"Grief is love"
"Grief is love with no place to go"
"What is grief, if not love persevering?"
"Grief is the price we pay for love"
There are probably a hundred more grief-intertwined-with-love quotes floating around the internet. They're all lovely enough, right? I don't hate any of them. And it isn't that I disagree. But I do feel a bit unsettled. It feels like each is trying to answer a very big question:
What is grief?
And if that's the question, these answers, well, the seem to fall short. Sure, grief is love. But sometimes grief is not love. Sometimes it is the absence of love. Sometimes it is the love we craved from a parent that never came. Sometimes it is the love we put into another person and never received in return.
Love sounds so singular. And yet nothing about love (nor grief) feels singular. They both feel expansive, layered, and complex. These statements sometimes start to feel trite, like they are just another platitude meant to romanticise grief.
When I'm feeling the most jaded about these "grief is love" sentiments and in need of reassurance, I find myself most persuaded not by the words of a great poet or philosopher, but rather by the words Eleanor wrote right here at What's Your Grief:
"Perhaps the most painful kind of love is called grief, which happens when the object of a person’s love is taken away with no hope for return.
Grief is love and the confusion caused by not knowing how to love someone who is gone.
Grief is love’s frustration, bitterness, anger, and resentment at death’s destruction.
Grief is love realizing, if it wants to thrive, it has to be creative and find new ways to connect and be fulfilled.
Grief is love’s unwillingness to give up. It’s stretching bonds and redefining limits in order to create a space where you can love someone in their eternal absence"
Suddenly I read that and I think okay, maybe I'm back on board. That sounds right, that sounds complex. And if the answer to the question "what is grief" is "grief is love" then maybe the important question, is what is love?
If grief is love, I want love to be . . . more. The most. I want the word love to capture everything. And perhaps it does - maybe I am selling it short. If I am able to love nachos, love the mountains, love my mother, my partner, and my best friend, maybe love is less singular than it sounds on the surface.
Maybe love is really one word the encompasses lots of types of love?
Or maybe the word love is sometimes just a stand-in for 'like a lot'. Because though I do love nachos and my best friend, that feels like a difference in not just degree, but in kind.
So let's stick with my mother, my partner, and my best friend. Though the love I feel for each of them is different, it feels reasonable that it is all still love. I do have an intense feeling of deep affection for all of them, which the dictionary tells me is "love". Even by a slightly more specific, popular definition - love is a particularly deep type of care and concern for another person that we can't classify as another emotion - it still qualifies.
And yet I'm still left wanting something more.
Love and the Ancient Greeks
Perhaps this is where the limitation of language causes us problems.
In Greek philosophy and literature, there are several different words that are translated as "love" in English, each with its own unique connotations and interpretations. It feels hard to reflect on love without considering these types of love. Some of the most famous are:
This is the love of desire, sexual passion, and lust. Eros is associated with intense physical attraction (it's the route of the word 'erotic', which you can tuck away for trivia night). Plato wrote about eros extensively, thinking of it as something both divine but also egocentric. Though alone it could be the basis of a romantic relationship, he viewed it as an important piece of complex, loving relations when coupled with some of the other types of love.
This is the love of friendship. It is rooted in deep affection, loyalty, care, respect, and trust. Though often associated with just platonic friendships, philia isn't limited to non-sexual and non-romantic relationships. The ancient Greeks thought of it as a component of romantic love between couples as well. Plato thought that eros (which he viewed as divinely given) coupled with philia, creating what he saw as the highest form of philia love relationship.
This is a mature love, one that is often tied to duty, reason, and shared goals. Though long-standing romantic relationships are what often first come to mind, pragma is not limited to romantic partnerships, Pragma is essential within families and very close friendships. It involves deep understanding and acceptance of the other person, with their flaws and imperfections. It is a deep commitment and devotion.
This is a carefree, immature, and playful love. It is at the other end of the spectrum from pragma. It is a love that is early and flirty. It may develop into some of the other more mature kinds of love.
This is devoted family love. It is sometimes described as the natural and instinctual love that exists between family members, like a parent and a child. It encompasses the familiarity and comfort of family along with a sense of duty. This type of love can be one-sided, with one person feeling a greater sense of care or duty than the other.
This universal or unconditional love. It is the love that roots altruism and selflessness. It is the love that underpins a healthy society, as it describes care and concern we have for others, even if they are not directly connected to us.
This is self-love. Importantly, they distinguish that this is not vanity or ego. Rather, it is something closer to self-esteem and self-acceptance. It is the love that means extending the same care and compassion to ourselves that we would do someone else.
So Is Grief Love?
With the incredible nuance of the ancient Greek words for love, I get closer to finding the statement 'grief is love' a little bit more complete. Because all these loves, they are enormous. They define us. And when we grieve, it isn't just that our love for the person has no where to go, but these other loves are impacted.
Our agape can suddenly erode when the world feels unfair or unjust, when we start feeling resentful or friends and strangers. Our philautia takes a hit because sometimes the person we lost was who helped us create and build our self-love, learning to see and appreciate ourselves through their eyes, their love, and their support. We can worry and wonder if it will exist without them.
Even with all these words for love, there is still one more I find myself reaching for. I want a word for a love I've written about before -- the love you only find in loss. It is the love for a person that we just couldn't possibly have known or understood while they were still here. It is only through their absence that we find out just how deep and strong it is.
Where Does That Leave Us?
I'm not exactly sure, I've got to be honest. I think I just needed some space to type this out and think it through. And maybe I've just come full circle. Grief is love AND it is more than love. Because love is more than love - it is more than our single, four-letter word can contain. And grief, sometimes, is less than love. Sometimes it is the absence of love. Sometimes it is love preserving, love with no place to go. Sometimes all we can do is remember and reflect - honor the love we had, hold on to the love we still have, and mourn the love we never received, and grieve the love that has disappeared.
Need somewhere to muse and ramble and reflect on love? We'd LOVE for you to leave a comment (or at least we'd really like it!).
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: