Why we must give the dead their due… ESPECIALLY when “there’s nothing you could have done.”
Why do we obsess over the deaths of loved ones, even (or perhaps especially) when we were powerless to prevent their deaths?
On the face of it, grief seems to be a rather useless emotion. Wouldn’t it be easier and more productive — not to mention more pleasant — if we could just get over a loss smoothly and move on to the next phase of life with a minimum of fuss?
In The Nature of Grief, evolutionary psychologist John Archer characterizes grief as a “byproduct” of the human attachment system. When an individual to whom we are emotionally attached — say, an infant — is missing, the painful experience of grief motivates us to search for them.
But in the case of death, the motivation to search is maladaptive. So Byproduct Theory suggests that the motivation persists only because the costs of searching for a “missing” infant who is actually dead are much lower than the costs of giving up on a presumed-dead infant who is merely missing.
Byproduct Theory might account for some instances in which grief takes the form of denial, but I find it hard to accept as a root explanation for grief itself. After all, grief often persists long after denial has ceased and the reality of the loss has set in.
Other researchers, such as BM Winegard, see grief as a costly (and, thus, hard-to-fake) signal of commitment. It signals to the rest of the tribe, “it is safe to ally with me; I do not give up my alliances easily.”
Like the “missing infant” theory, this explains some public behaviors associated with grief, but still strikes me as incomplete. If grief functions primarily as a signal to others, why do so many of us conceal it by putting on a brave face or withdrawing from our family and social circles? The Signaling Theory of Grief must insist that grief is performed for the benefit of others.
An alternative theory draws an analogy between physical pain and grief — i.e., emotional pain. In “An Evolutionary Framework for Understanding Grief,” Randolph Nesse draws the comparison, and I think he’s on the right track. Pain may be unpleasant, but it serves a necessary purpose: to alert us to a possible dysfunction in our behavior or environment.
Nonetheless, grief may linger longer. Healing from physical pain happens at an automatic, cellular level, whereas healing from the pain of grief is more complex, and engages related emotions like shame and guilt.
Rumination over whether something could have been done to prevent the death is thought to exemplify pathological grief (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001). This common reaction seems abnormal because it is often obvious that survivors could not have prevented the loss and should have no reason for guilt. In an evolutionary framework, however, such ruminations may be automatic; major losses may trigger a cognitive process examining every minute action or inaction that could have prevented the dire outcome.
— Randolph Nesse, “An Evolutionary Framework for Understanding Grief”
Physical pain may either teach an important lesson (don’t mess with beehives!), or create a call to action (there is a splinter in your thumb, and it must be removed). Of what use is grieving the loss of a loved one?
Animals experience grief, too. Many social animals, like dogs, dolphins, whales, and of course the great apes, grieve. Therefore, grief is not a function of our uniquely complex human brains. As capable as humans are of amazing feats of abstract thought, when in the throes of grief at its most painful, we are more like those noble animals than like our most rational selves.
This is why “there’s nothing you could have done” is cold comfort at best, and often no comfort at all. It’s no good to engage the rational mind with logical arguments when our evolved animal instincts are screaming at us to figure out what killed our loved one before it kills us and the rest of our tribe too.
This is why many different religious belief systems have a tradition of praying for the souls of the deceased. Even if the deceased was a virtual saint in life and there is no rational reason to believe they require such intercession, such prayers help satisfy the believer’s need to do something for them.
This may also be why so many of us feel the need to withdraw from our usual social circles and support networks following a loss. To the evolved animal mind, the tribe is part of an environment that failed to protect the loved one from death.
Until a better solution can be found, perhaps the protection of the tribe is suspect, and best kept at arm’s length.
It’s why people form organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or donate to cancer research after a loved one succumbs to the disease, or lobby for stricter gun control laws following an outbreak of gun violence. Why the loved ones of a soldier who dies in war may rally against the enemy that killed him or protest the war he died in.
If we can’t be reunited with the one we lost, we must still correct the dysfunction that caused their death. Our rational minds may be able to direct those efforts into productive paths, but the need to do something appears to be instinctual.
In the course of reading and thinking and talking to others about these ideas, I came across a few individuals who opined that grief is fundamentally selfish, a cry for attention and help from a wounded animal or a pained personal response to a personal loss.
Viewed in this way, grief is fundamentally altruistic. It’s not particularly valuable to the individual. What advantages it does offer to an individual’s survival and reproductive prospects are incidental; similar advantages could almost certainly be had through other mechanisms with fewer costs. But it is valuable to the social group.
Grief is the mechanism by which communities identify and correct dysfunctions.
When evolutionary psychologists speak of “altruism,” they’re generally speaking specifically of kin altruism. Humans and many other social species have a finely honed sense of who is most genetically related to them, and are more inclined to be generous to close relatives. Grief, too, seems closely linked to kinship.
Much more research and theorizing is needed to determine exactly how grief is influenced by different aspects of relationships, but the data to date suggest that grief is influenced most by the degree of kinship, considerably by degree of emotional closeness and commitment, and some by the degree of close everyday contact and the degree of instrumental exchange.
— Randolph Nesse, “An Evolutionary Framework for Understanding Grief”
You don’t need to be the mother of someone killed or injured in a drunk driving accident, however, to benefit from living in a community with an organization dedicated to the prevention of drunk driving.
And while our degree of kinship, which is beyond our control, may be the most influential factor in determining grief, a close second is our degree of emotional closeness and commitment. That’s something we do have some measure of conscious control over.
This is something that religion, at its most beneficial, teaches us: to extend the sense of kinship and mutual benefit we instinctively feel for our close genetic relations to everyone accepted into a larger “tribe”.
Love each other like brothers and sisters. Give each other more honor than you want for yourselves.
— Romans 12:10
Those of us who aren’t religious can take that same lesson to heart. Even if your rational mind knows that the people who will benefit most from your efforts aren’t the ones whose loss prompted them, the best way to silence the animal cry of grief may be simply to choose something worth doing, and do it.