Case Study in Grief
Epistle 8. Posted on 2019-03-13.
The following case study in grief is reported here in the form of a dialogue. This is a summary rather than a transcription of our conversations. All identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.
Phase 1: Orientation
Ron: Hi Cecil, welcome to Stoic Therapy.
Cecil: Hi Ron.
Ron: What will we discuss?
Cecil: My friend died.
Ron: The topic is grief?
Cecil: Yes, and maybe guilt.
Ron: And your goal regarding grief?
Cecil: It troubles me, and I want it to stop.
Ron: The goal of these sessions is to progress from grief to peace of mind?
Ron: We will begin by exploring this experience of grief. While we do that, I will be attempting to understand key concepts in your experience.
Cecil: Sounds good.
Ron: Please describe this experience.
Cecil: When I was 22, I moved to a new state. I transferred to a nearby community college, and got a job as a telemarketer in the evenings. I was befriended by a coworker named Tom.
We started hanging out here and there, and before long we were hanging out all the time. We probably hung out daily for about a year, but then I moved around the area, and we only saw each other once in a while.
Tom was a lifesaver in the beginning, because I didn’t know anybody. Through him, I met a few other friends. Tom was friendly and funny. We had a lot of good times together, mainly in that first year. We really clicked and hit it off. He introduced me to almost everything in that area, so now that he is gone, whenever I think about that area, it all reminds me of him. I miss Tom.
One day, he was watching Beavis and Butt-Head, and I guess they added “and stuff” at the end of every sentence. That really amused Tom, and so he started saying that and stuff. It never got old and stuff.
Anyway, Tom didn’t go to community college, and we spent less and less time together, especially when I got a serious girlfriend, Jen. A couple years later, I moved about an hour away with Jen and transferred to a university.
We lived together for a few months that summer. About the time my first semester started, we ran into a girl at the laundromat. Loretta was from that small town, and Tom and I had hung out with her a few times. I knew Loretta, a little. We were really surprised to run into each other like that. And then she asked if had heard what happened to Tom.
She said that Tom died in a car accident. He was 23. Everybody knows. She wasn’t sure where, but thought it was down south somewhere like Florida. I didn’t know what to say. She asked if I could give her a ride, and Jen was there and didn’t mind.
I knew one other person, Mike, where I was now, who vaguely knew Tom. I told Mike what happened. I said I didn’t feel comfortable calling Tom’s parents or stopping by. But it’s so hard to believe that he’s gone. The next day, Mike gave me a printout from the university library of a news article announcing Tom’s death. There’s no more doubting it.
It bothers me that he’s gone. He was a good guy. And he was so young. I think about him, about our good times, all the time.
And here’s the hard to admit part. After I saw the news article, I immediately focused on my new school, and on my girlfriend. Life went on. I feel bad that life was busy and I feel like I moved on to other things too quickly. I think I never really stopped everything else and grieved for my friend like I should have. And now, years later, all of it bothers me.
Can you help with that?
Ron: Let’s give it a go.
Phase 2: Definition
Commentary: We briefly explored many of Cecil’s concepts, such as his concept of Tom, death, grief, loss, desire, the past, and more. Definitions were developed quickly for the pertinent concepts. Most importantly, the concept of grief was defined as an impulse to desire a loved one who has died, not to have died.
Details are omitted for brevity.
Phase 3: Connection
Commentary: With definitions of concepts in hand, connections were established between important concepts in the context of his experience of grief.
Details are omitted for brevity.
Phase 4: Resolution
Ron: The main contradiction we have to resolve is:
Tom died and I desire that Tom had not died.
This is contradictory because the first proposition, “Tom died,” is regarded as fact, as the way things turned out to be in nature, and the other proposition, “I desire that Tom had not died,” consists of a desire that things happened differently than they did in nature. Let me put it another way: it is a desire that is contrary to nature.
If a friend of yours approached you and said, very seriously, that they understand that “2 + 2 = 4,” and yet they need “2 + 2 = 5” in order to be happy, or that they desire “2 + 2 = 5,” you’d think they’ve lost it. Right?
Cecil: Sure, but…
Ron: So, here we have a proposition about nature and a proposition about desire, and the desire contradicts what is known about nature. The mind cannot make sense of an absurdity, and so as long as you desire the impossible, your mind will oscillate between acknowledging that your friend is gone and desiring that he is not gone, between acknowledging that events happened as they did and feeling guilty that you did not respond then as you think best in hindsight.
Cecil: Ok, but that makes it sound like I should just acknowledge that certain events happen, and that’s it, no more grieving? Grieving is human, we all do it. In fact, I’d be really concerned about someone who doesn’t grieve. That’s just inhuman.
Ron: I think we are, so far, in agreement, because you are bringing up multiple things to consider. I agree that it is natural to grieve; it is human, and animals do it as well. So far, I am simply pointing out that it is contradictory to desire nature to be different than it is, and that contradiction is the definition of being unreasonable, in the sense here of making a mistake. I am only claiming it is mistaken to have a desire that contradicts nature.
And like you say, simply covering that does not end the grief. There is much to be done. First, we should consider what a reasonable desire would be in this case. Second, we should explore the unreasonable desire to understand why it was so convincing. As we do this, we will also take note whether or not it remains convincing. It is one thing to understand and agree with something intellectually, but it is quite another to adopt it when its opposite has been convincing. Lastly, we need to have a method for changing this perspective over time.
You mentioned before that your friend adopted the phrase “and stuff.” How does it feel to remember that, to reflect on it?
Cecil: Good. It feels good to remember him saying that to people, and then eventually they would react and say something about his new habit.
Ron: Even though he is gone now, are you thankful to have known him, for the honor of being his friend, for the memories that you have of good times?
Ron: Good. That is the reasonable approach, to honor your friend rather than grieving per se. When you catch yourself desiring the impossible, try to refuse to agree with the desire, reminding yourself that it is literally unreasonable. Then remember the reasonable alternative: gratitude. Remind yourself how thankful you are, that you were lucky enough to get to know him in the first place, that you will honor him by refusing to forget him, and those good times. You will have peace of mind while you are grateful. If you carry on his saying, and try slipping it into conversations over and over like he did, while waiting for someone to comment on it, you may experience joy in both honoring your friend and hoping someone else gets a chuckle out of it. You will have peace of mind while you are joyful.
But be forewarned, the conversion from an unreasonable desire to a reasonable desire is a process. The duration of the process depends on how connected are the concepts in that unreasonable desire with memories that participate in those concepts, as well as the connections to other concepts. It also depends on your consistency and sincerity in refusing to agree with the impossible desire. Each time you sincerely disagree with it and replace it with a reasonable desire, you weaken the unreasonable and reinforce the reasonable. You are what you think about, and what you agree with. The good news is that logic can be used to work on all of it, and that you will learn about yourself while you do. As you get the hang of it, you will apply it to other areas of your life, and for me it has been the most rewarding experience ever.
For you, in this case, the exploration of the unreasonable desire will involve the exploration of its conceptual connections, which will take us back to the definition phase.
Cecil: That’s ok, I thank you for your help, and will try what we have covered.
Ron: If I may be of help in the future, please reach out.
This case study was selected due to its structural simplicity. The number of concepts that were important to Cecil’s experience was small. Consequently, the number of definitions to develop, and the number of important connections between concepts, was also small. This made for an easy presentation.
Although much of the material omitted for brevity from the definition and connection phases is easy to guess, at least roughly, there was also some important material that was very interesting for both of us. Nonetheless, I omitted it here because the goal of this article is to satisfy the curiosity of what philosophical counseling is at Stoic Therapy, and more specifically when analytic logic is used.
I hope that I did a good job of conveying the conversational nature of the sessions. It is also hoped that you can see the structure of logical methods at work, but more importantly that it does not impose on the conversation. When logic is discussed, details are kept to a minimum. Everything remains conversational and practical, rather than academic and lofty.
Please call or email me to find out what formal reasoning can do for you.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),