Despite its complex experiential structure, the phenomenon of grief following bereavement has not been a major topic of phenomenological research. The paper investigates its basic structures, elaborating as its core characteristic a conflict between a presentifying and a ‘de-presentifying’ intention: In grief, the subject experiences a fundamental ambiguity between presence and absence of the deceased, between the present and the past, indeed between two worlds he lives in. This phenomenological structure will be analyzed under several aspects: (1) regarding bodily experience, as disruption of a shared intercorporeality; (2) as a loss of the shared world and shared habitualities, leaving the bereaved person with ubiquitous indications of absence and with a contraction of their own self; (3) regarding temporality, as a separation of two strands of time, namely a still ongoing past and an alienated present which become more and more desynchronized; (4) finally, as an “as-if presence” of the deceased which the bereaved continue to feel and sometimes to perceive, leading to a cognitive-affective conflict between two experienced realities. The transforming process of grief is then analyzed as a gradual adjustment to the loss, finally enabling a re-integration of the conflicting realities. This is achieved through an incorporation and identification with the deceased on the one hand, and through various forms of representation on the other hand, in particular by recollection and symbolization.
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Darwin, in his „Expression of the emotions in man and animals“ (1872, 178 ff.), described in detail the facial expression of grief and despair and traced it back to the infant’s screaming: „In all cases of distress, whether great or small, our brains tend through long habit to send an order to certain muscles to contract, as if we were still infants at the point of screaming out“ (l.c., 192 f.).
Lewis also uses the comparison to an amputation (p. 61).
This description of a shared body memory would be compatible with Bowlby’s (1982) idea that bereavement also re-actualizes early experiences of separation from the mother, which function as a prototype of later losses.
Of course, these general considerations would have to be differentiated in accordance with the fundamental cultural variety of concepts of the self, namely as being more autonomous and separated or more open and dependent on others; on this, see Markus and Kitayama (1991).
“The real world only rests upon the constantly conceived presumption that experience will continue to unfold in the same constitutive style” (Husserl 1974, § 99, p. 258).
Strictly speaking, already the grammar of „he is dead“ is ambiguous – the present tense indicates that „he“ is still an existing subject.
Since Emile Durkheim’s classic 1897 monograph on suicide, this has been repeatedly demonstrated, the risk being greatest for the period immediately following the loss (Durkheim 1897; Kreitman 1988; Erlangsen et al. 2004; Agerbo 2005). Thus, MacMahon and Pugh (1965) found an increased ratio for suicide in the first 4 years after the death of the spouse (2.5 times higher compared to the general population in the first year, 1.5 times higher in year 2–4). In a Swiss study, the suicide rates were highest in the first week after bereavement and still significantly increased in the first months (Ajdacic-Gross et al. 2008).
It seems plausible to assume with Assmann (2005, 2006) and Haas (2002, 146) that the longing and pain of grief, combined with the still felt presence of the loved one, have been one of the strongest sources of the belief in a transcendent world and in immortality. Death, grief and contact to this other world are obviously connected in the various mortuary cults which we find at the origins of human religion and culture (see section 5 below).
Granted, at this point we face a methodological dilemma: The analysis of ambiguous presence obviously cannot proceed in complete „ontological neutrality“, since already the characterization „as if“ implies an appraisal that would not be shared by cultures with a taken for granted presence of the dead as ghosts, demons or other personal entities in the everyday world. Thus, the very term „as-if presence“ already presupposes, at least in principle, a separation of the world of the living from the dead (independent from whether or not a survival after death is assumed). Here we meet the above-mentioned methodological limitations of a phenomenological analysis that is primarily oriented to Western grief processes. Nevertheless, at least some kind of ambiguity of the presence of the deceased probably constitutes a basic experience in all cultures (on this, see section 5 below).
This is expressed by one widow in Parkes‘ study: „I feel I’m waiting for something to happen, for the unreal feeling to pass … I feel this is a different life … as if there is another life going on somewhere else and I’ll waken up.“ In this ‚other life‘ her husband was still alive and well (Parkes 1972a, 85).
Rees (1971), in a study of 300 bereaved men and women, found a sense of presence of the dead spouse in 39%, and illusions or hallucinations in 14%; see also Kalish and Reynolds (1973). However, a significant decline in reported illusions and hallucinations of the deceased was found over the course of the first year of bereavement (Grimby 1993).
Thus, in DSM-4 a severe grief reaction to the loss of a loved one could last two months before a diagnosis of depression was possible (APA 1994). In DSM-5, however, even this short period conceded for „normal grief“ has been dropped, and a depression can now be diagnosed right after the loss provided the symptoms are severe enough (APA 2013).
In the myth Charon refuses to ferry Orpheus over the Styx again after his having lost Eurydice. This indicates that the demarcation between life and death has been drawn again; cf. Haas 2002, 147.
In the following case, the identification is quite conscious: „My husband’s in me, right through and through. I can feel him in me doing everything. … I enjoy the things my husband used to do. It’s like a thought in my head – what he would say or do” (Parkes 1972b, 100). Similarly, Riley writes: “Meanwhile I’ll try to incorporate J’s [her son’s] best qualities of easy friendliness, warmth, and stoicism, and I shall carry him on in that way. Which is the only kind of resurrection of the dead that I know about” (Riley 2012, 22).
On the psychoanalytic concept of identification, see Bowlby 1980, 22–37.
This process of the symbolization of death characterizes the development of human culture in general; on this, cf. Balzer from a psychoanalytic point of view: „The affirmation of the absence opened up the symbolic transitional space of reminiscence, of temporality and of the possible narration of the non-visible“ (Balzer 2009, 105; my translation).
Similarly, pictorial scientist Belting describes the burial and other funeral ceremonies as a symbolic or social death by which native cultures attempt to overcome the haunting presence of biological death: “At a point of time which in several cultures may be months or years later, the catastrophe of death is exchanged by the definition of death, not a definition through terms, but through a ceremonial action in which the community re-establishes its own order […] With it, the dead finds his place […] The social event [of death] replaces the biological event“ (Belting 1996, 108; my translation).
Finally, drawing on ancient Egypt and other cultures, Egyptologist Jan Assmann (2005, 2006, 2011) has extensively demonstrated how the origins of cultural memory may be derived from the rituals of death, burial, mourning, and collective recollection; death could even be seen as a „generator of culture“ (Assmann 2005).
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I am grateful for the valuable comments of Werner Balzer, Barbara Pieper, Michela Summa and two anonymous reviewers on earlier versions of this paper.
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Fuchs, T. Presence in absence. The ambiguous phenomenology of grief. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 43–63 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9506-2
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