Written by Michael Cholbi


Review by Gunnel Minett

Grief is something we all have in common. Unless we die very young before we have developed a sense of the world we live in, we will at some point in life experience the loss of someone, in a way that will cause us grief. However, ancient philosophers tended to avoid grief as a subject for in-depth exploration because they saw it (erroneously) as a threat to society: grief exposed the vulnerability of the human condition. It was a negative state, which at best should be tolerated. This book is an attempt to remedy this misconception.

The author, Michael Cholbi, is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and founder of the International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying. In the book, however, he draws on psychology and social science as well as philosophy, in order to examine  the different aspects of grief. 

Grief is unlike other emotions in so far as it involves the whole body and mind. It is a process that takes time and a certain level of active effort to get through. It manifests itself via one of the most deeply rooted emotions: the neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp calls this group of the seven deepest emotions ‘the primary affective systems’. This means that grief is something we share with other mammals. It also means that it is linked with our survival instinct and consequently gets ‘high priority’ in our inner reactions. 

Grief has many facets. It deals with losses which are often linked with our self-identity. This may involve grieving not only for people who were near to us, but also people we have never met, such as public figures that we are somehow connected with. It may also be people we never liked or people who have treated us badly. In such cases grief can be more difficult to handle since it seems self-contradictory to miss someone who had a negative impact on our lives. This is when we need to understand that grief can also be about losing something we never had but wanted or even craved. To lose a violent parent can be both about losing someone of great importance in our lives at the same time as grieving the fact that we never got what we needed most from that person. 

The author refers to grief as our ”psyche’s way of instigating an emotional data dump… grief episodes involve many affective states – sadness or pain, of course, but also anger, guilt, anxiety, joy etc.”(p74). Understanding all the various phases and aspects may help the grieving process in that it may ultimately be necessary to experience all these emotions in order to find a new ‘self’ in a situation where the person who played a big role in our self-identity is no longer there. He writes: “If grief represents a kind of ignorance of self – a condition of no longer recognising oneself as oneself – then we can expect that grief’s successful resolution will involve a reconstruction of one’s knowledge of self. The good in grief, I propose, is self-knowledge.” (p.83)

Although grief can be damaging to a person, Cholbi is clear that it should not be seen as a medical problem in need of treatment. Or a form of madness as it has sometimes been described in the literature in particular (even if it can be seen to have many similarities).  Grief cannot and should not be avoided. Grief is part of life and a necessary process to be gone through. It is also a process we all need to find our own way through. The best way forward is understanding, which is what the author is trying to provide in this book.

Published by Princeton University Press, 2022, 219PP, £ 16.85, Hardcover, ISBN 978-0691201795