Presence in absence. The ambiguous phenomenology of grief

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    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.).

  2. 2.

    This analogy also applies in the opposite direction: „The emotion most persons feel when told that they must lose a limb has been well compared with the emotion of grief at the death of a loved one“ (Kessler 1951); see also the descriptions by Parkes (1972b).

  3. 3.

    Lewis also uses the comparison to an amputation (p. 61).

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

    “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).

  7. 7.

    Strictly speaking, already the grammar of „he is dead“ is ambiguous – the present tense indicates that „he“ is still an existing subject.

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    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).

  10. 10.

    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).

  11. 11.

    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).

  12. 12.

    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).

  13. 13.

    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).

  14. 14.

    For example Isis and Osiris in Egypt, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of Izanagi in Japan, etc. On this, cf. Hultkrantz (1957), Cipolletti (2003) and Haas (2006, pp. 126–129).

  15. 15.

    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.

  16. 16.

    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).

  17. 17.

    On the psychoanalytic concept of identification, see Bowlby 1980, 22–37.

  18. 18.

    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).

  19. 19.

    Despite this important shift of perspective, it should not be overlooked that according to recent empirical studies the emphasis on „continuing bonds“ may not be invariably adaptive (Field et al. 2003, 2005).

References

  1. Agerbo, E. (2005). Midlife suicide risk, partner’s psychiatric illness, spouse and child bereavement by suicide or other modes of death: a gender specific study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 407–412.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ajdacic-Gross, V., Ring, M., Gadola, E., Lauber, C., Bopp, M., Gutzwiller, F., & Rössler, W. (2008). Suicide after bereavement: an overlooked problem. Psychological Medicine, 38, 673–676.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. APA (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th edition). American Psychiatric Association.

  4. APA. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edition). American Psychiatric Association.

  5. Archer, J. (1999). The nature of grief: the evolution and psychology of reactions to loss. New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 241–253.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Assmann, J. (2005). Death and salvation in ancient Egypt. Trans. D. Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Assmann, J. (2006). Religion and cultural memory: ten studies. Trans. R. Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Assmann, J. (2007). Die Lebenden und die Toten. In J. Assmann, F. Maciejewski, & A. Michaels (Eds.), Der Abschied von den Toten. Trauerrituale im Kulturvergleich (pp. 16–36). Göttingen: Wallstein.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Assmann, J. (2011). Cultural memory and early civilization: writing, remembrance, and political imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Augustine. (1955). Confessions. Trans. A. C. Outler. Retrieved from http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/aconf.pdf.

  12. Balzer, W. (2009). Eyes Mind Shut. Die Krise der Bildlichkeit und die Verkümmerung der symbolischen Repräsentanzen. In P. Soldt & K. Nitzschmann (Eds.), Arbeit der Bilder. Die Präsenz des Bildes im Dialog zwischen Psychoanalyse, Philosophie und Kunstwissenschaften (pp. 97–128). Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Barr-Zisowitz, C. (2000). Sadness: is there such a thing? In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed., pp. 607–622). New York and London: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Belting, H. (1996). Aus dem Schatten des Todes. Bild und Körper in den Anfängen. In C. v. Barloewen (Ed.), Der Tod in den Weltkulturen und Weltreligionen (pp. 92–136). München: Diederichs.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss. In Loss, sadness and depression (Vol. III). New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. In Attachment (Vol. I). New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Brown, J. T., & Stoudemire, G. A. (1983). Normal and pathological grief. Journal of the American Medical Association, 15, 378–382.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Casey, E. (2000). Remembering. A phenomenological study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Cipoletti, M. S. (1983). Jenseitsvorstellungen bei den Indianern Südamerikas. Berlin: Reimer.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Cipolletti, M. S. (2003), Orpheus in außereuropäischen Kulturen. In: Gutwinski-Jeggle, J., et al. (Eds.) Der Analytiker im psychoanalytischen Prozess. Arbeitstagung der Deutschen Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung in Stuttgart, pp. 243–249.

  21. Clayton, P., Desmarais, L., & Winokur, G. (1968). A study of normal bereavement. American Journal of Psychiatry, 125, 168–178.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Csordas, T. J. (1994). Introduction: the body as representation and being-in-the-world. In T. J. Csordas (Ed.), Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self (pp. 1–24). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Csordas, T. J. (1999). Embodiment and cultural phenomenology. In D. Weiss & H. F. Haber (Eds.), Perspectives on embodiment: the intersections of nature and culture (pp. 143–162). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Deacon, T. W. (1998). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. New York: Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Dubose, J. T. (1997). The phenomenology of bereavement, grief, and mourning. Journal of Religion and Health, 36, 367–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Durkheim, E. (1897). Le suicide: étude de sociologie. Paris: F. Alcan.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Erlangsen, A., Jeune, B., Bille-Brahe, U., & Vaupel, J. W. (2004). Loss of partner and suicide risks among oldest old: a population-based register study. Age and Ageing, 33, 378–383.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Field, N. P., Gal-Oz, E., & Bonnano, G. A. (2003). Continuing bonds and adjustment at 5 years after the death of a spouse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 110–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Field, N. P., Gao, B., & Paderna, L. (2005). Continuing bonds in bereavement: An attachment theory based perspective. Death Studies, 29, 277–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and melancholia (Vol. 14, Standard ed.pp. 243–258). London: Hogarth Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures in psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc..

    Google Scholar 

  33. Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. Transl. by David Mclintock. New York: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Fuchs, T. (2000). Psychopathologie von Leib und Raum. Phänomenologisch-empirische Untersuchungen zu depressiven und paranoiden Erkrankungen. Darmstadt: Steinkopff.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Fuchs, T. (2001). Melancholia as a desynchronization. Towards a psychopathology of interpersonal time. Psychopathology, 34, 179–186.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Fuchs, T. (2005). Corporealized and disembodied minds. A phenomenological view of the body in melancholia and schizophrenia. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 12, 95–107.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Fuchs, T. (2010) Das Unheimliche als Atmosphäre. In: K. Andermann, U. Eberlein (Hrsg.) Gefühle als Atmosphären, pp. 167–182. Akademie Verlag, Berlin.

  38. Fuchs, T. (2012). The phenomenology of body memory. In S. Koch, T. Fuchs, M. Sum-ma, & C. Müller (Eds.), Body memory, metaphor and movement (pp. 9–22). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Fuchs, T. (2013). Temporality and psychopathology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12, 75–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Fuchs, T. (2017). Collective body memories. In C. Durt, T. Fuchs, & C. Tewes (Eds.), Embodiment, enaction and culture. Investigating the constitution of the shared world (pp. 333–352). Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Fuchs, T. (forthc.). The ‘as if’ function and its loss in schizophrenia. In M. Summa, T. Fuchs, & L. Vanzago (Eds.), Imagination, intersubjectivity and perspective-taking. New York: Routledge.

  42. Fuchs, T., Koch, S. (2014). Embodied affectivity: on moving and being moved. Fron-tiers in Psychology. Psychology for Clinical Settings 5: Article 508, pp. 1–12.

  43. Grimby, A. (1993). Bereavement among elderly people: Grief reactions, postbereavement hallucinations and quality of life. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 87, 72–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Haas, E. T. (2002) Orpheus und Eurydike. Vom Ursprungsmythos des Trauerprozesses. In: E. T. Haas, … und Freud hat doch Recht. Die Entstehung der Kultur durch Transformation der Gewalt, pp. 137-154. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag.

  45. Haas, E. T. (2006). Transzendenz-Verlust und Melancholie. Depression und Sucht im Schatten der Aufklärung. Gießen: Psychosozial Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Hertz, R. (1907) Contribution à une étude sur la représentation collective de la mort. Année sociologiques 10: 48-137. Engl. Transl. “A contribution to the study of the collective representation of death”, in: R. Hertz (1960) Death and the right hand (trans. R. Needham, C. Needham). London: Cohen & West.

  47. Hultkrantz, A. (1957). The north American Indian Orpheus tradition (p. 2). A contribution to comparative religion. Stockholm: The Ethnographical Museum of Sweden.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Husserl, E. (1974). Formale und Transzendentale Logik. Husserliana XVII. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Irish, D. P., Lundquist, K. F., & Nelsen, V. J. (2014). Ethnic variations in dying, death and grief: Diversity in universality. London: Taylor & Francis.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Jentsch, E. (1906). Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen. Psychiatrisch-Neurologische Wochenschrift, 22(195–198), 203–205.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Kalish, R. A., & Reynolds, D. K. (1973). Phenomenological reality and post-death contact. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12, 209–221.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Kessler, H. H. (1951). Psychological preparation of the amputee. Industrial Medicine & Surgery, 20, 107–108.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Washington: Taylor & Francis.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Klugman, C. M. (2007). Narrative phenomenology: Exploring stories of grief and dying. In N. E. Johnston & A. Scholler-Jaquish (Eds.), Meaning in suffering: caring practices in the health professions (pp. 144–185). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Kreitman, N. (1988). Suicide, age and marital status. Psychological Medicine, 18, 121–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The emotional brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

  58. Lewis, C. S. (1961) A grief observed. London: Faber. (retrieved as HarperCollins ebook, London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

  59. MacMahon, B., & Pugh, T. F. (1965). Suicide in the widowed. American Journal of Epidemiology, 81, 23–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224–253.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Minkowski, E. (1970). Lived time: phenomenological and psychopathological studies. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Parkes, C. M. (1972a). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life. London: Tavistock.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Parkes, C. M. (1972b). Components of the reaction to loss of a limb, spouse or home. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 16, 343–349.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Parkes, C. M., Laungani, P., & Young, B. (1997). Death and bereavement across cultures. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  65. Ratcliffe, M. (2008) Feelings of being. Phenomenology, psychiatry and the sense of reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  66. Ratcliffe, M. (2015). Relating to the dead: social cognition and the phenomenology of grief. In T. Szanto & D. Moran (Eds.), The phenomenology of sociality: discovering the ‘we’ (Vol. 3, pp. 202–218). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Rees, W. D. (1971). The hallucinations of widowhood. British Medical Journal, 4, 37–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Riley, D. (2012). Time lived, without its flow. London: Capsule Edition.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Robben, A. C. (Ed.). (2009). Death, mourning, and burial: a cross-cultural reader. Hoboken: Wiley.

  70. Rodemeyer, L. M. (2006). Intersubjective temporality: It's about time. Berlin: Springer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  71. Rosenblatt, P. C., Walsh, R. P., & Jackson, D. A. (1976). Grief and mourning in cross-cultural perspective. New York: H.R.A.F Press.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Scherer, K. R. (2005). What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information, 44, 695–729.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Schmitz, H. (2005). Der Gefühlsraum. Bonn: Bouvier.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Shaver, P. R., & Tancredy, C. M. (2001). Emotion, attachment, and bereavement: A conceptual commentary. In M. S. Stroebe & R. O. Hansson (Eds.), Handbook of bereavement research: consequences, coping, and care (pp. 63–88). Washington: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Stern, D. N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant: a view from psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  76. van Gennep, A. (1909) Les rites de passage. Paris: Emile Nourry. (Engl. The rites of passage. Transl. M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee. Chicago: Chicago University Press 1960).

Download references

Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the valuable comments of Werner Balzer, Barbara Pieper, Michela Summa and two anonymous reviewers on earlier versions of this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas Fuchs.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Grief
  • Bereavement
  • Phenomenology
  • Ambiguity
  • Intercorporeality
  • Grief work
  • Identification
  • Representation