Understanding Grief: Feeling, Intentionality, Regulation, and Interpretation

Matthew Ratcliffe,[1]
Becky Millar1 and
Louise Richardson1


This collection of articles arose out of the project ‘Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience’, funded by the UK Arts and Humani­ties Research Council (grant ref. AH/T000066/1). The broad aims of the project are to draw on the resources of philosophy and other disciplines in order to cast light on puzzling features of grief, while at the same time reflecting on grief in order to gain wide-ranging insights into the nature of emotional experience.

Grief is not only puzzling for those who study it, but also for those who experience it. People who are grieving often remark that the experience is profoundly disorientating and also difficult to compre­hend and articulate:

‘There are no words in the English language to actually explain how the grief feels or changes.’

‘It’s hard to put into words how devastating it feels and how alone and empty. Words don’t explain the feeling. You’re torn apart totally.’


‘The intensity of loss is so hard to describe — I’m not sure that I can begin to do it justice.’

‘I find everything about grief difficult to put into words.’

‘All of it is baffling.’[2]

Some issues relate to specific aspects of grief: what exactly is the pain of grief? What kinds of feelings does grief involve and how do they relate to other features of grief? How does grief affect memory and vice versa? Others concern the nature of grief as a whole. Grief is not an emotional episode or mood, but more plausibly a process of some kind. But what makes it a unified process rather than just a sequence of disparate experiences, and what distinguishes grief from emotional processes of other kinds?[3] What is the object of grief — what is it directed at?[4] How can an experience of grief be specifically about the person who has died and yet, at the same time, seem to envelop every­thing?[5] What are the bounds of grief — do we experience grief in response to non-death losses as well?[6] And how is grief shaped by our relations with a wider social, cultural, and technological world?

Contributors to this special issue draw on a range of perspectives in order to address questions such as these. The first two articles are concerned with specific aspects of grief.

Jennifer Radden considers whether the ‘pain’ of grief is literally pain. Taking the pain associated with localized tissue damage as our paradigm might suggest that it is not. But, Radden argues, there may be room for a second pain paradigm, based on commonalities between chronic pain, the suffering associated with depression, and the pain of grief. If this is accepted, then talk of grief’s painfulness can be taken literally. Dorothea Debus and Louise Richardson then address a puzzle about the relationship between grief and memory. How is it possible, they ask, that remembering during grief sometimes makes the past seem enjoyably present again, while at other times, in con­trast, recollections involve a painful sense of absence? They argue that an answer appealing to associated feelings of presence and absence is inadequate. Instead, they propose that the contexts in which remembering occurs can make different aspects of a memory’s phenomenological nature salient to the grieving subject on different occasions.

The three contributions that follow are all concerned with the distinctive phenomenological structure of grief and, in particular, its intentionality. Michael Cholbi attributes grief’s intentional character to the involvement of attention, where loss takes centre stage in one’s consciousness. He argues that understanding grief as an emotionally rich attentional phenomenon best accords with observations about grief’s phenomenology and metaphysics. For instance, it reflects the all-encompassing nature of the experience and the way loss gradually recedes from awareness over time. Furthermore, this approach captures the role of agency in grief and offers a new way of thinking about grief’s rationality, reframing puzzles about our apparent resilience in the face of loss. Adopting a different approach, Allan Køster offers a phenomenological analysis of a kind of feeling that underlies grief’s fluctuations and constitutes a sense of distance or detachment from the world, an aspect of experience that those who are grieving often find very difficult to conceptualize and articulate. Drawing on first-person testimonies, Køster argues that this state of ‘world-distancing’ is best understood as a type of ‘existential feeling’. He proceeds to tease out the spatial, temporal, sensory, and inter­corporeal dimensions of world-distancing, and also addresses its relationship to similar phenomena that are associated with trauma and depression. On Køster’s view, world-distancing can play a positive role in shielding the grieving subject from an intrusive world. How­ever, it can also be a significant source of suffering. Jan Slaby also emphasizes the manner in which grief can involve a profound trans­formation of experience as a whole. Drawing on Denise Riley’s Time Lived Without Its Flow (2019), he sets out an account of grief’s distinctive intentional structure. According to Slaby, one of the distinguishing features of profound grief is a disturbance of the structure of intentionality, something that is inextricable from how we experience time. By reflecting on such experiences, he suggests that we can come to recognize the role of interpersonal care as a condition of possibility for experiencing and engaging with a practically meaningful world.

Despite their differences, all five of these contributions are con­sistent with the view that grief is not an emotion, sequence of emotions, or mood, but an integrated, temporally extended process of some sort, which engages with what has happened and its implications for the shape of one’s life. The next article, by Kathleen Higgins, turns to the question of how such processes are shaped and regulated over time, by exploring ways in which people rely on music. Higgins emphasizes how grief can be profoundly disorientating, unsettling us bodily, emotionally, and interpersonally. She proposes that, when our lives are unsettled in these ways, music can play a supportive or regulative role, by providing a sense of temporal structure, movement, and shared rhythm that is lacking. Amongst other things, music harbours the potential to mitigate distress, facilitate expression and comprehension, regulate bodily feelings and dispositions, and foster a sense of connection with the surrounding world.

Following this, Jonathan Cole and Matthew Ratcliffe address, via a dialogue, the question of grief’s scope — do people also undergo grief processes in response to non-death losses and, more specifically, when faced with life-changing injury or illness? They agree that it can be illuminating to think of grief in a broad way, which encompasses experiences of loss associated with life-changing conditions. Central to experiences of grief, they propose, is a sense of lost possibilities, something that can take various different forms. They conclude by suggesting that the complex, dynamic, and diverse phenomenology of grief may have been eclipsed by a widespread tendency to think of loss in terms of a simplified, abstract conception of bereavement. Eleanor Byrne then further investigates these issues through a detailed case study: chronic fatigue syndrome. Her account aims to deflate assumed structural asymmetries between experiences of bereavement and experiences of chronic fatigue-related losses, again encouraging a more expansive conception of grief. This treatment highlights that grief’s structure is more temporally and intentionally dynamic than might be assumed — it is not always the case that grief has a singular, constant object or a clearly organized temporal structure. Byrne also shows how a consideration of grief in chronic fatigue syndrome has implications for how we think about the relationships between grief and depression, and between pathological and non-pathological varieties of grief.

Something that becomes increasingly apparent through the contribu­tions by Higgins, Cole and Ratcliffe, and Byrne is the importance of social context, interpretation, and external regulative processes in shaping how grief is experienced over time. The remaining articles investigate more specific aspects of grief’s social and cultural embeddedness. Tasia Scrutton addresses how religious interpretations can influence the experience of grief over time, by providing a detailed discussion of themes in C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961/ 1996). She argues that two distinctive aspects of Lewis’s grief — fears about sentimentally misrepresenting his wife and a pervasive sense of God’s absence — can be better understood by attending to his religious outlook. For instance, his theological ‘iconoclasm’ and his understanding of suffering as purgative both play an important role in his grief, illuminating a complex relationship between interpretation and the unfolding of experience. Joel Krueger and Lucy Osler then turn to the potential of online environments to shape the experience and course of grief, focusing on how ‘chatbots’ might influence one’s changing sense of connection with the person who has died. They propose that bots modelled upon loved ones who have died can enable the reconstruction of certain lost ‘habits of intimacy’, involving con­versational practices, emotion regulation, and shared time, thus facili­tating the establishment and maintenance of bonds with the dead. The idea of using these technologies may provoke discomfort or dis­approval due to worries that they function to replace the dead, but Krueger and Osler argue that these concerns can be assuaged since chatbots only afford a ‘thin’ form of reciprocity.

Finally, Jason Throop brings together historical, phenomenological, and cultural perspectives in order to address an important aspect of grief that is seldom considered — the sense of receiving a ‘gift’ from the deceased. In grieving the loss of a person, we can at the same time have an immediate, pre-reflective sense of presently receiving some­thing from them. More specifically, our ability to discover certain significant possibilities in situations and events is recognized as dependent on our connection with that person. Such experiences, Throop observes, show how grief is not preoccupied solely with memory and the past. In addition, a sense of personal loss can be entwined with distinctive ways of opening up possibilities — loss at the same time point to novelty. In developing this account, Throop takes us back to the time of the First World War, weaving together the grief experiences and the works of Marcel Mauss and Edmund Husserl.

Together, this collection of articles emphasizes the multifaceted, dynamic structure of grief, its intricacy and complexity, and the ways in which experiences of grief are embedded in larger social, technol­ogical, cultural, and historical contexts. It is our hope that these investigations will open up further discussion of grief and also enrich the study of emotional experience more generally.


Cholbi, M. (2017) Grief’s rationality, backward and forward, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 94 (2), pp. 255–272.

Goldie, P. (2011) Grief: A narrative account, Ratio, 24 (2), pp. 119–137.

Lewis, C.S. (1961/1996) A Grief Observed, New York: Harper Collins.

Ratcliffe, M. (2017) Grief and the unity of emotion, Midwest Studies in Philoso­phy, 41, pp. 154–174.

Ratcliffe, M. (2022) Grief Worlds: A Study of Emotional Experience, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ratcliffe, M.J., Richardson, L.F. & Millar, B. (2021) On the appropriateness of grief to its object, Journal of the American Philosophical Association. doi: 10.1017/apa.2021.55

Richardson, L., Ratcliffe, M., Millar, B. & Byrne, E. (2021) The COVID-19 pandemic and the bounds of grief, Think, 20 (57), pp. 89–101.

Riley, D. (2019) Time Lived, Without its Flow, London: Picador.

[1]      Department of Philosophy, University of York, Yorkshire, UK.

[2]      These quotations were obtained via a qualitative survey conducted as part of our project during 2020 and 2021, which received ethical approval from the Arts and Humanities Ethics Committee at the University of York. For further details, see Ratcliffe (2022, chapter 1).

[3]      See, for example, Goldie (2011) and Ratcliffe (2017).

[4]      For example, Cholbi (2017) argues that the object of grief is the transformation of our relationship with the deceased, whilst Ratcliffe, Richardson and Millar (2021) suggest that it is a network of lost life possibilities.

[5]      See Ratcliffe (2022) for discussion of this aspect of grief, and of the structure of emotional intentionality more generally.

[6]      See Richardson et al. (2021).

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