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.

ways of being (human) that were never sovereign

I’ve always been interested in people who don’t do as they’re told. They excite me, intellectually and personally. In my current work I am interested in those that are seen to have failed to recover from their grief over losing someone. What’s interesting is that it is hard, if not impossible, to identify cultural examples of someone who hasn’t recovered. The non-recovered mourner – like Freud’s melancholic – is the silent, shadowed figure that strikes fear in all us as we inevitably face the loss of someone we love. This is partly because in the modern rhetoric of recovery everyone is always on the road to recovery, and even if we haven’t faced a traumatic event we are (or should be)  always on the way to bettering ourselves, trying to be happier, grasping that elusive ‘good life’ fantasy. The non-recovered are read as resistant, refusing, problematic, troublemakers because they appear to be actively rejecting the normative fantasies to which we are all obligated to subscribe. There was a telling moment in episode three of the Channel 4 programme Bedlam (an insight into the work and patients of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital), where we see a social worker knocking on the door of the home of a woman whose health he feared was taking a ‘downward spiral’. “Why are we going to these lengths when she is living the life she chooses?”, he remarks. And yet the woman, Rosie, was deemed as not having the mental capacity to make a choice, and so by law choices had to be made for her.

Many things are happening here and here’s a few to point out: having capacity to make a decision is part of what is considered to be a functional, mentally fit, human being yet these decisions and choices have to fit into a pre-existing framework that already decides for you what is normal and what is not normal, e. g. going to work, waged labour, owning a home = normal; singing Christmas carols to yourself in July, having a fear of bedbugs = not normal. Being normal then could be seen as more about making the ‘right’ decisions than about the level of perceived control one has over the decision. Yet we are encouraged to believe that by virtue of being human we have sovereign control over our lives, our behaviour, and our choices. The problem with sovereignty is that when someone makes a choice society at large disagrees with, and this could range from being overweight or a refusal of a 9-5 capitalist regime, it is deemed a fault of the individual. The problem individual just needs to be turned to face the ‘right’ way. In what follows I am going to attempt to unpack the notion of sovereignty by heavily drawing on Lauren Berlant’s ”Cruel Optimism’ to consider how sovereignty can be unsettled by affective experiences such as grief and love and can only ever be an aspirational concept that might better be expressed as a temporary display of ‘composure.’ Composure, as detailed in the middle section, is also worn thin by an unending desire for the good life where for the worker the act of reproducing life is also the means of being worn out by it. In closing I start to move on from Berlant and think about what responses might be possible to an attachment to a wearing way of life that is not working.

i. How can I keep my composure?

Sovereignty, in a truncated form, is about having the power over one’s life and having the ability or capacity to decide how you live your life. Sovereignty is mostly used on political terms, as in the sovereignty of the head of state. As a ‘death’ scholar, I explore the ways sovereignty is interrupted, and eventually destroyed, through the inevitable act of death. Ideas of sovereignty, and autonomy have only ever appeared to me as unsustainable pipe dreams, that provide at times a necessary illusion in the face of getting on with life.

In a previous post I argued that melancholia and the refusal to recover or let go of attachments to the dead can not only be read as a sign of pathology but might be understood as an active choice to not be sovereign. This presents a contradictory twist – the right of choice we have over our lives can also be used to reject those choices. But there is also something more subtle taking place, it is about injecting the unconscious into the intentionality of the subject. It is suggesting that certain affective experiences such as love and grief can reveal to us we often do not know to what we are tied and why, the one who refuses to recover might not be aware of the ways they are attached to something that is actually becoming an obstacle to their ability to live a life. We rarely get to choose what interrupts our lives or the attachments we forge to people, to ideas, to habits, to objects. Grieving and being in love are great exemplars where these features are exaggerated, where to be able to grieve and to be able to love require violating the attachment to our own intentionality, our sense of sovereignty. Why is it, we wonder, that when we are around a certain person we cannot keep our composure?

Composure is something we try to keep, maintain or that we lose. It is the ‘default’ setting, it’s something already there. Showing the right levels of composure at the right time is all part of the performance of normal. Composure is a way of holding the self, it is a maintainance of social identity, it helps provide a distance from our desires. A healthy level of composure is required in order to function and perform well in a world where losing one’s composure brings shame, or is read as incapacity, madness. The anxiety we feel over the struggle to keep our composure around certain people is a struggle over the fear of being mis-recognised by those whose recognition is so fundamental to our sense of self. I decided to do away with sovereignty too following Berlant when grief taught me that other people undo us over and over in ways we are unable to predict and control. These sort of experiences reinforce the importance of composure whilst simultaneously it’s fragility becomes all too apparent. But in the face of loss composure is about all you have to protect you. Keeping your composure means the world can come up to you when you choose and you can keep it at a distance. You can protect yourself from the world, other people, from coming in and interrupting you again.

Then love taught me that composure is only a holding ground until you find an environment in which you can relinquish your composure. Love doesn’t let you keep your composure, it’s too greedy. Composure is willed not natural, love is fantasy, not conscious – that comes later.  A sense of sovereignty is considered a part of being a functional citizen and yet the moments of non-sovereignty are paradoxically seen as the moments where life truly takes place. Finding an easy friend, needing someone, thinking about someone, is what colours the otherwise weary days. It’s not so much the dependency that lifts the spirits but the chance to be recognised by another, for them to say ‘I see you’, for us to ‘feel ourselves’. I got obsessed with the MTV programme ‘Catfish’ as it documents a fascinating array of moments of misrecognition, of misplaced fantasies and overwhelming investments in a desired other. But as Catfish reveals, this sense of recognition is only the misrecognition we can bear, what we want to believe. We let someone carry an image of us, better than the one we can hold of ourselves.

ii. …never enough money, never enough love, and barely any rest…

Stories of love are all too often the plaster that fills in the cracks of the everyday overwhelmed life. Berlant’s ‘Cruel Optimism’ is remarkable in numerous regards but particularly in the way she describes how in modern industrial society the act of reproducing life (working for a living) is also the means of being worn out by it. We might not be fighting life and death on a daily basis, in fact the clinical, sanitized workplace might feel very detached from anything quite like a real experience. There’s something very ordinary about the crises encountered in the modern workplace. The labour is numbing and mundane, but still the dangers of precarity, little money, little time, work stress, and an exhaustion so very old and new all at the same time, feels pressingly real. As Berlant argues the feeling of deterioration is a fundamental part of the experience of modern working life. This not about a desire for the good life; it is the search for a less bad life. It is about finding resting places, someone who might understand our struggles, spacing out in mindless entertainment or seeking nourishment in food not for thought.

And modern life does provide pockets of intimacy to distract and soothe our overloaded sensorium: selling smiles and anecdotes on dating sites, or picking up whatever you can find on the weekend for some quick thrills and empty affection, or sleeping with him/her in the office.  We are provided with things that promise reprieve but not repair: sex, mindfulness courses, energy drinks, all help keep the machine running smoothly, help us to catch up with a present that is always already happening too quickly. We’re keeping our composure even in intimate relations, discomposure is too unsettling, we haven’t time to come undone. The situations within which lie the potential for change are kept at bay – even the previous radical practices: mindfulness, yoga, are emptied out, re-branded and co-opted as a form of niceness production that keep us striving for the status quo. We’re not aiming for the horizon, just spreading out sideways, passing under the radar. But this is not a comfortable position, there’s little safety inhabiting the normal. It is a constant bargaining with what you can bear.

iii. The concrete realisation of being the odd one out.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the boundaries of normal are shifting all the time. This is what learning a bit of history can give you. ‘Doing your homework’ as Gayatri Spivak would say. This might sound less dramatic than it actually is. Encountering the fact that the prescriptions of the ‘good life’ you are encouraged to follow are not inevitable, and are in fact quite disagreeable, is the first step in the realisation of being the odd one out. Staying proximate to normality is a way of keeping out of view, toeing the line, not ruffling feathers. This is easily done if you happen to be born and grow up in a environment that is in line with the normative discourses on how best to live a life.  But you might grow up as always already the outsider. You’re the odd one out without even trying. Either way, interruptions can work to destabilize the most comfortable of existences – the wearing out of working life, death, loss, scouring love – can elucidate in an often very banal and depressing way that the life you were living was held up by a series of attachments: to a person, a job, an ideology, a cat, or anything in which you had invested your sense of endurance about life. Losing that thing, interrupting the fantasy to which you had attached to it, is I think crucial in coming to a critical awareness of the world in which you live. I don’t know, this is just a hunch, but I think there has to be a loss. Even if not tangible, just the process of losing your sense of privilege.  I don’t think there can be sovereignty in freedom. This is a view contrary to perhaps most movements that seek freedom, such as the recovery movement in mental health care, where freedom is conflated with reclaiming autonomy.

Discovering you are the odd one out, in my view is rather not about reclaiming sovereignty or autonomy but about dispensing with it entirely. Being the odd one out might sound like a passive position, but whilst yes you may feel as though you do not fit, you are also not accepting the life on offer. Who rejects who first is hard to tell, and perhaps not important. The rejection is not necessarily conscious either, we might spend many tiring years attempting to pass as normal before we realise that we had already given up on believing in the sustainability of this form of life a long time ago. This lag might mean we come to this impasse a little late, or not at all.

Talk of freedom might seem too corny and idealistic for jaded ears but again this might sound less radical than it actually is. It is a response that says: don’t try and reason, persuade, convince, expend energy as it does not serve you. When the system does not respect you, you owe nothing to it and you can make yourself free. And when I say freedom, I’m not speaking in sugarcoated tones, freedom without sovereignty is entering into what I can only describe as the realm of the ‘I don’t know’. It’s a liminal space, without boundaries or form, it is being in transit without knowing where it is leading. If you decide to reject the fantasies of the good life, than this is what you get. How to build a world that is not hopeless? Where to find a life worth living? In the liminal space of ‘I don’t know’ there is all to experience and different roads to go down. Choice is not pragmatic but whimsical. In this liminal space subjectivity is allowed the space to be non-sovereign, to be incoherent, changeable. We can mourn, love and lose our composure. The challenge is to find a sense of stability built through not being attached to what we attach to. Some call this nomadic theory, but I quite like unequal attachments that are sticky and messy. We might never quite become the person they wanted us to be, but in this liminal space of becoming the odd one out, unlike the cruel optimism of the fantastical good life, there are multiple exits.


Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.