Grief Is A Social Construct & It’s Time To Rethink It

We mistakenly categorize grief as a naturally occurring emotion, but that notion is neither rational nor beneficial.

The easiest way to illustrate this is to observe babies and profoundly cognitively impaired persons. They will have genuine moments of joy, sadness, affection and anger. But nothing like grief exists there. They may, in the future, miss somebody who has died, but only in the same way they would miss them if they moved far away.

Grief requires two things they do not have, which is a concept of their own mortality, and a complex enough set of social behaviors.

The concept of mortality gives us a sense of the value of life. For any one of us it is a limited resource. And this is where grief became a useful display to create social bonds.

“The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. Right? Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Grief evolved as a social construct to signal how much we valued others lives, and therefore how trustworthy we were within the social unit. It is not a feeling, but a display, and one which perhaps helped is immensely to evolve, but may now be holding us back. Let me get back to that last point shortly.

Now I want to you to remember back to being a child. Recall how you used emotional displays as leverage within the social unit of your family, classroom, etc. It was all you had to get across how serious and important something was to you. But you knew it had to be believable, so you called the storm in. You summoned the fire. And if your first attempts were mocked as fakery, soon enough you would have absorbed the frenzy fully enough to drive it home.

Over time you just learned how to pull that trigger faster and surer. You faked it until you made it. Now imagine how easy it could be, given how we mature emotionally, to believe something we produced was happening to us beyond our control. We are adept at self delusions which benefit us socially.

However the concept of grief may have outlived its usefulness. Today it has made us so existentially terrified, so in denial of our own mortality – as well as the transient nature of everything and everyone we love, that we torture ourselves and others over it. From petty vengeance, to war – almost every instance of us hurting each other is related to our discomfort and non-acceptance of death. We torture ourselves with grief to show we care so much that we will destroy everything to prove it.

The above was first written as a social media post. In the comments I continued to clarify these thoughts and will include them below.

People get so attached to their grief that it is hard to break the cycle. They want it to be bigger than and more real than them, because otherwise it becomes meaningless. But letting go of things whose time has gone is all about relinquishing past meaning. If something is hurting you and there is even a chance you can make a choice to alleviate or end the pain, not exploring that option in full faith is just insanity. There is nothing to be gained by clutching to pain.

Perhaps the greatest cost of war is not of the dead, but of the living. Survivors will have had their quality of life irreparably harmed by the war. And the killers will tear themselves apart over what they have been party to. In our unacceptance of death, fueled by attachment to grief, we create what is far worse than death – to live in misery and suffering.

This is also not to say that any present or past experience of grief you have or have had is invalid or unreal. All experiences are real.

But if you realize where that feeling comes from, it gives you control of it. You are no longer bound to see yourself as inevitably suffering from grief, and then fulfilling that prophecy. You can honor the goodness that grief has created, as well as the caring intentions behind it, while shielding yourself from future misery. There is only gain to be had in shaping your own evolution by realizing how your defaults were set.

When I speak of these things I will often encounter a suggestion that I am ‘against emotions’ or am immune to them. Neither is true. I am for emotions. They make life meaningful. I am against obscuring emotions with constructs that deny the full range of emotion, and the construct of grief tends to be so absolute that it obscures all emotion to make room for itself. Nor am I lacking in emotion. I am, in fact, awash in all sorts of passions and depressions. I have also experienced plenty of grief, and having done so quite early, I was given the luxury of examining it later in life more deeply. My experiences of grief and value for emotion is what brought me here.

Addendum: Many of the rebuttals I have received regarding this is that grief is evident in several species of animals. The examples given are highly social animals, animals who have social constructs to regulate their group identity and behaviors. And they evolved grief for the same reason our early ancestors did, because it encourages complex, cooperative behaviors that increase fitness. The grieving animal example actually works in favor of my claims.


And lest you think I am alone in this, here is some scientific literature which makes the same claim.

This writing is also a follow up to responses I received from this earlier article:

You Don’t Have To Be Sad When Someone Dies


2 thoughts on “Grief Is A Social Construct & It’s Time To Rethink It

  1. I would argue similarly to let you I think you’re saying how it is a social construct, but I would argue that it is the social construct of prohibition which causes the more “dysfunctional” expressions or periods of grief.

    I am imagining that this is a purely intellectual exercise and that you probably have not actually experienced grief.

    One of the problems of grief in our society is that we have expectations of how it’s supposed to appear, of what people are supposed to do, how long they’re supposed to grieve, whether or not they’re supposed to grieve.etc..

    I would submit that I have no choice in the matter and neither it is it any sort of cultural norm that I am in acting by suddenly going into fits of tears because my 16-year-old daughter died. I can guarantee you that there is no dysfunction occurring in me that she died nearly a year ago and still I cry every day, that these come up regardless of what I think about the matter or whether culture told me to do this or not. It’s a completely involuntary reaction that I have.

    And I would also counter by asking you to what extent does culture extend into my life, into the organization of things in my life, into how I construct myself as a person if there is such a thing as self construction or a personal agency to create identity- For what is it when I’m just going along perfectly happy thinking about Philosophy. or my studies or how good my life is when suddenly a song comes on that my daughter really liked and I find myself in tears. Is that something that’s been culturally ingrained in me? I think not.

    If you ask anyone who understands grief is that people do not get over things. People do not grieve for a period of time and then come to some intellectual cognition about some ultra rational existential truth of the universe or whatever or just plain acceptance.

    What happens is what was once normal disappears. And people comments to learn how to live with a new normal.

    Dysfunction can arise like any other sort of mental disorder, say anxiety. It is not culture or society that’s telling us that we’re supposed to be so anxious that we have panic attacks and sometimes cannot even go to work or want to kill one Self.

    But indeed the messages from society tell people that have anxiety that something is wrong with them and this only helps to contribute and sustain the anxiety as if indeed somethings wrong with the person. The fact is, as we are finding more and more, that people are responding perfectly given the situation of their lives. And we have to now ponder just what we are in acting when we tell someone that however there being is incorrect or dysfunctional or wrong or doesn’t have any benefit.

    What ideology am I supporting when I look at someone’s behavior and telling them that what they are doing or how they’re being doesn’t have any benefit for humanity?

    What kind a contradiction in terms is it to say that a human being is doing something that is not benefiting humanity? How is that even possible for a human being to do anything that is not human?

    Well I agree with you that there is a cultural and ideological component, I’m a little concerned with the analysis and conclusion is that you’ve come to.

    Liked by 1 person

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