politics of the hap

Navigating the liminal space of grief
June 29, 2014, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

Navigating the liminal space of grief. Paper presented at the Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin, June 2014.

Points of Departure ICA Jumana Emil Abboud I Feel Nothing 2012-blxigW_0

Jumana Emil Abboud – I Feel Nothing, 2012.

It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. The experience of grief has been described as having the potential to destabilise the world one lives in and shatter the meanings people use to hold up their world.

The experience of grief can feel like a loss of origins and a loss of a dwelling place. The potential of grief to dis-embed people from their sense of being in the world suggests the importance of space and place in the experience of grief.

Following on from this sense of disorientation at the event of loss, I seek to suggest in this paper that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space.

Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable.

Following Yi-Fu Tuan in his seminal text ‘Space and Place’ I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscape, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries.

Grief and Place

There has been much research exploring how the deceased and dead bodies are located in place as well as how the dead are memorialised in certain places.

These studies have explored how landscapes can work to contain or relocate the deceased as part of the process of grieving and memorialising.

Studies have also demonstrated how death is often located in spaces behind the scenes of day-to-day life.

kurt cobain bench

With the death of public figures in particular we tend to see the creation of public memorials, which also receive a lot of media coverage. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Jade Goody and of course Princess Diana for example provoked widespread public forms of memorialising. The picture here is a replica produced by the artist Graham Dolphin of the bench once frequented by Kurt Cobain that subsequently became a fan shrine following his death.

The ways in which people memorialise their dead ones in contemporary society has highlighted some of the paradoxes around how death and dying is hidden from view and yet creative public mourning seen in roadside memorials and online memorials have made grief visible.

In Avril Maddrell’s (2009, 2010) research she argues these these public places of memorialisation are ‘permeable’ places, which reinvent and negotiate traditional rituals, blurring the boundaries between secular and sacred practices. Places of memorialisation are liminal spaces, that serve to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.

Liminal Objects


It is not only places but also objects that act to tie people to their dead ones. People hold onto to certain objects of the people they have lost, items are passed down as heirlooms, photographs help keep the memory of the deceased alive, all of which are used to help manage grief.

Work by Paul Koudounaris has explored the role of skull rituals amongst the indigenous communities of Bolivia. People believe these skulls bring them good fortune, and they bestow the skulls with names and identities. These are not the skulls of deceased family members just unknown skulls. An annual festival is held in Bolivia to bless and celebrate their skulls, in likeness with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.

These liminal objects can be seen then as a way to bring death into the routine of living, as well as a way of maintaining bonds with dead ones.

The meaning of spaces therefore has a role to play in how death and grief are experienced, not only in the spaces of the cemetery or the funeral home where death is expected to be but also in the everyday familiar spaces such as the home.

However, though the meaning of spaces and landscapes of grief has begun to be explored further, I would like to suggest that grief itself should be seen as a space in its own right. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into.

Grief as linear process

Grief theories have tended to view grief as a linear process that involves a number of stages and phases to move through. These have varied and been adapted over time but the idea of grief stages is one that remains prevalent in popular discourse on grief. The first stage is normally shock and denial moving through to acceptance with some depression and anger along the way.

The focus in grief recovery is on acceptance or adaptation or restoration. Following bereavement people are encouraged to either in some sense return back to the life they had before, or to move on, as though grief is an experience that casts people outside of what is considered the normal realm of everyday experience.

Bereavement is often seen as an occasion for transformation (being better than before) or professional intervention (due to failing to act correctly), that is to say it becomes an extraordinary experience, outside of the ordinary and mundane.

Following bereavement people are encouraged to reintegrate back into society and to return back to a sense of ‘normality’, but where exactly does the experience of grieving cast people out to?

Grief as a liminal space

And what might it mean to view grief as a liminal space?

Victor Turner (Turner, 1974, 1982) utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep from his book Rites de Passage (1909) to develop his definition of liminality.

Van Gennep in his anthropological studies outlined three stages in a rite of passage undergone by members of tribal societies: the initial stage of separation from one’s group or society, the middle stage of liminality and the final stage of reintegration. It was the middle stage of liminality which Turner explored further; the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities and freed from the normative obligations they imply. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begin. In a state of liminality individuals stand outside not only their own social position but all social positions. A space of liminality is full of potential for transformation and for experimentation and exploring alternative avenues, or in other words it is a space of ‘becoming’.

The space of liminality can provide limitless opportunity to forge new identities and allow for creativity and subversive acts due to the eradication of the normal structures that tend to inhibit or obstruct behaviour. In a liminal space there are potentially multiple avenues to follow. Yet a liminal space is also a space of heightened affectivity, uncertainty and insecurity.

In a liminal, insecure, and uncertain space people may seek out models of behaviour to follow and imitate. These models may appear to be contrary to their own interests, but in favour of other interests; on the other hand they may be against the interests of others but in favour of their own. But under liminal conditions the idea of interests is superfluous for there is no structure with which to objectively define ‘interest’ against. For this reason, rituals and customs are used in order to help people navigate through the space. So whilst a liminal space provides opportunities and possibilities the space is highly determined to guide people in a particular direction. In Turner’s description of liminality, these rituals and customs serve to provide staging to the process, not in order to close down options, but to facilitate a productive becoming.

In terms of grieving, rituals such as funeral rites and traditional burial customs have historically been considered to assist the mourning process. In contemporary society, services and interventions such as bereavement therapy, medication, or treatment for complicated forms of grief as well as popular self-help books that proscribe steps through the process, like the stage model as already mentioned, similarly act to assist people through the liminal space of grief to what is considered to be the agreed ‘good’ ending.

In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief and how they guide people through liminality towards what is viewed as a successful recovery.

In contrast to dominant grief theories that look to the individual and the psyche for explanations I am focussing my attention on the space and the environment in which people are located and how and why the discourses that dominate that space are constructed and popularised as truth.

A (flourishing) Impasse

In this space of liminality people may also undertake their own habits or practices as a way to bring stability, to ward off the threat of chaos and destruction which are far more likely in the ambiguous state of liminality. These habits might include behaviours considered to be unproductive to the recovery process, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, avoidance, and dwelling on the past. Yet I would argue these ‘bad’ habits and attachments might also be read as a strategy people use to maintain a foothold in the liminal process.

The sort of questions I am posing in my research are why people may choose to follow some models and not others and why do some people follow and invest in the model of recovery and why do some fail to imitate this model effectively or resist the model altogether?

Conceptualising grief as a liminal space then is to problematise the idea of a ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ process of grief often promoted in grief theories. Whilst there are normal processes to follow this does not make them natural, and these vary depending on the theory that is popularised in any given social and political context.

In Turner’s concept of liminality there is more emphasis placed on the importance of experimenting and play, and undertaking activities that do not follow a linear pattern. The time restraints placed on grieving, as demonstrated in the diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder where the display of grieving symptoms at 6 months following bereavement could lead to clinical intervention, could be seen as a way to reintegrate people who have been cast into this space of liminality where time and order no longer exist, back into a linear routinised sense of time.

Grief as a liminal space can be seen as providing an impasse in which people can reflect upon alternative modes of living and identities without the concern for working towards an immediate future.

Losing and drawing new boundaries

Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience (thus relying on an assumption that the experience of living is either normal or abnormal) but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. This can allow for the exploration and uncovering of how the boundaries of appropriate and normal grieving are drawn and how the different theories, policies, and practices around grief are wrestled with; both conflicting and connecting with one another in a complex interface through which grief emerges as an identifiable object. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.

Its is hoped that in this paper I have begun to outline how the grieving person might navigate and negotiate their way through the liminal space of grief. In a space of liminality all choices are equal, that does not make them meaningless, simply that the goal or end point of endeavour is still open to question. By incorporating the concept of liminality and comparing the experience of grief to that of being in a liminal space I am arguing that grief be viewed as more than something to be overcome.



Maddrell, A. (2009). A place for grief and belief: the Witness Cairn, Isle of Whithorn, Galloway, Scotland. Social & Cultural Geography, 10(6), 675–693.

Maddrell, A. (2010). Memory , Mourning and Landscape in the Scottish Mountains: Discourses of Wilderness, Gender and Entitlement in Online Debates on Mountainside Memorials. In E. Anderson, A. Maddrell, K. McLoughlin, & A. Vincent (Eds.), Memory, Mourning, Landscape (pp. 123–145). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Maddrell, A., & Sidaway, J. (Eds.). (2010). Deathscapes: Spaces for death, dying, mourning and rememberance. Surrey: Ashgate.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.