The art of grieving well

[This is one post I’ve writ­ten in an up­com­ing se­quence on what I call “yin”. Yin, in short, is the sub-art of giv­ing per­cep­tion of truth ab­solutely no re­sis­tance as it up­dates your im­plicit world-model. Said differ­ently, it’s the sub-art of sub­con­sciously seek­ing out and elimi­nat­ing ugh fields and also elimi­nat­ing the in­cli­na­tion to form them in the first place. This is the first piece I wrote, and I think it stands on its own, but it prob­a­bly won’t be the first post in the fi­nal se­quence. My plan is to flesh out the se­quence and then post a guide to yin giv­ing the proper or­der. I’m post­ing the origi­nals on my blog, and you can view the origi­nal of this post here, but my aim is to post a fi­nal se­quence here on Less Wrong.]

In this post, I’m go­ing to talk about grief. And sor­row. And the pain of loss.

I imag­ine this won’t be easy for you, my dear reader. And I wish I could say that I’m sorry for that.

…but I’m not.

I think there’s a skill to see­ing hor­ror clearly. And I think we need to learn how to see hor­ror clearly if we want to end it.

This means that in or­der to point at the skill, I need to also point at real hor­ror, to show how it works.

So, I’m not sorry that I will make you un­com­fortable if I suc­ceed at con­vey­ing my thoughts here. I imag­ine I have to.

In­stead, I’m sorry that we live in a uni­verse where this is nec­es­sary.

If you Google around, you’ll find all kinds of lists of what to say and avoid say­ing to a griev­ing per­son. For rea­sons I’ll aim to make clear later on, I want to fo­cus for a mo­ment on some of the things not to say. Here are a few from

  • “He is in a bet­ter place.”

  • “There is a rea­son for ev­ery­thing.”

  • “I know how you feel.”

  • “Be strong.”

I can eas­ily imag­ine some­one say­ing things like this with the best of in­ten­tions. They see some­one they care about who is suffer­ing greatly, and they want to help.

But to the per­son who has ex­pe­rienced a loss, these are very un­pleas­ant to hear. The dis­com­fort is of­ten pre-ver­bal and can be difficult to ar­tic­u­late, es­pe­cially when in so much pain. But a fairly com­mon theme is some­thing like:

“Don’t heave your needs on me. I’m too tired and in too much pain to help you.”

If you’ve never ex­pe­rienced ag­o­niz­ing loss, this might seem re­ally con­fus­ing at first — which is why it seems tempt­ing to say those things in the first place, I think. But try as­sum­ing that the griev­ing per­son sees the situ­a­tion more clearly, and see if you can make sense of this re­ac­tion be­fore read­ing on.

If you look at the bul­leted state­ments above, there’s a way of read­ing them that says “You’re suffer­ing. Maybe try this, to stop your suffer­ing.” There’s an im­po­si­tion there, tel­ling the griev­ing per­son to add more bur­den to how they are in the mo­ment. In many cases, the im­plicit re­quest to stop suffer­ing comes from the speaker’s dis­com­fort with the griever’s pain, so an un­char­i­ta­ble (but some­times ac­cu­rate) read of those state­ments is “I don’t like it when you hurt, so stop hurt­ing.”

No­tice that the per­son who lost some­one doesn’t have to think through all this. They just see it, di­rectly, and emo­tion­ally re­spond. They might not even be able to say why oth­ers’ com­ments feel like im­po­si­tions, but there’s very lit­tle doubt that they do. It’s just that so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions take so much en­ergy, and the grief is already so much to carry, that it’s hard not to no­tice.

There’s only en­ergy for what re­ally, ac­tu­ally mat­ters.

And, it turns out, not much mat­ters when you hurt that much.

I’d like to sug­gest that griev­ing is how we ex­pe­rience the pro­cess of a very, very deep part of our psy­ches be­com­ing fa­mil­iar with a painful truth. It doesn’t hap­pen only when some­one dies. For in­stance, peo­ple go through a very similar pro­cess when mourn­ing the loss of a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship, or when struck with an in­jury or ill­ness that takes away some­thing they hold dear (e.g., quadriple­gia). I think we even see smaller ver­sions of it when peo­ple break a pre­cious and sen­ti­men­tal ob­ject, or when they fail to get a job or into a school they had re­ally hoped for, or even some­times when get­ting rid of a piece of cloth­ing they’ve had for a few years.

In gen­eral, I think fa­mil­iariza­tion looks like trac­ing over all the facets of the thing in ques­tion un­til we in­tu­itively ex­pect what we find. I’m par­tic­u­larly fond of the ex­am­ple of ar­riv­ing in a city for the first time: At first all I know is the part of the street right in front of where I’m stay­ing. Then, as I wan­der around, I start to no­tice a few places I want to re­mem­ber: the train sta­tion, a nice coffee shop, etc. After a while of ex­plor­ing differ­ent alley­ways, I might make a few con­nec­tions and no­tice that the coffee shop is ac­tu­ally just around the cor­ner from that nice restau­rant I went to on my sec­ond night there. Even­tu­ally the city (or at least those parts of it) start to feel smaller to me, like the dis­tances be­tween fa­mil­iar lo­ca­tions are shorter than I had first thought, and the ar­eas I can eas­ily think of now in­clude sev­eral blocks rather than just parts of streets.

I’m un­der the im­pres­sion that grief is do­ing a similar kind of re­hearsal, but speci­fi­cally of pain. When we lose some­one or some­thing pre­cious to us, it hurts, and we have to prac­tice an­ti­ci­pat­ing the lack of the pre­cious­ness where it had been be­fore. We have to fa­mil­iarize our­selves with the ab­sence.

When I watch my­self grieve, I typ­i­cally don’t find my­self just think­ing “This per­son is gone.” In­stead, my grief wants me to call up spe­cific images of re­cur­ring events — hold­ing the per­son while watch­ing a show, tex­ting them a funny pic­ture & get­ting a smiley back, etc. — and then add to that image a feel­ing of pain that might say “…and that will never hap­pen again.” My mind goes to the feel­ing of want­ing to watch a show with that per­son and re­mem­ber­ing they’re not there, or know­ing that if I send a text they’ll never see it and won’t ever re­spond. My mind seems to want to re­hearse the pain that will hap­pen, un­til it be­comes fa­mil­iar and known and even­tu­ally a lit­tle smaller.

I think griev­ing is how we ex­pe­rience the pro­cess of chang­ing our emo­tional sense of what’s true to some­thing worse than where we started.

Un­for­tu­nately, that can feel on the in­side a lit­tle like mov­ing to the worse world, rather than rec­og­niz­ing that we’re already here.

It looks to me like it’s pos­si­ble to re­sist grief, at least to some ex­tent. I think peo­ple do it all the time. And I think it’s an er­ror to do so.

If I’m car­ry­ing some­thing re­ally heavy and it slips and drops on my foot, I’m likely to yelp. My ini­tial in­stinct once I yank my foot free might be to clutch my foot and grit my teeth and swear. But in do­ing so, even though it seems I’m fo­cus­ing on the pain, I think it’s more ac­cu­rate to say that I’m dis­tract­ing my­self from the pain. I’m too busy yel­ling and hop­ping around to re­ally ex­pe­rience ex­actly what the pain feels like.

I could in­stead turn my mind to the pain, and look at it in exquisite de­tail. Where ex­actly do I feel it? Is it hot or cold? Is it throb­bing or sharp or some­thing else? What ex­actly is the most aver­sive as­pect of it? This doesn’t stop the ex­pe­rience of pain, but it does stop most of my in­cli­na­tion to jump and yell and get mad at my­self for drop­ping the ob­ject in the first place.

I think the first three so-called “stages of grief” — de­nial, anger, and bar­gain­ing — are avoidance be­hav­iors. They’re at­tempts to dis­tract one­self from the painful emo­tional up­date. De­nial is like try­ing to fo­cus on any­thing other than the hurt foot, anger is like clutch­ing and yel­ling and get­ting mad at the situ­a­tion, and bar­gain­ing is like try­ing to rush around and bandage the foot and clean up the blood. In each case, there’s an at­tempt to keep the mind pre­oc­cu­pied so that it can’t start the pro­cess of trac­ing the pain and let­ting the ag­o­niz­ing-but-true world come to feel true. It’s as though there’s a part of the psy­che that be­lieves it can pre­vent the hor­ror from be­ing real by avoid­ing com­ing to feel as though it’s real.

The above might seem kind of ab­stract, so let me list a very few ex­am­ples that I think do in fact ap­ply to re­sist­ing grief:

  • After a breakup, some­one might re­fuse to talk about their ex and in­sist that no one around them bring up their ex. They might even start dat­ing a lot more right away (the “re­bound” phe­nomenon, or dis­mis­sive-avoidant dat­ing pat­terns). They might in­sist on act­ing like their ex doesn’t ex­ist, for months, and show flashes of in­tense anger when they find a lost sweater un­der their bed that had be­longed to the ex.

  • While try­ing to finish a pro­ject for a ma­jor client (or an im­por­tant class as­sign­ment, if a stu­dent), a per­son might re­al­ize that they sim­ply don’t have the time they need, and start to panic. They might pour all their time into it, even while know­ing on some level that they can’t finish on time, but try­ing des­per­ately any­way as though to avoid look­ing at the in­evita­bil­ity of their mean­ingful failure.

  • The ho­mo­pho­bia of the stereo­typ­i­cal gay man in de­nial looks to me like a kind of dis­trac­tion. The painful truth for him here is that he is some­thing he thinks it is wrong to be, so ei­ther his morals or his sense of who he is must die a lit­tle. Both are ag­o­niz­ing, too much for him to han­dle, so in­stead he clutches his metaphor­i­cal foot and screams.

In ev­ery case, the part of the psy­che driv­ing the be­hav­ior seems to think that it can hold the hor­ror at bay by pre­vent­ing the emo­tional up­date that the hor­ror is real. The prob­lem is, suc­cess re­quires severely dis­tort­ing your abil­ity to see what is real, and also your de­sire to see what’s real. This is a cog­ni­tive black hole — what I some­times call a “metacog­ni­tive blindspot” — from which it is enor­mously difficult to re­turn.

This means that if we want to see re­al­ity clearly, we have to de­velop some kind of skill that lets us grieve well — with­out re­sis­tance, with­out flinch­ing, with­out scream­ing to the sky with dec­la­ra­tions of war as a dis­trac­tion from our pain.

We have to be will­ing to look di­rectly and un­wa­ver­ingly at hor­ror.

In 2014, my mar­riage died.

A friend warned me that I might go through two stages of grief: one for the loss of the re­la­tion­ship, and one for the loss of our hoped-for fu­ture to­gether.

She was ex­actly right.

The sec­ond one hit me re­ally abruptly. I had been feel­ing solemn and glum since the pre­vi­ous night, and while rid­ing pub­lic tran­sit I found my­self cry­ing. Spe­cific imag­ined fu­tures — of chil­dren, of holi­days, of trav­el­ing to­gether — would come up, as though rais­ing the parts that hurt the most and say­ing “See this, and wish it farewell.”

The pain was so much. I spent most of that en­tire week just mov­ing around slowly, star­ing off into space, mostly not car­ing about things like email or reg­u­lar meet­ings.

Two things re­ally stand out for me from that ex­pe­rience.

First, there were still im­pulses to flinch away. I wanted to cry about how the pain was too much to bear and curl up in a cor­ner — but I could tell that im­pulse came from a differ­ent place in my psy­che than the grief did. It felt eas­ier to do that, like I was trad­ing some of my pain for suffer­ing in­stead and could avoid be­ing pre­sent to my own mis­ery. I had worked enough with grief at that point to in­tuit that I needed to pro­cess or di­gest the pain, and that this slow pro­cess would go even more slowly if I tried not to ex­pe­rience it. It re­quired a choice, ev­ery mo­ment, to keep my fo­cus on what hurt rather than on how much it hurt or how un­fair things were or any other story that de­creased the pain I felt in that mo­ment. And it was tiring to make that de­ci­sion con­tin­u­ously.

Se­cond, there were some things I did feel were im­por­tant, even in that state. At the start of this post I refer­enced how mourn­ers can some­times see oth­ers’ mo­tives more plainly than those oth­ers can. What I imag­ine is the same thing gave me a clear sense of how much non­sense I waste my time on — how most emails don’t mat­ter, most meet­ings are pointless, most cur­ricu­lum de­sign thoughts amount to re­ar­rang­ing deck chairs on the Ti­tanic. I also vividly saw how much non­sense I pro­ject about who I am and what my per­sonal story is — in­clud­ing the illu­sions I would cast on my­self. Things like how I thought I needed peo­ple to ad­mire me to feel mo­ti­vated, or how I felt most pow­er­ful when cham­pi­oning the idea of end­ing ag­ing. Th­ese sto­ries looked em­bar­rass­ingly false, and I just didn’t have the en­ergy to keep ly­ing to my­self about them.

What was left, af­ter tear­ing away the dross, was sim­ple and plain and beau­tiful in its naked­ness. I felt like I was just me, and there were a very few things that still re­ally mat­tered. And, even while drained and mourn­ing for the lovely fu­ture that would never be, I found my­self work­ing on those core things. I could send emails, but they had to mat­ter, and they couldn’t be full of blather. They were richly hon­est and plain and sim­ply di­rected at mak­ing the ac­tu­ally im­por­tant things hap­pen.

It seems to me that griev­ing well isn’t just a mat­ter of learn­ing to look at hor­ror with­out flinch­ing. It also lets us see through cer­tain kinds of illu­sion, where we think things mat­ter but at some level have always known they don’t.

I think skil­lful grief can bring us more into touch with our fac­ulty of see­ing the world plainly as we already know it to be.

I think we, as a species, dearly need to learn to see the world clearly.

A hu­man­ity that makes global warm­ing a poli­ti­cized de­bate, with name-call­ing and sus­pi­cion of data fabri­ca­tion, is a hu­man­ity that does not un­der­stand what is at stake.

A world that waits un­til its baby boomers are doomed to die of ag­ing be­fore tak­ing ag­ing se­ri­ously has not un­der­stood the scope of the prob­lem and is prob­a­bly still ap­proach­ing it with dis­torted think­ing.

A species that has great rea­son to fear hu­man-level ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence and does not pause to se­ri­ously figure out what if any­thing is cor­rect to do about it (be­cause “that’s silly” or “the Ter­mi­na­tor is just fic­tion”) has not un­der­stood just how eas­ily it can go hor­ribly wrong.

Each one of these cases is bad enough — but these are just ex­am­ples of the re­sult of col­lec­tively dis­torted think­ing. We will make mis­takes this bad, and pos­si­bly worse, again and again as long as we are will­ing to let our­selves turn our aware­ness away from our own pain. As long as the world feels safer to us than it ac­tu­ally is, we will risk obliter­at­ing ev­ery­thing we care about.

There is hope for im­mense joy in our fu­ture. We have con­quered dark­ness be­fore, and I think we can do so again.

But do­ing so re­quires that we see the world clearly.

And the world has dev­as­tat­ingly more hor­ror in it than most peo­ple seem will­ing to ac­knowl­edge.

The path of clear see­ing is ag­o­niz­ing — but that is be­cause of the truth, not be­cause of the path. We are in a kind of hell, and avoid­ing see­ing that won’t make it less true.

But maybe, if we see it clearly, we can do some­thing about it.

Grieve well, and awaken.