Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?
Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.
Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.
One reason for grieving may be that you will miss the departed, and that is painful. Let’s examine this possible reason with the help of a thought experiment. (Or rather, Prof Shelly Kagan in his lectures on the Philosophy of Death examined it that way.) Let’s say you have a close friend who is going on a space mission to the nearest star. He will not return in the next hundred years, and there is no chance at all that you will be able to see him again. Let’s also say that because of the nature of the mission, it will be impossible to communicate with your friend after lift off. You will sorely miss your friend. To all intents and purposes, your friend is as good as dead to you. Or is he? Let’s say thirty seconds after lift off, something goes terribly wrong and the spaceship explodes and your friend dies. To you, is it the same as the friend continuing his space mission? If your missing him was the only reason, it should be. I think it is pretty obvious that death is worse than a permanent farewell. Why? What is the extra badness that death adds to the equation?
That brings us to the next common reason for the badness of death. Your friend dying in a spaceship explosion is worse than him leaving forever because he will be missing out on all the great things he could have done if he were alive. If somebody dies at the age of 70, it is bad because he could have lived for another 20 years; he is missing out on 20 years of life. If he dies at the age of 50, it is worse because he is missing out on 40 years. Dying at the age of ten or one would be horrible because they would be missing out on their whole life. Continuing that logic, not being born at all should be really really bad. How about not even being conceived? Shouldn’t that be worse still? But we don’t feel any grief for the trillions of potential lives (from all the unfertilized eggs and lost sperms) that never got started. I think there is a logical inconsistency in this “missing-out-on-life” reason for the badness of death. It cannot be the real reason, or we would be grieving for all the potential lives that never happened.
Another possible reason is that we know that the departed may have gone through a lot of pain and fear. I thought of it and worried about it during my own personal grieving. But I have to say that there was something beyond that concern, way beyond, in my grief. Now I think I know what it is. You see, when someone (anyone) dies, a bit of you dies with him. If that person was a large part of your life (like your parent, or your spouse), it is a large bit of you that dies, for all the memories you created in him, all the projections of your soul in his consciousness, are also gone with him. The space you occupy in this universe becomes that much smaller. Your grief is not for the departed. Your grief is for yourself because what is departed really is a bit of yourself.
This is probably what Hemingway meant when he penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” going by the epigraph of the book where he quoted John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.