When my mother was diagnosed with cancer but still waiting for test results, she was very anxious. To counter her anxiety, she asked, “What’s the use of grieving now? If it’s bad, I’ll still have to grieve later.” As reasonable as this sentiment is, it didn’t help. She grieved both before and after the test results.

Is there a use for pre-grieving? Bobby McFerrin agreed with my mother: “In this life, expect some trouble / When you worry, it makes things double / Don’t worry, be happy.”

I see their point, but there are counterpoints. Pre-grieving can vaccinate against sudden infection. If you’ve already imagined that you could be a fool, then, when someone calls you one, it doesn’t come as a shock. You say, “Yes. It is possible, sure. I’ve considered it. You may be right.” The more you have imagined disappointing outcomes, the less flappable you are.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Of course, imagining disappointing outcomes can also flap you. Worry can trigger a vicious cycle—for example, the worry that causes sleeplessness prompts the worry that causes world-weariness, which prompts further worry, which causes further sleeplessness.

Just as inoculants are contraindicated when someone’s health is already compromised, there are times when pre-grief is contraindicated.

My mother couldn’t help pre-grieving. Most of us are powerless to prevent worrying about the future sometimes. It’s like having pre-grief on drip feed. We naturally alternate between joy and grief.

When we’re young, that commingling is a rough mixture. When we’re older, it’s a smoother blend, which may be the main benefit of pre-grief: The more often you have ridden the wild oscillations between thinking you’re amazing and thinking you’re terrible, the less whipsawed you are by the swings. Ram Dass, an early teacher of mine, used to say, “You know, I had ten years of psychoanalysis, I was a Harvard psychology professor, I studied with the greatest gurus in India and took every psychoactive substance I could find, and still I haven’t lost even one neurosis. They’ve just gotten more manageable. They used to be these tyrants. Now, they’re these little Snoids. When they visit, I invite them in for tea.”

Familiarity breeds contentment. Age absorbs many of life’s shocks. When I was younger and more generally anxious, an insightful friend once said, “You know what I wish? I wish you screwed up really badly one time. Then you would see that the bottom you fear isn’t as low as you think. You would relax about it.” In the years since, I have fulfilled his wish by screwing up. Within the range of my errors, my friend proved right. It’s as though the grand ratio—how good you are relative to how good you could be—finally stabilizes with time. The wild swings between “I’m great” and “I’m terrible” become less wild, successively approximating to an acceptable and acceptably accurate sense of worth, as does one’s sense of one’s potential.

Pre-grieving is like experiencing virtual loss. Then there’s real loss, which tends to increase the longer you have lived.

I’ve suspected that a disproportionate number of Jews who got out of Germany before Hitler closed the borders were people who had previously suffered real loss. If you’ve already lived through bankruptcy and a repossessed home, wouldn’t you be braver about having to go through it again? The people who hadn’t known the depths of grief would have been the ones to say, “How can I possibly leave? The loss would be insurmountable.” Past loss might make you fail-safe, confident by precedent that you can rise again.

And yet Holocaust survivors are notorious worriers. It’s as though suffering through severe trauma convinced them that no matter how much they worry, they just can’t keep up, so it’s better to worry all the time. Hoarding money for hard times is a kind of worry. Holocaust victims are notorious hoarders.

I suspect that past grief and virtual grief (pre-grief) can have opposite effects, either inoculating us against, or infecting us with more worry—which is to say past grief is either a complement of or a substitute for future grief.

For example, with posttraumatic stress, past grief becomes a complement of present grief: The more grief you’ve had, the more grief you have now. By contrast, people who have suffered through near-death experiences often talk of how it vitalizes them, as though past grief were a substitute for present grief. The more grief you survive, the less grief you feel now. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

There are religious sects that devote themselves to pre-grief practices: Some Tibetan and Christian monks, for example, use human bones as ritual objects to remind them of ever-approaching deaths.

There are other people who keep as far away from pre-grief as possible. About future losses, they procrastinate. They figure they’ll meditate on their losses when they’re dead. They bank on getting out unscathed, escaping before a lifetime’s worth of accumulation of grief catches up with them. And some succeed in getting out unscathed.

Apocalyptic prophets worried about those who got out unscathed. If the meek shall inherit the Earth, they reasoned, we must surrender now, atoning and pre-grieving so that we gain God’s grace. But what about the un-meek who postponed atonement and died peacefully? It would be unfair for them to postpone atonement their whole lives and then die before Judgment Day. So the prophets closed this loophole. On Judgment Day, even the dead rise up to be judged. No one escapes the apocalypse—not even the dead.

The Tao says, “Success is as dangerous as failure; hope is as hollow as fear.” Every increase in happiness means that much more to grieve in the end. Adore your new pet cat? You’ll lose it. Fall madly in love? You’ll lose it. All ups have downs, so maybe we should try to even it out by starting to grieve the loss of the cat the day we get it. The Roman moral philosopher Seneca said, “The question is whether grief should be deep or unending.”

A lot of parenting questions revolve around the question of how soon to let children know about what’s worrisome or disappointing about life: Worry them too soon and they’ll be destabilized and depressed. Worry them too late and they’ll be soft and spoiled.

If you get some free time, if you’re safe enough and feeling brave, pre-grieve. Not, if you can help it, when you’re waiting for cancer-test results, but when you can afford to take it in without plummeting into despair. We don’t give inoculations to people whose systems are already compromised. But when they’re healthy, a shot of reality prepares them for the worst, as well as any of us can be prepared.

Here are two poems I love, pointing in opposite directions on the value of pre-grief. The first argues that pre-grief is good preventative medicine. The second argues to avoid it while you can.

Terrence, this is stupid stuff
A.E. Houseman

Terrence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough
There can’t be much amiss ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:

Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half-way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a steling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithradates, he died old.

A Brief for the Defense
Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.

If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else.

With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine.

The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.

The poor women at the fountain are laughing together

Between the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick.

There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.

We can do without pleasure, but not delight.

Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness

to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.

To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.