Institut for Kommunikation og Psykologi

PhD Thesis by Alfred Bordado Sköld: Relationality and Finitude - A Social Ontology of Grief

This dissertation deals with the role of grief in human life. What does it mean to be grieving creatures and how do we reckon with all the losses our lives contain? I argue that grief is existentially important because it mediates our relational and finite being. Grief is why love and death always come in pairs.

Relationality and Finitude - A Social Ontology of Grief

By Alfred Bordado Sköld

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Throughout the dissertation, I develop a social ontology of grief, drawing on psychoanalytical, existential phenomenological and deconstructive theory, arguing that the loss of someone we love will encompass a partial loss of self. There is no way of giving an account of who we are without reference to the lives that we live, and these lives are—in one way or another, shared with others. The loss of these others—be that a life partner, child, friend or colleague, will call us into question and demand an ethically charged response. In this way, ontological predicaments include ethical demands, and grief can help us understand the ways in which who we are is a matter of how we respond to others.

The dissertation is empirically based on a longitudinal interview study with fifteen bereaved life partners in different generations. In order to get to grips with grief, we need a comprehensive understanding of the way of living that has been lost. After outlining what it means to be relational, I therefore ask what it means to share life with another adult. The grief of a life partner is characterized by the loss of a loving gaze, the singularity of the other, a strong sense of we-ness and belonging, a shared everyday life, a shared home and a sense of growing old together. Having thus paved the way for what has been lost, I move on to ask what it means to live in relation to death in general and if the meaning of mortality is altered through the death of one’s partner. I develop a notion of intergenerational death awareness, arguing that the most profound consequences of loss consist in an altered relationship to others, for the bereaved life partner most noteworthy, one’s children. In the final chapter on grief, I develop a social ontology of grief, suggesting that grief testify to a loss of possibilities for living a certain life.

The dissertation has been written in a time where the question what we ought to do with grief is heavily debated due to the inclusion of Prolonged Grief Disorder in ICD-11 (WHO’s classification of diseases). In order to respond to this general question and take a qualified stance with regard to the increasingly medical understanding of grief, we need to understand the role of grief in human life. This dissertation can contribute with an argument for how grief is a necessary consequence of us being the kind of creatures that we are. I have suggested that the weight of grief should be seen in the context of us being relational and finite, and that our lives are inherently shared. In contrast to many other psychiatric diagnoses such as depression, grief is both ontologically and ethically grounded—something that our clinical dealings with it would be well advised to bear in mind. While grief is extraordinary painful, it remains a healthy side of human life—an expression of what it means to depend upon and care for others. The nature of the interview study which allowed considerable time for the interviewees to talk about their deceased partner and reflect upon existential questions in an undemanding atmosphere could likewise be seen as an appropriate way of dealing with grief.

While grief is universal in the very broad sense of reckoning with loss and experienced by all human beings, the loss of a life partner is culturally specific. That said, more than half of the worlds adult population live in some form of couple relationship, and it is suggested that an existential perspective of this way of living can provide more credible answers to why this way of living remains popular in a time where other family constellations are less stigmatized than ever and the prolongation of our species no longer depend upon it.

Within the field of grief studies, this study might contribute with a socio-ontological perspective on loss and a non-essentialist reading of what it means to “lose part of oneself.” While this trope has figured within the field for its entire history, it has often been characterized as maladjusted, dysfunctional or even pathological. My reading suggests that what has been lost is a way of living, and that this is something all bereaved people will experience. Generally, the dissertation suggest that grief research would be well informed by considering the nature of relationships that has been lost, and the existential meaning of living in relation to death.

In a time of climate crisis, a social ontology of grief could also be expanded to losses of land and ways of living, and inform our understanding of how we are dependent upon and immersed in the natural world. The capacity to be struck by loss and grieve (grievability) can be seen as a precondition for value, and until we manage to establish a mournful relation to our natural environment, it will remain very difficult to mobilize the means necessary for care and action. Grief can be seen as a symptom of what it means to be historical beings; how we share the earth with those who have been and the not yet born. Caring for future generations demands a lingering anticipatory grief and learning to manoeuvre responsibly in this blurry borderland between life and death is probably one of the most important questions of our time.

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