Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Benefits of a Daoist Approach to Friendship in Death and Grieving

Mary Brody

Professor Mahallati

Final Paper

May 19th, 2018

One of the hardest facts of friendship to fully realize is the inevitable permanent loss of a friend through death. Losses are named as such because we feel as though an essential part of us is being stripped away indefinitely and will only be looked back upon as memories. People deal with grief over the loss of a friend in many ways, but most standard practices of mourning revolve around the reconciliation with sadness and the feeling that one has had something taken from them. Is this the most productive way to treat the death of a friend? The Daoist theory seems to think standard grieving practices ignore and mistreat the death of friends and that friendship and death are so intertwined within humanness that we must recognize their cyclical nature to grieve well and be good friends in life. In the Zhuangzi, a textual foundation for Daoism, many of the stories and anecdotes relate the nature of friendship and death and instruct how we can be better friends by operating under grief according to their beliefs. If any of these practices pulled from Daoist philosophy were more embedded in the accepted norms for acts of friendship and mourning, grief over the loss of a friend could be carried out in a much healthier way and benefit friendships before death even occurs.

According to Elder’s analysis of friendship and death in Daoist philosophy, “death is a transformation that we commonly and mistakenly means the end of someone but just marks a new phase of existence.” (Elder 575). This definition of death is in complete opposition to the way we view death in most contemporary societies. Since Daoist philosophy is largely based on the necessity for tranquility and recognition for the larger, metaphysical world, when a friend dies the friendship is not gone; just transformed into a different, still valuable phase of the friend’s existence.

To be excellent friends, we must appreciate and anticipate the ‘transformation’ or death in our friends’ lives as much as we appreciate their actual time alive with us. When a close friend dies we generally will always primarily associate their death with the friendship, as a sad memory and the one that comes first to mind instead of appreciating their death and their time alive as it all was a part of the friendship and their being. The possibility for this change in thinking about the death of friends could, in fact, enrich friendships while two people are living since this perspective “allows the Daoist to enjoy deep friendships without the risk of loss typically associated with strong attachment” (Elder 575). Welcoming death as an understood part of friendships allows two friends to communicate better, knowing what the end of the friendship will look like and that the bond and love goes beyond the physical and sometimes, selfish, niceties of friendship.

Some specific chapters of the Zhuangzi describe the importance of friendship’s relationship with death as many of the foundation of friendships made in the stories and anecdotes are based entirely on the mutual understanding of mortality, and its role in communicating and relating to each other as humans. Death is one of the most human things along with friendships; they are both a necessary and inevitable part of life. How we believe in dying informs how we engage in friendship because as Blakeley says about these Daoist principals, “as friends care for one another, their caring is determined by their understanding of how to care” (Blakeley 327).

To successfully use these principals of friendship and death, the Daoist believes that the two friends must share the same values surrounding death. If one friend believes in the Dao nature of dying and friendship and the other does not, it will not fully benefit the friendship. One very appealing benefit we could see from this on a larger scale of mourning practices, is that the use of these shared beliefs about death “eventually motivates the surviving friends’ response to their friend’s death” (Elder 583). In this motivation from the shared beliefs, friendship and support are found during the grief stages which is not usually the case after a death of a loved one. Friends have a hard time coming to terms with the loss of their friend because perhaps they did not understand fully what each other felt about death as a destination that would inevitably shape their friendship. Friends in Daoism are “in unity (or at one) in their Dao identity. The relationships become transpersonal, beyond the anthropocentric” (Blakeley 329). They do not need the extra emotional supports of regular friends in grief.

We clearly cannot force everyone in society to hold Daoist values about the transformative, metaphysical nature of death; it is pretty hard for most to grasp and accept because it is so abstract. However, something is comforting in reminding people that just because a friend has died does not mean the relationship has vanished and that sharing values about subjects as hard as death with a friend before it is too late is essential for closure after the time of death.  The sharing of values around death also serves to enhance friendship to a level most probably don’t reach in an average friendship. Death is a scary topic, one we tend to shy away from discussing unless we are forced to confront it. This shyness should change, especially among friends, because as written in the Zhuangzi, friends with shared values about death can “trust that both your offers of help will not backfire and that your friend will provide you the help you need, in turn”  (Elder 585). Sharing values and facing death with a friend is one of the most potent ways to exercise the level of friendship shared and to bolster trust in a relationship.

Before beginning to explain why the philosophical idea of death as a transformation to a different phase in Daoist teachings and why that could be beneficial to all grieving, we must acknowledge current methods of grief over the loss of a friend that are lacking. What gaps in typical mourning practices could Daoist teachings fill?

A Daoist approach to the death of a friend is one that is, “intensely personal throughout, rather than drawing on the somewhat impersonal perspective” (Elder 590). Although normal ways of grieving the loss of a friend usually involve personal aspects, the normalized way of reacting to lose a friend is very impersonal to the friendship. We apply the Kübler-Ross method to every case of grief and we require those in mourning to exhibit certain, specific signs at different times after the death so people know they are processing. We strip away the personal aspects of the sadness over the loss of a friendship.  Some Daoist thought, goes as far to support the idea that some overt sadness over the loss of a friend  without recognition of the everlasting value of the friendship, is based in “selfish concerns: my friends death means she will not be able to take care of me, talk to me, fend off my family for me and so forth” (Elder 591).

It makes sense why people feel sad about the loss of a friend, Daoists are not against showing emotion after the death of a friend, what they are opposed to is treating death as a loss rather than a transformation. According to these guidelines, one is not a genuine, deep friend if one is unable to recognize that dying is a part of the friend and therefore should be loved like any other aspect of that friend. With this approach, Daoists seem to possibly get more out of friendships, “because they value life, and life and death are part of the same process, death is not to be shunned or feared” (Elder 584). They scrape every last bit of friendship they can get out of every single aspect of that person, even their death.

Daoists take issue with mourning norms because it is counterintuitive to deep friendship for them. True friendship relies on a commitment to working at being friends but “their commitment to each other is not supposed to motivate attachment to one phase of this person’s existence at the expense of the rest” (Elder 583). Putting forth that this supposed “rest” of existence that presumably occurs after life is of course, not an easy way to approach grief and clear up the confusion around these practices that would arise at first if introduced to contemporary grief practices. Some worry this perspective on death “would only alleviate grief at the death of a friend by making it somewhat irrational for someone to value a person to begin with” (Elder 581). It is hard to value friendship when someone moves to a different country, let alone cease to exist in the physical sense at all. We know our friends as their faces, “it would not be clear why it would suppose that people continue to value their friends when the original qualities on which the friendship was initiated have disappeared” (Elder 581). Despite the Daoist approach to friendship and death being hard to grasp because of its reliance on the trust in the metaphysical world, we can pull more realistic, water-downed practices from these teachings to reconstruct and enhance bereavement over friends in the current day.

The primary principle of good death and friendship as explained by the Daoist, is the rejection of death as a loss but instead viewing it as a transformation or new phase in the existence of one’s friend. This appreciation of the many forms a friend’s existence may take, benefits those grieving because it shifts from a depressing, emotionally tasking experience into a “special reason to be interested in their friends’ death, to observe, support, and participate in this process,” like one hopefully would in any large transition in a friends life. (Elder 589). If we believe it is necessary for good friends to support friends through the different phases of their lives, Daoists “seem to be merely extending this ordinary feature of friendship in continuing to value their friends through what they take to be transformations and changes, rather than coming up with bizarre or ad hoc response to death in an attempt to mitigate grief” (Elder 582). The Daoist embraces death because it is going to take away the physical embodiment of a friend at one point, why not support it when the time comes rather than fight it?

Understanding that all friendships will ultimately end in a transformative death experience enhances friendships before the time of death because the Daoist can enjoy these friendships without the fear and “risk of loss typically associated with strong attachment” (Elder 575). When friendship and death are viewed as mutually exclusive, we miss out on important aspects of friendship that exist within death. The only thing we can be sure of experiencing after we enter the world as humans is that we will die. If friends share everything, why wouldn’t they want to share this experience too? There should be no separation here since “life and death are both natural stages of a human being…if we value a person’s life, we should likewise value their death.” (Elder 580). Supporting a friend during their time of death is perhaps the most meaningful way to show how much the friendship is valued precisely because of the difficulty in watching the transformation from life to end.

Daoist philosophy also puts forth that some believe the physical embodiment of the deceased friend is passed onto the universe. This transition allows for the grieving friend to first value the friend, mourn the friend, then “value the whole universe after the friend dies” (Elder 582). This belief that friendship is passed onto the universe and is all around us allows for the Daoist to be more susceptible to making these real, deep, metaphysical relationships and furthers the cycle of friendship and death. Of course, even if the friend exists somewhere in the ethos, some sadness around that change would be appropriate for a short amount of time for a Daoist to value the new phase of their friends existence while dealing with the fact that “the changes they have undergone mean they are no longer interactive, no longer reciprocally caring” (Elder 589). Reciprocal care is one of the greats parts of friendship, usually necessary in a non-toxic or abusive friendship. However, the Daoist still knows to continue respecting the new form of their friend after death because it “allows the Daoist to reap the benefits of friendship and to value friends for exactly what they are, confident that they, in turn, will be valued in the same way,” continuing the cycle of friendship and death even further (Elder 589).

Some anecdotes in the Zhuangzi depict a sort of celebratory attitude among men grieving a friend. The men described in these chapters are undoubtedly sad, but they know that “although separated from the living presence of their friend, they nevertheless join in celebrating their unity with the process they all share.” (Blakeley 329). If we in society treated death as a celebration of life and shared experiences of living and dying like the Daoists, attitudes, and comfortability around death between friends might improve. We fear the transformation of death so much because it is unknown and feels finite but also empty. If we could all accept death as a new unknown chapter in our journey of being, grieving a lost friend and friendships before any death would benefit from the vulnerability this acceptance of ourselves would put out. After all friendship should really be the “giving of oneself, freely and fully to others, fully appreciating who they are for however long they are with us,” and we can follow in the Daoist lead and core of Zhuang by “giving of oneself up to the world and a lack of fear of change in the world.” (Wong 218).

Now that it is established that there are some grounds for the acceptance of death as a transformation and not a loss in modern grief processes, how would one go about developing these views on a broader scale? One of the ways Daoist philosophy explains the ability for friends to be so emotionally in control and have trust in the universe’s path for their friend is through detachment. Using the word detachment about building deep friendships seems counterintuitive but not from the Daoist perspective. In Daoism, “tranquility and attachment are incompatible,” (Elder 591) making total attachment to a friend very negative for one’s ability to become tranquil in their lives. This is not to demote the level of friendships in which Daoists engage in, but that they don’t need to be relying on friends constantly. Friendships in Daoism are connected by the “constant, unlimited dao as the basis for true, genuine friendship” (Blakeley 330), meaning they don’t rely on support but a more profound, unspoken level of connection through shared principles, virtues and morals. This allows the Daoist to build as close friendships with a person as anyone else while still being able to respect the transformation of death as part of their journey in dao.

Daoist friendship is so difficult to grasp because it “abandons assumptions relied upon by other conventional, philosophical, and spiritual positions on friendship, nevertheless contain the attractive central features of the most robust conception of friendship” (Blakeley 333). Daoist friendship requires more than just common interests and similar senses of humor, though those are welcome within the scope of a dao based friendship. Calling someone “my friend” implies some ownership and attachment that goes against the Daoist ways. When one feels ownership over “their friend” it makes grief harder. Blakeley succinctly explains this detachment phenomenon as “a friend is always someone that one has by never having them…For Dao adepts, however, it is intimacy and responsiveness in the fullest sense. It is other types of friendships that are incomplete and suffer according to their various limitations.” (Blakeley 325). Daoist friendship is considered more pure and intimate because sharing favorite bands or movies are all additional benefits in their relationships, but not superficial requirements like in other friendships. That is why the Daoist friendship perspective on death is so to the point; these friendships are rooted in a more profound sense of meaning and therefore make grappling with something as meaningless and confusing as a death of a friend, less tasking.

For the Daoist, friendship is a complicated virtue interwoven with death and the universe. Friends are bonded on a deeper level, one that goes beyond rational thought about the way the world works. Because of its extreme nature, Daoist friendship can handle death among friends in a very different way than most are used to. Daoists don’t believe in death as a loss but a transformation or new phase in a friends’ life, where they become another part of the universe. For this reason, Daoists mourn differently and treat their friends differently, dare I say better, in life and on their death beds. The adoption of some Daoist principals for the incorporation of friendship in death and attitudes towards the death of friends, could enhance friendships all over the world today and possibly influence change in other areas of friendship studies. The radical acceptance of death, friendship, and the metaphysical world could be what everyone needs to make better friendships and grieve the loss of a friend better.



Blakeley, Donald N. “Hearts in agreement: Zhuangzi on Dao adept friendship.” Philosophy East & West 58 (2008): 318-36.

Elder, A. (2014), Zhuangzi on Friendship and Death. South J Philos, 52: 575-592

Wong, David B. “The Meaning of Detachment in Daoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 5 (2006): 207-19.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.


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