Good Grief

Why we must give the dead their due… ESPECIALLY when “there’s nothing you could have done.”

Ben Creighton
6 min readNov 15, 2019


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…