This summary of ontological grief is a snippet from a book chapter in progress, and is not completed.
Here, our ontological assessment of grief takes its direction from the ontological framework of Martin Heidegger, namely the ontology presented in Being and Time. That is, our ontology is distinct from Husserlian intentionality, Kantian idealism, and Cartesian substantiality. Here, we reject any notions of dualism—that reality is divided into a thinking, mental subject, and an outside object, that reality is comprised of mind separated from body. In order to get to the structure of ontological grief, we need to establish a few concepts.
For Heidegger, we already inhabit a world which is comprised of significant referential relations of equipment, and are already “with” others. That is, we already inhabit a world which is full of contexts of meaning and social practices and other people. Heidegger calls this phenomenon being-in-the-world. We’re already familiar with and dwell in a world of meaningful equipment and others. This already-being-in in a context of relevance is called thrownness.
Dasein, that is, human beings, take a stand on their own Being in the world. In Being and Time, Heidegger lays out three different modalities of Being which belong to equipment and Dasein. These include: readiness-to-hand, presence-at-hand, and existentiality. Readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand both belong to the mode of Being of equipment, and existentiality belongs to Dasein. Readiness-to-hand is the mode of using equipment in an average everyday way, where the equipment becomes withdrawn in its activity of being in use. When we use the hammer in its activity of hammering, it becomes invisible to us; we don’t think about the hammer in an analyzing way. It goes unnoticed in our usage of it. This withdrawing is called circumspection. On the other hand, presence-at-hand is the mode of Being of analyzing in a theoretical, ontic, scientific way. What is ascertained in the present-at-hand mode of Being has become conspicuous to our circumspection. When we encounter a broken hammer, it sticks out to us in our circumspection, and the ready-to-hand mode of dealing in the world breaks down and becomes unready-to-hand; the hammer is now conspicuous and explicit before our view, just lying there. From here, we can take a theoretical, ontic, scientific view of presence-at-hand.
In our assessment of ontological grief, we introduce some new terms to the Heideggerian ontology. Firstly, as we have said, Dasein’s mode of Being is existentiality. That is, only beings like Dasein can take a stand on their own Being. It does not mean to imply that other beings do no “exist”. Other beings are indeed “existent”, that is, present within the world; but only beings like Dasein can take a stand on their own Being, on their own existence. This existentiality of Dasein—the capability of Dasein to take a definite stand, we term readiness-to-existence. Existentiality is made possible by readiness-to-existence. Readiness-to-existence can be understood as that when existing (taking a stand) is being successful in circumspection and one is outwardly content and absorbed in the flow of circumspection; the everyday way of going about work and dealing in the world. In this average everyday way of dealing in the world we can take advantage of certain things: health, contentment, relationships, the working order or “in good repair” of equipment, and the general taking advantage of things going well.
While Dasein is taking a stand on its Being, in its activity of ready-to-exist existentiality, it can become faced with certain things like death, loss, unfulfillment, damage, and condemnation (all of which have an underlying ontological structure), which break down the everyday way of dealing in the world ready-to-exist. We term this breakdown of readiness-to-existence, unreadiness-to-existence.
Within unreadiness-to-existence, what went taken advantage of in the ready-to-exist mode of Being becomes explicit and grasped as something which is no longer able to be cared for. What has been taken advantage of becomes ascertained as such in the unready-to-exist reflection, which reflects on these matters. This gives rise to an attuned regretfulness which discloses the entirety of world (referential relations of equipment, being-in, and self) as broken. Attunement in Heidegger means something like mood—attunement becomes concrete in mood—an attuned mood. Attunement indicates how one is “getting along”. We can be attuned to things like fear and anxiety, or love and general contentment, and these ways of being attuned disclose the world—in its referential relations of equipment, our ways of being-in, and our relation to ourself and others.
When something like loss happens, we respond emotionally to the ontic immediate, and the initial shock or sadness can last X amount of time. Later, when we have moved beyond the first immediate emotional response of the loss, in the unready-to-exist reflection, through attuned regretfulness, the world becomes disclosed as being damaged or broken—and this discloses ontological grief.
This ontological grief which is disclosed in the unready-to-exist reflection is understood as a being-toward the beloved—a way of taking a stand on the fact that the beloved is gone, has perished, has become de-worlded. There is no more possibility for intimacy or connection with the beloved. With this ontological grief, unready-to-exist reflection can also disclose things like sadness and saudade. Unready-to-exist reflection is a wellspring for attunement. What comes from it is always attuned.
As said, this first disclosure of grief is a dealing with the fact that the beloved is gone and de-worlded; but this is inauthentic ontological grief. Authentic ontological grief can be understood as an attitude or way of taking a stand on the fact that the beloved (or oneself) will die or leave. Authentic ontological grief is a sort of preparation for this possibility.
In conclusion: inauthentic ontological grief is reactionary; authentic ontological grief is proactive and anticipatedly resolute.