On Rational Thinking After Someone Has Died


One strange paradox that I can’t seem to get over is the fact that the science of human behavior steers me in the direction of understanding that, on a molecular level, we are all just biological creatures reacting to our environment.

The kind of stimuli we are exposed to one second before a behavior occurs has an enormous impact on what happens next and affects what we do, without us even knowing it did.

On top of that, what we experience a couple of hours before a behavior occurs also influences it, which most likely has a lot to do with our mothers’ hormone levels during pregnancy, which is connected to her upbringing, the culture she came from, and everything back to our earliest ancestors, and so on.

In a sense, we are just biological creatures reacting to our environment.

Or as professor Robert Sapolsky said:

“What do we do with the fact that we’re just one extremely complex, non-linear, chaotic, unpredictable version of an ant?”

What this tells me is that there is no reason for hating, feeling sad, or even reacting emotionally to things as they happen.

Not even death.

Stoicism and Death

Even if you look at the philosophy of Stoicism, how you handle emotions, farewells, and tragedies is all about not getting upset, angry, or reacting emotionally.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that we must maintain…

“Independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness. And to see clearly, from his example, that a man can show both strength and flexibility.”

Basically, there is no need to react with emotion and get upset when you lose a friend, a partner, or a child to death.

It’s just a biological unit that has stopped running.

There is no reason to feel sorry, to be sad or even to miss someone who we’ve lost — it’s just biology, and with that knowledge, we can choose to stop reacting with sadness, grief, and pain.

  • Except that it’s not that easy.

Pain Is Still Painful

No matter how rational the biological explanation of death can get, pain is still painful — it still hurts.

Death is still something that grips us from deep within and pulls us into the darkest corners of our psyche.

It’s still something so impactful and frightening that we collectively live to avoid it.

We don’t talk about it, we don’t think about it, and we live as though it’s never going to happen.

And once it does, the cognitive dissonance that it brings is so painful that it breaks us in two, and we can’t function properly for weeks, months or even years if we don’t work it out.

So what’s the real answer here if everything is explainable and biological, but we still feel extreme amounts of pain when someone dies?

What can we do with this paradox of behavior and emotion?

Can we use the knowledge of biology to move past this part of human nature where we miss and mourn other biological creatures that we call friends and family?

Or are we doomed to react emotionally, irrationally, when someone dies?

Here’s a thought:

The Other Side of Our Biology

If what happens once second before a behavior occurs ignites it, then if someone dies, if we are at their funeral, and we have cried ourselves numb, then that is the result of us reacting biologically to our environment, too.

It’s purely human.

I think it means the following:

We are not supposed to avoid it, try to deny its existence or be as Stoic as humanly possible where we don’t feel sad or devastated when a loved one dies.

The psychological literature even suggests that you should go through the emotions immediately and not postpone the inevitable suffering that follows after someone has died.

What I think, and will do personally, is to use this knowledge, that we don’t have to dwell in a state of sadness, that we don’t have to end up feeling emotionally drained for months on end, to start coming back to life, and to move past the initial phases of mourning the death of a friend.

Maybe I can’t be the same in all circumstances, as Marcus Aurelius said, no matter what happens because there are too many factors influencing my behavior, but what I can aim at is to see how it’s possible to become more rational, less vulnerable, and get back to living fully after everything has come to pass.

That, I think, is the road to redemption after death has made the world seem a little smaller.

Aim To Become More Rational

I don’t think it’s possible to be purely rational in life; we are too much under the control of our environment.

What I, however, think we can all aim at is to become more rational, to begin to look at things from a more positive angle, and always try to move forward with that kind of mindset.

I don’t think we should maintain our rational posture amid a great tragedy, but I maintain that we somehow choose whether or not we allow ourselves to dwell in it — or if we find a way to move past it, and even thrive in it.

  • Because after a loved one’s death, there is an ephemeral burst of grief, then we have the rest of our lives to celebrate their existence.

We shouldn’t try to suppress our emotions when tragedy strikes, we should go through them immediately — but then use our rational thinking, our left hemisphere, to come up with a way of conquering grief, and abstain from letting it cloud our vision.

Or as Seneca wrote:

“It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever.”

We can’t go on living as purely rational creatures, we have to allow ourselves to experience our emotions, but we can aim at becoming more balanced, and face our circumstances more pragmatically, and in that process learn to move past our sadness, and begin to appreciate what we once had.

That, I think, is how we should use our rationale to move on, stop digging and get out of the hole.

This is how I think we should apply rational thinking when we’ve lost someone we love.