Seneca On Consolation to Heliva:

“It is better to conquer grief than deceive it.”

We might balk at the language of ‘conquering’ when we think of grief in our modern contexts, but I think the message from Seneca here stands the test of time. Stoics get a bad rap- they are often associated with the unhelpful British custom of ‘stiff upper lip’ and the side-lining of our emotional lives. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and this little nugget of wisdom demonstrates why.

Here, Seneca is warning us about the dangers of turning away from grief. Most of us probably understand this, but the question often remains: how? And more relevant, perhaps, is: why is it so hard? One challenge for us, with social media at our fingertips and busy work schedules, is our unconscious habit of distraction. A Tik Tok video or Instagram scroll may seem, at first, a simple way to pass the time. In moments of grief, however, that one check-in can lead to a day of consumption. We are literally and metaphorically ‘reeling.’

Ceremony has the power to focus the mind, attend to our grief, and limit the mountain of everyday stimuli. I haven’t often thought of it that way, but a funeral, memorial, interment, can provide more subtle ways to help us engage with our emotions.

A funeral only happens once, and quite early on in any process of loss. It can set the tone, set us off on a journey, but staying with our experience is a much longer task. Turning away from pain is one of our most ingrained habits, to ‘conquer’ it in one day, a week, a month, is too much to ask. But I’ve come across some useful ideas; one easy tip may be to simply notice when you reach for the phone- and see if you can gently observe what prompted you. Another was a friend’s suggestion: when you feel your thoughts piling up, just look at the sky, or as I once heard it ‘put yourself in the way of beauty.’

We can’t function like this all the time; we’d never get anything done. Day by day though, we can notice when we try to trick ourselves, or deceive our grief, and chose instead to turn towards it.


Credit: Ryan Holiday and Stephan Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and The Art of Living