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Disenfranchised Grief

Written by Therapist Judy P. King, LCSW, BCD

People tend to think that time heals all wounds but the reality for most people is that time simply teaches us to live with our losses, our hurts and disappointments. The concept of disenfranchised grief was originally proposed in the mid-1980’s by Kenneth Doka, PhD, formerly a professor of gerontology, a consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America and the author of numerous books about grief. He coined the term of disenfranchised grief in 1987 to describe the sorrow associated with situations that stand outside of society’s norms of “legitimate” loss. It refers to the emotional aftermath of losses that are not acknowledged or validated by others. It describes a solitary state in which individuals are unable to mourn openly and most often suffer in silence. These individuals believe or are made to feel that they are not entitled to the acts of kindness typically provided when bereavement is socially sanctioned or that their losses are not worthy of grief, or that their feelings are inappropriate.

There are many contexts in which disenfranchised grief may arise, the most common as identified by Doka is when others don’t recognize relationships such as those involving ex-spouses, same sex partners, or individuals who have a secret relationship or an extramarital affair. They don’t acknowledge the loss as being significant such as a divorce, the death of an adult siblings, loss of a child in a stillbirth, miscarriage, or abortion, the loss of one’s pet, a job, or one’s own health. It can also be seen in cases of socially stigmatized death’s due to suicide, AIDs or substance abuse. In each of these cases, the grievers have lost a significant relationship along with the comfort of shared or public mourning and the social embrace that facilitates healthy grieving and the ability to shoulder the pain associated with loss.

Doka explained that grief may be disenfranchised not only by society but by the individual themselves. Individuals may keep their feelings inside because they do not feel that they have the right to grieve. Not only does Doka express that the disenfranchised grief is associated with death or any of the above losses, he also points out that it can be experienced by individuals with losses related to genetic identity, family separation or family secrets. He points out that the relationship may be related to the loss of a fantasy of a relationship that the individual wanted to have. He acknowledges that at times when kinship roles are not recognized, he adds that the right to grieve is also not recognized. Disenfranchised grief can also come into play in secrets around adoptions, birth parents, or donor parents. The grief and loss are often surrounding the search for biological parents or at times when the reception received when contacting a biological parent is not what they expected or hoped for.

For all the losses mentioned above, it is a good bet that few people will stand with the individual in any rituals of mourning because in many cases there are no such rituals. You can surely bet that there will be no Hallmark cards or casseroles dropped off by friends or family members. There are no rituals to mourn birth parents or relationships that you have never had. What does it matter if others don’t understand? Social acknowledgement of losses is important because we are social beings and we require it. Individuals become over-showed by the grief. Many people experience all of the following:

To cope with disenfranchised grief, you must acknowledge your feelings and understand that they are legitimate. You must own them and realize that you are entitled to them and most of all identify them as grief. It is important to consider how you have handled grief and loss in the past. Pull from your historic strengths and utilize them as these will be different for everyone. Rituals of mourning also play a role in helping individuals to mourn and integrate the experience of the loss into their lives. If the individual has been excluded or prohibited from participating in the rituals and not been supported in their sorrow, it may be necessary to create a therapeutic ritual. This can be helpful even if the loss occurred in the past but there was not an opportunity to mourn. It is never too late to create these healing rituals.

While others may want you to rush though your grief journey, you must remember that you do not operate on any timeline but your own. What people are saying is that they want you to stop behaving in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. They want you to go back to what they perceive as normal. However, your normal is never going to be that normal anymore because the loss has now changed your reality. People’s perception of grief is that it is that it is a linear process in that you simply just work straight through it. Realistically, it is anything but that and varies per individual. The picture below is much more characteristic of actual grief.

Individuals who experience disenfranchised grief need to be supported by those around them who acknowledge the great emotional and psychological costs that it takes for them to be “strong” rather than allowing themselves to mourn and feel the loss that they have encountered. However, because others do not always provide support or if it is simply not available, the loss may be internalized resulting in what is defined as complicated grief which simply put is grief with no resolution. When people are invalidated, they tend to suppress their true feelings for fear of being judged which interferes with the bereavement process. Individuals can begin to experience difficulty in performing their normal daily activities, develop a sense of purposelessness, experience a longing for the object of the loss and maintain an intense focus on the loss. Pre-existing mental health issues can be exacerbated including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and even PTSD. Worse yet is that individuals with disenfranchised grief may not seek help due to past fears and the general feeling that no one can simply understand their loss.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the individual must first recognize and own their grief. It can be helpful to find a good therapist, or support group where you can process your loss and begin to integrate it into your new normal. Regardless of what the identified loss is, it will alter your life from that point onward and you simply must develop a different view of how your life will be without the loss going forward. If you struggle with disenfranchised grief, counseling can offer you a path to help with defining your new normal.

This article was prepared by Judy P. King, LCSW, BCD in memory of those that who were loved beyond words but are no longer with us. Ms. King may be reached by contacting Sunflower Counseling Services, PLLC at 901-232-1956 or you may contact Ms. King directly at 901-451-8076.

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