We’re not really great at cognitive dissonance. We want things in our lives to make sense — we go so far as to create stories in our heads that serve to reduce the influence of anxiety in our lives. When we encounter grief-related experiences, we tend to assume that our experience of loss is specific to ourselves. Its referred to as false-uniqueness bias. It’s a bias that amplifies the subjective elements of our grief-ridden experience. We think and feel like we’re alone in the world when someone important to us ‘takes flight’ from their mortal coil.
However, there is something else that must be addressed when we speak of grief. Western culture seems to be wholeheartedly committed to denying us
When you live in a culture that reifies a denial of grief but capitalizes on the fear of death, you have a mental health crisis of colossal proportions. This phenomenon alone has contributed to many health experiences being sidelined or marginalized. However, the wrong industry has swooped in and turned grief into a million-dollar business of dulling our senses. From beta-blockers to downing lithium — we have normalized the role of Big Pharma in our lives.
We have a tendency as a species to want to find meaning in our tragedies. The words of Viktor Frankl still ring true, “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
The basis of the theory in his argument is that we are driven to seek out the meaning for why things happen to us. “Why does someone die?”, “Why does losing someone hurt so much?”, “Why does culture marginalize grieving?”
Evolutionary psychology frame grief as a design by evolution not simply for release from the pain of a loss, but also because we are all hard-wired for connection. When we lose a connection with someone that we love — whether it’s a pivotal breakup, divorce, death, or the loss of a valued pet, the pain within the loss of that connection is also a reminder of the way we are inherently made to be connected to one another.
One of the things people can do to grieve is to accept that they are grieving. One of the most simple but revolutionary things we can do — especially in a culture that denies the healing power of grieving, is to actually choose to grieve.
Then, find someone else who needs your help. Why? In the sciences, we refer to this as prosocial behavior — there are a host of neurochemicals that flood our system when we help others as a form of grief.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin course through our brain as make us feel connected and rewarded by that connection. Why does it make sense to adopt a posture of prosocial behavior during the grieving process? Because we are wired for connection. While we may have lost someone we loved, helping someone else reminds us of the power of connections. It’s healing.
It’s extremely important to remember that the whole idea of death, and the process we explain as dying is only beneficial to those who are alive. Trying to understand death only helps the living. This word helps us process death but does not necessarily heal us from the loss. In truth…nothing might ever give us closure.
However, another theory from within evolutionary psychology claims that what death also does for the living is to remind us of the influence of our genetic fitness. In short, this term is talking about our genetic progeny; the family we want to grow and leave behind after we shuffle off this mortal coil.
This could also be symbolic. Death reminds us of our legacy, or symbolic genetic fitness — what are we leaving behind? How are we affecting the world while we’re alive? What great acts are we performing that pushes us to embrace the better angels of our nature?
These are the types of questions that we should allow to haunt us after someone leaves this earth.