
Please bear in mind that discussing how ancient philosophies and religions viewed suffering and grief is an immensely enormous task and can no way be encapsulated properly in a short article such as this one. Nevertheless, we hope to give you the basics on what you need to know about what the people then thought of how and why people suffered and how they ultimately made sense of it.
Suffering is greatly emphasized in the tenets of Buddhism. So much so, that according to their teachings, life itself is suffering. Their term for this is Dukkha, though the word is only an approximate translation of it. Dukkha can mean anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, un-satisfactoriness, etc or anything that is deemed unpleasant in the human experience. This includes the pain of losing somebody and having to be in their funeral service.
Once that is established, this concept now relates to what the Buddhists call The Four Noble Truths. To make this concise, The First Truth says that life from birth to aging, illness, and death is all but suffering. What is displeasing is suffering and the separation from what gives pleasure is suffering. All life is a constant struggle. The Second Truth Says that Dukkha is caused by wanting to possess our unnatural and personal desires. Dukkha is to cling to things and the desire to control them. This kind of resistance can only cause Dukkha to oneself and possibly to others. The Third Truth says that only by letting go of these desires can we achieve the cessation of suffering, only then can we breathe a sigh of relief and this act of exhaling, this act of releasing, is what is called Nirvana. The Fourth Truth is pretty much straight-forward, it says that the path to Nirvana can be attained through the Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Stoicism is sometimes called the “Buddhism of the west”. Their principal tenants and the way they approach life struggles are somewhat similar yet Stoicism is very much unique in its own way. This philosophy started out when a man named Zeno of Citium, a once wealthy man, lost everything in a shipwreck. His journey through his psychological recovery gave rise to what became known as Stoicism. This Greek school of philosophy teaches many things but with regards to personal human suffering, the Stoics believe that though we may not always have control over the situations and the circumstances that happen to us such as the inevitability of death, we can always control how we approach them. There are things that are simply beyond our control and by responding to these events with the utmost Virtue (Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage) is what is considered the highest good.
This kind of thinking gave much solace to the people in the mid-20th century when the two world wars broke out. Many people looked for a sense of meaning and answers to one of the cruelest periods of our history. Stoicism, especially the works of Marcus Aurelius somehow eased the pain from all the deaths and loss people suffered during that time. So many died, not everyone had a proper burial service.
The concept of suffering for Christians is probably the most fleshed out and the broadest of a scope in terms of what they think about it. The reasons why they think people suffer pain and death are as numerous as they are subjective and there had been numerous volumes written about this subject alone over the course of about a couple millennia, not to mention the different sects and denominations that have their own interpretation of what the Bible says. What is clear is that they have the concept of Redemptive Suffering: Jesus sacrificed his life in order to cleanse the world of the pain brought about by Sin and by offering your personal sufferings to Jesus, the believer may be redeemed through the grace of Christ.