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Compassion and Mourning

Compassion and Mourning: the costs and benefits of emotional involvement

Emotional involvement in others’ suffering comes at a cost. An obvious example is the ‘compassion fatigue’ felt by care-workers who have to deal with the emotional strain caused by exposure to human suffering on a daily basis. This kind of experience is not limited to care professionals, however. Most people at some point undergo pain as a result of their attachment to others. The most obvious case is the way we experience the loss of someone close, and the kinds of mourning we practice as a result.

Mourning seems to have been pervasive to human cultures, and even to human species, as far back as neanderthals who ritually buried the dead accompanied by stone tools and other items. But how cultures mourn changes over time, and it may be that some approaches are more healthy than others. Two of the most influential descriptions in recent western thought of how people become reconciled with loss contrast strikingly.

Sigmund Freud, Founder of Psychoanalysis

The first, which is the more recent and, probably, the dominant approach, emphasizes liberation from one’s attachment to the person lost. Its most famous proponent is Sigmund Freud. Freud discusses how loss can result in severe melancholia for the bereaved, and even suicide. Ultimately, on Freud’s view, the person lost, whilst they may once have been source of value and meaning for the bereaved, has now become a burden which must be unloaded if psychological health is to be regained.

The second approach is more traditional, and has become less prominent in recent times. It emphasises a reaffirmation of that value of the bereaved person’s  attachment to the one lost. A good example of this approach is found in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard views mourning not as a means to reduce one’s suffering, but as a fulfilment of duty towards the deceased. For Kierkegaard, mourning is an opportunity to express our love most fully and confirm the lasting nature and sincerity of our attachment.

Mourning angel; a common figure in western graveyards

In his famous work, Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, Philippe Ariès describes how western culture has moved from a recognition of death as a necessary, formative part of life, to a situation where death has become a taboo. In the most recent development, according to Ariès, grief has become shameful, and its expression is treated as a sign of bad manners, or even of mental instability. Amongst other things, the changes described by Ariès seem to indicate some negative side-effects of a move from a deceased-centred approach to mourning like Kierkegaard’s, to a bereaved-centred approach like Freud’s.

Why should this move have negative effects? It may be that to understand the answer to this would require us to think deeply about the nature of human communities, and the values they embody. Many philosophers have argued that the values and meanings that make personal flourishing possible and that allow us to live with one another arise directly out of our interactions with other persons. This is what the Polish existential theologian Józef Tischner suggests, for example, where he described the encounter with another as the ‘source experience’ of human ethical self-knowledge.

There are many ways in which this idea could be filled in. One possibility, however, is that our encounters with others involve an opening up of experience—our ‘phenomenological horizon’—to new possibilities, values, and meanings attendant upon them, in a way that our encounters with mere objects cannot achieve. Something like this experience has been described in psychological research under the title of ‘joint attention’, and in ethics as the ‘second person standpoint’.

A Japanese funeral ritual

If it is true that our experience of meaning and value is fundamentally tied to our encounters with other persons, it may be that the experience of loss involves a closing down of the grounds for that experience. This might account for some of the negative results of a simplistically bereaved-centred approach to mourning: by merely letting go of a former attachment the bereaved person may mitigate their suffering, but only at the cost something central to their moral development.

On the other hand, compassion for the bereaved surely precludes an exclusively deceased-centred approach. The emotional strain that this can involve for the mourner must be taken seriously. In these circumstances, we may need to develop a middle way between the traditional extremes, that combines the virtues of past and present approaches to mourning.

Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode is a Fellow of the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and a member of the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Warsaw.