Seven years ago, my father-in-law lost his battle with cancer. My family entered a turbulent time of grieving. No matter how imminent the death of loved ones, nothing prepares us for the rollercoaster of emotions once they’re gone. Their face will never be seen again in this life; their laugh never heard; their company never enjoyed. Grief is an all-consuming, universal human experience that takes many forms. Parents grieve a child whose life is cut short; children grieve a parent whose memory fades; childless couples grieve what could have been and may never be. The ill and elderly grieve losing health and independence, and unprocessed grief can lead to illness and suffering of its own. And if we're not the ones grieving, we're an onlooker to someone else's grief. Attacks this year in Brussels and Lahore are stark reminders. Families together one minute are irreversibly torn apart the next.
What does this grief do to a person? What road are distraught families forced to travel? We mentally put ourselves in their shoes, trying to imagine how it feels, but it's too hard.
Grief is part of life, but why do we experience it? In evolutionary terms, there is a conundrum: don't the fittest survive and the weakest die out? Isn't that the natural order of things? Surely grief hinders reproduction and therefore survival. Wouldn't natural selection want to bypass such emotion?
At this point evolutionary biologists cite attachment theory. Staying together in families provides an evolutionary benefit: parents can protect their children and increase their likelihood of having offspring. Grief, then, becomes a reaction to losing that protective relationship or, as John Archer, psychology professor and author of The Nature of Grief defines it, an "alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioural system underlying attachment." The greater the attachment, the greater the grief.
These are valuable insights into some of the mechanisms underlying grief, but it leaves questions unanswered. Evolutionary biology cannot explain why we grieve an aging parent whose capacity to protect is long gone, or a long-term friend with whom we’ve lost contact, or why we sometimes grieve inexplicably over someone we’ve never met. I remember entering a 24/7 prayer room a few years ago and looking around at the verses and images posted on the walls. My eyes fell to a picture of a 9-year-old boy at the funeral of his younger brother, killed in a bomb blast in Gaza. The expression on his face was enough. I was in pieces. His face galvanized my prayers.