in: Featured, People, Relationships

• Last updated: December 15, 2022

What Is Grief?

We recently happened across a book called The Orphaned Adult which deals with the experience of losing your parents. Compellingly written by the psychologist Alexander Levy, it’s really good and insightful, and we’d highly recommend picking up a copy whether one (or both) of your parents have died, or they’re both still living; it’s good to get some context for a rite of passage almost everyone will one day experience, and which, Levy argues, our culture does almost nothing to prepare people for.

In the book, Levy offers a general definition of grief which applies to every kind of loss. It’s the best description we’ve come across of one of the most difficult and disorienting parts of being a human, and we share that excerpt below.


So, what is grief? And why do we grieve?

I think grief is an expression of our fundamental inability to comprehend, conceptually or any other way, that a loved one has died. Our brains don’t work that way. We can’t help it. 

We are accustomed to a person coming back into the room after that person has left it. We cannot form an affirmative mental image of someone who has always been there no longer being anywhere. We simply cannot imagine someone whom we once knew alive being not alive. 

We cannot conceive of ourselves being without someone who is precious to us, and yet when someone important to us dies, even though we can’t conceive it has happened, we strain to grasp their absence. That’s the way our brain works. We can’t help it.

And so, leaning forward to reach out and embrace the familiar image of someone who is no longer there, we fall into the abyss their absence has left behind. We tumble into endless emptiness, and we are enveloped by the dark and suffocating uncertainty of life’s most confounding and distressing dilemmas: that despite comforting illusions of vigor and youthfulness, our lives are fragile, and we are attached to them by no more than the slender thread of fortune’s whimsy; that regardless of how self-sufficient, successful, and clever we may be, we are profoundly dependent on those we love; that no veneer of professional expertise, adult accomplishment, or social self-confidence can effectively camouflage our underlying and awesome terror of the unknown; and that no matter how much we know or how strong our faith, we stand powerless and helpless in the face of life’s impenetrable mysteries. 

This plunge into, and temporary consumption by, life’s fragility and mystery is, in my opinion, grief. 

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