Mourning Matthew Perry |

6 min read
Wikicommons/Manuel Domínguez Sánchez/Public domain

The Death of Seneca

Wikicommons/Manuel Domínguez Sánchez/Public domain

Chandler Bing, played by Matthew Perry, was a part of all our lives, and many of us have watched and rewatched Friends many times over the years.

It will be hard for me to relive Chandler’s poignant moments with Monica (and, of course, Joey) without pining for Perry.

Bereavement is the grief that often occurs after the loss of a loved one, although a similar kind of grief can also occur after the loss of a pet or public figure, or an asset such as health or reputation.

Bereavement in such cases is normal and varies greatly in duration and intensity from one person to another, and from one culture to another.

Sudden and unexpected loss is associated with a stronger and longer bereavement reaction, as is the loss of someone very close or with whom one had a dependent or ambivalent relationship.

A bereavement reaction might be considered abnormal if it is unusually intense or unusually prolonged. It might also be regarded as abnormal if it is delayed, inhibited, or in some way distorted.

In short, it is possible to grieve for a public figure or a rock star, just as it is possible to grieve for a fictional or semi-fictional character such as Chandler (there were many commonalities between Chandler and Perry).

But unlike, say, the late Queen Elizabeth II, or Tina Turner, or Sherlock Holmes, Chandler/Perry felt like an intimate contemporary, like a friend of our own.

We owe this to the magic of television and streaming services, which make it possible to flick on Friends at any vulnerable moment—and have Chandler there, in all 236 episodes, to cheer us up.

Never in the history of humanity had a fictional character felt more real or present; never had we felt closer to someone we had never met.

The Consolation Letter

Despite the confusing novelty of the situation, it is to ancient philosophy that we can turn to help us cope with our grief.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca (d. 65 CE) is the master of the “consolation”, a letter written for the express purpose of comforting someone who has been bereaved.

The consolation had become a literary genre long before the time of Seneca, so that a consolation may have been intended for a much broader audience than its titular recipient.

Two of antiquity’s most celebrated consolations have been lost, Crantor’s On Grief and Cicero’s Consolatio to himself on the death of his daughter, Tullia.

Seneca wrote at least three consolations, to Marcia, to Polybius, and to Helvia. In the Consolation to Helvia, he comforts his own mother Helvia on “losing” him to exile—an unusual case, and literary innovation, of the lamented consoling the lamenter.

The Consolation to Helvia shows that, even in antiquity, the consolation could be adapted to meet atypical forms of grieving.

Seneca’s Advice

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 CE) had at least 14 children with his wife Faustina, but only four daughters and one unfortunate son, Commodus, outlived their parents.

In the Meditations (the reflective journal or notebook that he kept), Marcus likens his children to leaves, and paraphrases Homer in the Iliad:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when the spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines.

Marcus was a Stoic and would have known, at least in theory, how to cope with grief, loss, and bereavement.

But if Seneca could have consoled Marcus on losing his children, and could have told him only three things, what might those three things have been?

First, Marcus, remember that life is given to us with death as a precondition. Some people die sooner than others, but life, on a cosmic scale, is so short that, really, it makes no difference. Even children are known to die—indeed, they often do—and these, Marcus, simply happened to be your own.

A human life, however long or short, or great or small, is of little historical and no cosmic consequence. Since a life can never be long or great enough, the most that it can be is sufficient, and we would do better to concentrate on what that might mean.

Second, it may be that death is in fact preferable to life. Life is full of suffering, and grieving only adds to it, whereas death is the permanent release from every possible pain. Indeed, many people who have died—think only of our friend Cicero—would have died happier if they had died sooner.

If we do not pity the unborn, why should we pity the dead, who at least had the benefit, if benefit it is, of existing? The unborn cry out as soon as they are pushed out into the world, but to the dead we never have to block our ears. If weep we must, it is not over death, but the whole of life, that we should weep.

Third, we should treat the people we love not as permanent possessions but as temporary loans from fortune. When, in the evening, you kiss your wife and children goodnight, reflect on the possibility that they, and you, might never wake up. In the morning when you kiss them goodbye, reflect on the possibility that they, or you, might never come home. That way you’ll be better prepared for their eventual loss, and, what’s more, savour and sublime whatever time that you spend together—and, in that way, lead them to love you more.

If you do lose a loved one, do not grieve, or no more than is appropriate, or no more than they would have wanted you to, but be grateful for the moments that you shared, and consider how much poorer your life would have been if they had never come into it.

Perry gave us so much in our increasingly lonely and disjointed lives, and, at least on screen, will live on forever. The shame is that his own life did not live up to the seductive fiction.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours