Grief is Not Negative, It's Nuanced


The Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan David presents a wonderful encouragement for embracing the extensive and dynamic nuance of our emotional lives rather than simplistically reducing emotions to the rigid dualistic categories of "bad/negative/wrong" or "good/positive/right" emotion. (E.g., sadness is often thought to be plainly "bad/negative/undesirable" and happiness plainly "good"). Her TED Talk, "The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage," encourages us to develop an emotional agility that enables us to feel further into the complex, moving, dynamic energy animating emotional experiences. When we oversimplify and reductively flatten emotional qualities into the abstract duality "good v. bad," we profoundly limit our ability to feel the full, dynamic extent of the emotional dimensions of our cognition. This can lead to emotional-energetic rigidity, and as Dr. Susan says in her TED Talk, "rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic."

In another post I might dive into the nitty-gritty neurophysiological details of how emotional rigidity is, quite literally, toxic to our being (Dr. Gabor Maté's book When the Body Says No is an excellent introduction to this). For now, I want to discuss one example of how this simplistic, dualistic thinking of good/bad, right/wrong, proper/improper, pure/impure, etc. can profoundly limit our experiencing and either directly or inadvertently contribute to chronic neurophysiological dysregulation, which is trauma.

Grieving is as Natural as Exhaling: An Embodied Cognition Perspective

Contrary to what many of us have been taught, emotion is not an undesirable liability to the otherwise "clear, rational" thinker who keeps their emotions "under control." Emotional energy is an inherent, necessary, functional component of our cognitive abilities and can add remarkable depth, subtlety, perspective, and insight into our experiencing. We have, basically, three general options in relation to emotional energies: 1) suppress, repress, and/or deny emotions to the greatest degree possible; 2) allow ourselves to be tossed about unpredictably by dysregulated emotion; or 3) develop an "emotional intelligence" and agility that enables us to more fully engage the emotional dimensions of cognition, thereby expanding and diversifying our holistic cognitive repertoire and intellectual abilities.

Emotion is not primarily a matter of gender or sexuality (as heterosexist, misogynistic patriarchy has indoctrinated many people to believe), it's a matter of being human and sentient. Nor is emotion an optional or dispensable feature of being human. For the paradigm of embodied-autopoietic cognition, all aspects of our living in the world are cognitive functions: "cognition and the operation of the living system [are] the same thing" (Maturana & Varela, 1980: xvi-xvii). And, characteristic of living systems (as systems tensionally sustained in a condition of far-from-thermodynamic equilibrium via a constant, rhythmic, sustainable energetic exchange/integration with an ecological niche) is metabolism -- the maintenance of flows of energy necessary for the sustaining of an organism's dynamically-organized structural coherence. Thus, as Michel Bitbol and Pier Luigi Luisi explain, "metabolism is already by itself the biological correlate of the notion of cognition...a full-blown metabolism is tantamount to cognition" (Bitbol and Luisi, 2004: 102).

This way of defining cognition enables an expansion of our understanding of "grief." Rather than only a brief, intense emotional experience following a major loss, grief can be seen as a natural and basic part of our "emotional metabolism," so to speak. There's a parallel here to the dynamics of food metabolism. When we eat or drink, digestion and metabolism serves to break down and separate the useable nutrients from the unusable or non-nutritious components of food or liquids, the latter being formed into waste and excreted regularly.

A similar phenomenon occurs with the "cognitive food" we consume. On the conceptual-symbolic-linguistic-communicative-social level of cognition (i.e., "higher order" cognitive operations such as what's necessary to read and understand -- hopefully! -- these sentences), we are continually incorporating ideas/information into our cognitive structures and functions. But like with food, not all of this "stuff" is nourishing or healthy! Much of our informational-experiential environments -- e.g., social discourse, as characterized by mass media, social media, etc. -- are full of junk and synthetic ingredients added to make something seem more appealing than it really is, leaving us temporarily placated but more deeply unsatisfied and not truly satiated, for the lack of quality of what we've consumed.

Just as with junk food and fast food, which is easy, convenient, simple, and homogenized, our culture is full of junk "cognitive food" -- namely: the ideas, experiences, and information that swirls around us through thousands of forms of incessant digital media and mass media, from which we can rarely escape. So much content in mass media, social media, and entertainment media is aesthetically flat and shallow, watered-down, cheaply sensationalized, homogenized, and re-packaged to appeal to the widest possible audience to generate the highest possible profit -- much like the business model of the fast food and junk food industries. Occasionally, to be sure, we encounter that nugget of true wisdom or mind-expanding insight, but that is typically the exception rather than the rule.

Even in the absence of such toxic, junk "cognitive food," maintaining health requires us to regularly metabolize the energies we consume in the normal course of our cognitive lives. While multifaceted and more complex than any simplistic conceptual definition can convey, I like to think of grief as the emotional equivalent of physical waste excretion or breath exhalation. In the form of atmosphere, food and liquids, we must continually consume these energies, digest/metabolize them, and release what we can't use. It is the regular, rhythmic flowing of these energies that indicates and sustains health.

In like fashion, we continually "consume" emotional-cognitive energies, which take the form of the many qualitative dimensions of experience such as emotion/affect, discursive and relational dynamics, ideas, art/aesthetics, imagination, and many others. (I say "consume" because we are actually "informationally-closed" systems, meaning that we do not take in information from the external environment. The neurophysiology of this dimension of our cognition is ridiculously complex, so I won't bother with that here. The basic metaphor of food-consumption-metabolism is still useful.) But not all of these energies are useful for us, so it is essential to take what's cognitively-emotionally-relationally-spiritually nutritious and to let go of what's non-nutritious and/or toxic.

Far beyond this energetic balancing function, however, grieving is an amazing alchemizing agent that converts loss into life by reweaving the frayed cognitive threads of our messy lives into stronger and more colorful patterns of a richer, more complex experiential fabric worn as the lessons and wisdom learned through hard living, whose rugged beauty is offered in praise of the continuation of life beyond the inevitable deaths and losses of all those things we love. In his beautiful book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, Martín Prechtel writes that

  • Grief is a shameless dreamer who thinks nothing of healing impossible despair head-on, of reionizing impossible situations, of healing impossible sickness, of depolarizing impossible hardheaded people. Grief thinks nothing of impossibility, only of what makes life more deliciously alive.
  • Grief doesn't care if he's badly misunderstood, underestimated, or forgotten: he's not hurt because people run away when they see him coming, because grief has one real good friend.
  • Grief is the best friend of Praise, because Praise is a grandiose griever!
  • Without both Grief and Praise, life is only hate and mediocrity.
  • Grief and Praise are renters whose landlord is Love.
  • Because they are best friends, both Grief and Praise live together in the same building, but in opposing quarters: in the left and right chambers of Love's great thumping house called the Heart." (pp. 5-6)

How can Grief and Praise be best friends? While I don't pretend that the following definition of grief is anywhere close to comprehensive (as the full significance, depth, function, and dynamic nature of grief can only be "known" through direct, embodied experience), I like to think of grief as a letting flow rather than a "letting go of" something. This is a subtle but significant distinction and happens to map directly onto the paradigm shift currently occurring in the life and mind sciences.

In the obsolete, erroneous "substance ontology" that has underpinned the large majority of scientific research and medical practice over the past 2,500 years, reality is thought to consist fundamentally of countless "basic particulars" -- or particles, objects, entities, etc. -- that combine to make up the objects with which we interact on a daily basis. But science has long shown that this is not an accurate theoretical understanding of the explicate order of the universe. Rather, the situation is basically the inverse: a continuous, unified field of multidimensional processes is primary, basic, and ultimate, and what we abstractly distinguish and name "individuals" and individual "parts/things/entities/objects" are actually temporary focal points of this unified, eternal flowing of energies.

Analogously, consider the ocean. We can look out across the ocean and see, name and count "individual" waves, yet we can also plainly see that each "individual" wave is merely the pointed peak of a given portion of water as the energy of/in the wave rises up to a point and falls back into the ocean as a unified, continuous body of water. This is essentially (though it's much, much more complex) the nature of life and all reality. What we perceive as an independent, individual existence separate from everything around it is actually wholly continuous with its surroundings, energetically speaking. And, quite literally every"thing" -- including so-called "physical matter" [see Richard Campbell's excellent discussion of the dubiousness of the metaphorical concept "physical matter" as it pertains to scientific descriptions of the ontological nature of reality; in The Metaphysics of Emergence (2015) pp. 42-71] -- is constituted by/as organized flowings of energy.

Our best sciences now show emphatically, through an overwhelming abundance of evidence, that everything in reality is an active flowing of energy -- yes, even stones and bricks. (I could explain the science detailing how even seemingly static, inanimate objects are organized fields of active, moving energy, but that would fill a whole book.) Living systems, especially -- i.e. organisms, life generally -- manifest astoundingly complex, unique, dynamic forms of organizational coherence. This pervasive dynamicity is so definitionally characteristic of living systems that it can be said that what is living -- i.e. "living/life" as a general phenomenon -- is continuously moving. Dynamic, continually-changing movement is life. As John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson write in their excellent edited book Everything Flows: Toward a Processural Philosophy of Biology:

The thoroughgoing processualism we uphold regards change, or better dynamicity, as fundamental or primitive. This dynamicity is extended in time and, like time itself, it is continuous. It is therefore inappropriate to regard it -- or any of the myriad processes that constitute it -- as a sequence of particular events. To conceive of processes as series of discrete temporal episodes is to overlook the very dynamicity that process philosophy is intended to emphasize. ...In place of a discontinuous view of the world as a complex aggregation of ultimate elements, we prefer to think of it as a manifold of nested and interrelated processes that collectively constitute a dynamic continuum." (p. 13)

To block, restrict, or control such dynamic movement is to risk wounding ("traumatizing") a living system. Indeed, as I've discussed throughout this website, what is colloquially called "trauma" (etymologically meaning "wounding") is primarily the restriction/blocking of a defensive/survival/protective response from running its full course and releasing the intense energies stirred up during a triggering event. It is the containment of these energies within our systems, maintained beyond their immediate adaptive/functional purpose in the face of a dangerous situation, that wounds us neurophysiologically (and, by extension, "physically").

Such wounding by restriction of our life-giving, life-sustaining flowing energies is not limited to "Big T" traumas, such as extreme or violent events. "Minor" restrictions of our free movement, accumulated over time, can be equally as damaging to our systems (e.g., research has shown a causal link between black women's experiences of racial microaggressions and their rates of asthma). So, I like to think of grieving as praise of life because grieving is a letting flow of the energies that constitute, sustain, and evolve life. When we cling to experiences, situations, ideas, beliefs, people, relationships, habits, and emotions, we effectively restrict the moving energies that constitute those things.

This is not to say that the alternative is to be totally out of control and not connect with anything. "Anxiously clinging to v. being totally disconnected from" is a false dichotomy. It is all a matter of the quality of relationship we have to something. The "arts" of Grief and Praise, as Prechtel describes them, entail a mode of relation that allows something to freely move as it needs according to its nature, where such allowing is the praising of the thing we admire or love, precisely because we know that in order for the thing we love to be loveable, it must be allowed to be itself, and this entails letting it be free rather than trying to possess, own, control, or fix it in static form so that we can perpetually hold onto it. These latter forms of relationship are actually self-undermining, because by trying to control, possess, or hold onto something, we actively prevent that thing from being what it is, which destroys the qualities of the thing that drew us to it in the first place.

In this way, grieving as letting flow is as natural a process of living as exhaling in respiration. It's absurd to imagine respiration as only inhaling, and it is equally absurd to imagine life as only consuming/taking in experiences, ideas, situations, beliefs, and relationships without also letting them flow -- and thus change -- as they need to continue being what they are. Quite literally everything that exists on Earth today emerged from the deaths of everything that came before us. Nothing we hold dear today, and nothing we can hope for in the future, can materialize without loss, death, and change. To allow the fullness of every moment, every experience, just as it is, without trying to control, fix, dictate, or possess it -- i.e. in its continual, dynamic flowing change -- is to simultaneously grieve-praise what presently exists, as it exists. It is to honor and respect every form of life and being for who and what it is, in its ongoing development into/sustaining as the unique, free thing that it is.

Of course, grief can also be intense and difficult. But by virtue of these qualities, grieving can also be liberating, healing, regulating, awe-inspiring, motivating, consolidating, energizing, and instructive. But we rarely hear of these more positive, constructive, beneficial aspects of grief. The emotional and affective dimensions of our somatic symphony, our cognitive repertoire, deserve much more nuanced treatment than the simplistic labels "bad/good" or "negative/positive." When we can substantively engage and dynamically feel and move with the nuances of our total cognitive experiencing -- inclusive of emotions of many varying kinds -- we experience life much more richly, more holistically, and more adaptively.

If I had to name a single cognitive art-skill most vitally needed today, it would be these twin arts of Grief and Praise. Here is Prechtel, again:

Grief is a worker on life's big highways, and Praise is Grief's eternal freight train, forever hauling the vision of life's bigger picture from stars whose light hasn't got here yet, which Grief uses to refill the potholes of our losses.

Praise is Grief's voice and neither ever disappears, because they are the sound of all parts of the world and universe, each living according to its own nature, each entire in itself, each a willing participle in the great prayer of praise singing the world back to life." (The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise p. 6)


Some of my favorite books on grief:

  • Long, Litt Woon. 2019. The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning. Translated by Barbara J. Haveland. Illustrated. New York: Random House.
  • Prechtel, Martín. 2015. The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. Illustrated. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  • Somé, Malidoma Patrice. 1997. Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Weller, Francis. 2015. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.