The Immorality of Grief
An Essay by Nick Spreigl
In late June 2013, I was standing outside a hospital in Kempten, a small farm town in southern Germany. It was very early in the morning and I stood on wet grass behind the quaint, white building, staring up at the sky. The pink expanse looked endless. A violent mix of watery hues, a brilliant lake containing its own depths; too much for me to take in without turning my head.
Less than one hundred feet away, my mom, brother, and dad were asleep, lying on consecutive, parallel hospital beds. Sleep could rarely find me during those two weeks. A trip unplanned and undesired, we found ourselves there after my dad had a seizure several days prior while visiting friends and family. Three weeks before that, he had been told that his two-year battle with melanoma had spread to his brain and an expiration date had been put on his life.
The prospect of losing a central character in my life seemed impossible at 23. Up until that point, I had seen my dad survive a brain tumor and several bouts of recurring skin cancer, proving to me he was next to invincible. The reality finally sunk in only when I saw a frail, IV-assisted version of my 57-year-old father and heard him dazedly refer to me as his brother upon arrival to the hospital lobby.
He was a poorly-executed hologram of the man I knew, a pale shadow of the vivacious, athletic man that raised me.
That’s when a whole different set of possible outcomes dawned on me. The doctors, my dad, and family all fought as hard as they could. My dad’s tenacity and will to live even in the face of continuous streams of bad news from the doctors was nothing short of heroic, but unfortunately the choice wasn’t up to him and this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Just after midnight on July 4, 2013, I watched his breathing slow and lighten, and then finally stop altogether. I stood with my mom and brother and we cried and held each other at the sides of the bed as the color drained from my dad’s body.
After the pain came relief. Relief that the end had been painless and that some form of punctuation had finally been put on two weeks of constant uncertainty. Soon after, relief gave way to grief.
Lack of Control
Several months after my dad passed away, the three of us went to see a therapist. Even though we had done considerable amounts of talking and consoling each other, we still grasped at anything we could to make us feel better. We were lost and unsure of what the next step would be or how to take that step. It’s disorienting when life ignores the presumed course of events and mixes them up so that they’re all out of order.
I spent time during those months torturing myself with hypotheticals. I thought about all the questions I wanted to ask my dad and all the future moments in my life he wouldn’t be apart of. Usually, the question was “Why?” Why had this happened to us? Why did a healthy, caring, lover-of-life get stripped of the thing that he valued so highly?
I’ve never felt more powerless than when I witnessed a person I love and admire deeply slip away from me, knowing that no amount of effort I exercised would have any effect on the outcome of the situation.
A general helplessness set in; a misunderstanding between myself and the universe about who has control over the course of my life. It was hard, especially in the face of a life-altering event, to realize that the free will I thought I had was limited, and to a great degree, a façade.
This is the hard-to-digest dichotomy of the situation – I am a free-willed, free-thinking being that has inconsequential amounts of control over the trajectory of my life. How ironic it is that I have the ability to analyze, imagine, and create, but have no control over my own mortality.
We as humans are, in a big way, just observers. We are witnesses to the reality that is created around us by the actions of others, the actions of nature, and circumstantial by-products of how we perceive these events. We have control over the actions of our bodies and minds to a certain degree, but even those can go rogue by adopting physical and psychological illness against our will. Grief and other negative emotions are aware of this lack of control and take advantage of it.
The greatest tool grief has at it’s disposal is contemplation; teasing you to believe that, if you think about it enough, you’ll understand it and overcome it. The reason people get trapped in never-ending cycles of grief is because there is no answer. Those that experience grief are lead to believe that some form of wrong-doing has been done to them by people constantly apologizing. “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’m sorry to hear about your dad.” I remember standing outside the sanctuary after the memorial service and hearing this repeated over and over again, not knowing what to say except “Thanks” and “It’s ok.”
These common expressions of sympathy lead to self-pity. These expressions lead one to believe that something unjust has in fact happened to you; that the universe or God (or whatever higher power you prefer) has treated you unjustly.
No one chose me for this fate. No one vindictively chose me to experience this pain. It just happened. Bad things happen to people all the time, viciously and suddenly claiming emotional stake on the affected person’s life. And only that individual can reclaim the bright happiness that seemingly only exists in the past.
Grief is Fear
Fear sits at the root of all negative emotions. It entrenches itself in all regrets and thoughts of alternate outcomes of past events. It encourages status quo and discourages improvement and positive action.
Fear of what it means to have lost something so important to your existence paralyzes opportunity for growth and happiness.
“A thing that has no value does not exist” – Robert M. Pirsig
Fear offers no value because there is nothing to learn from it. Fear of how the past will influence your future has no influence on growth in your present life and therefore does not exist in a concrete way. It exists only as a feeling and an abstract idea, influencing action on the condition that you allow it.
Pain is persistent. Grief is a drug. It sucks you in and tempts you with refuge in self-pity.
Self-pity embodies all of the negative attributes of pain, grief, and fear. None of those things will change the course of events that have already taken place. Sadness is a natural human reaction and should not be ignored, but it also cannot become an integral part of life if the aim is a healthy, enjoyable state of living.
Grief is overcome when the pain is recognized as a persistent, ever-present force in life. One of the most consoling things I heard following my dad’s death was from a family friend who lost her dad when she was younger. She told me, “It sucks. I still think about him every day. It doesn’t get any easier, but you learn to live with it.”
It sucks. A terrible thing happened, but it would be foolish to stop life just because something was there and now it’s not.
Life is not suffering. Life is a constant flow of uncontrollable events ranging in emotional content from agony to bliss; accented by the ways we choose to react to those emotions.
The Immorality of Grief
Any progress I have made in coming to terms with my dad’s death has come from two overarching concepts. The first concept being what I’ve mentioned above: accepting as truth the hundreds of millions of daily events and thoughts encompassing myself and others that I cannot control. The other concept is to focus on the things I do have control over.
The most powerful weapon I have at my disposal is to create. I can tell my body to create words, I can tell it to create sound, and I can tell it to create movement. The only purpose of this action being that I can. Not for monetary gain or to reach some destination where I no longer have to exude effort, but only to do. To use my body and my mind for action.
Biologically speaking, these bodies were not designed for immobility. Grief encourages immobility and disconnectedness and therefore goes against the nature of the human body. Because grief fights the nature of the human body and one’s overall well-being, it is immoral.
Action is the only way to fight death. Something static cannot be defeated by another static event. No amount of hours, days, or years of contemplating any question of why this horrible event happened will ever change its outcome or the profound emotions that come with it.
Grief is not an action. Sorrow is not an action. Imagine seeing a bird laying in it’s nest for days or weeks, too sad to move. Imagine a fish who decided to stop swimming because life isn’t worth it anymore. We as humans have the gift and the curse of free-willed cognition. We have the luxury of slowing down or putting our lives on hold, where as a fish or a bird’s life would be threatened if they stopped. When we stop, we too threaten our own lives, our own psychological and physical health, but there is no modern predatory threat of any kind to keep that in check. There is no longer any natural motivating forces for human beings. Because of our ability to reason and imagine, we are able to create infinite amounts of ideas, objects, and philosophies. The catch is that we are also able to do nothing.
It takes a physical effort to continue life. My life didn’t end, my dad’s did. The act of mourning is submitting your existence to death. I will not forfeit my own life just because he is not able to have his.
When there is a space left blank, the only option is to create. A hole in your heart is a canvas on which to make something new. Not to replace, but as an act of continuing life; moving the course of life forward. To work against growth is work against nature/God and to put your foot in the path of the natural cycle of the earth.
Within eleven days of my dad passing away, I had flown back to the states and was on my way to start a tour in Buffalo, NY. In hindsight, it seems like I left my family too quickly and that I should have been at home with them, but my mom convinced me to go, saying, “We have to keep going.” The tour had already been booked for months and she knew better than I did how important it was to keep moving forward and to continue living life as planned. To avoid structure and schedule that was already in place would have only derailed my thought process further.
So I left. I kept playing shows and kept writing music with my band. There were times when the pain was so intense it overpowered me. I remember one night I broke down crying in a stairwell at a hotel somewhere in the Midwest after everyone in the band had gone to sleep. I called my brother, eventually went to sleep, and got up the next day to drive to another venue.
To continue living and creating new memories is the only way to recover. Any form of action, no matter how small, will make a dent in the overwhelming feelings of grief and fear. It could be something as simple as making your bed, going grocery shopping, or going to the gym – anything but stagnancy. It’s only logical that if sitting and thinking makes me feel bad, I should do the opposite to feel better.
This is not to be misconstrued as deliberate ignorance of the situation. It is the practice of accepting the things you cannot change and affecting the things you can. It is the act of accepting the present situation for what it is and fully immersing yourself in that reality because it is the only option. There is no alternate universe to which you can transport yourself. This is it. This is life.
“That would distract your attention, and attention is the whole point. Attention to the experience of something given, something you haven't invented in your imagination.” - Aldous Huxley
As far as tangible reality is concerned, the past is a figment of our imaginations. It is something that cannot be influenced, cannot be physically experienced, and therefore is a creation of the mind. The past is passive by definition. Passive thoughts encourage passive actions. Passive actions are empty and meaningless.
Dynamic action is the only way to promote progress in life. This action can be absolutely aimless, but must involve movement or creation. If the present situation is not what you want, you have to move to improve it.
I aim to work in tandem with circumstance. A battle with time cannot be won, so I choose to work in conjunction with, not in spite of, the present that has been randomly given to me. I aim to influence the things that I can, and to the things I cannot - react in a way that will benefit my well-being the greatest.
Just as the sky burned blood red that morning outside the hospital, as if postured in evidence of everything nature is capable of, I will use everything in my power - the power of action - to produce a healthy present tense for myself and the ones I love.