Disenfranchised Grief

“Disenfranchised grief” is when your heart is but you can’t talk about or share your pain with others because it is considered unacceptable to others. It’s when you’re sad and miserable and the world doesn’t think you should be, either because you’re not “entitled” or because it isn’t “worth it.”

See if any of these examples of disenfranchised grief ever applied to you:

Your relationship is not recognized by others because they didn’t know you had a close relationship.

This can occur when there is a miscarriage; a friendship not known to the family; caregivers such as a health professional when a patient dies; when you are extremely close with someone and someone they love is dying of has died; or the family knows about the relationship, but doesn’t know how close it was.  It could also occur because you had to give up a child for adoption or if you were given up for adoption.  Children can experience disenfranchised grief when they experience a loss and their grief is not acknowledged.

Your loss isn’t a person.

Examples that fall in this category are beloved animals, your failed marriage, your unfulfilled dreams, a financial loss or business loss, a loss of health, the loss of a loved one’s functioning (such as in the case of Alzheimer’s).

Your relationship was real, but the family (or members of society) would not or does not approve.

This can occur if there is a so-called non-traditional relationship such as a homosexual relationship, especially when the person who died wasn’t out or if there is discrimination in the family.  It can also occur if a family member is estranged.   A stigmatized relationship like an extra-marital affair or when a woman has an abortion are other examples of this.

Another example of this is when a relationship ends in divorce, but members of the grieving person’s church does not approve of the divorce or the divorce is against church doctrine.  This can be difficult because not only is your support group not supportive, but you may feel ashamed and afraid to connect with your religion or spirituality while grieving.  It can also happen when an engagement or marriage fails and you were connected to your family member’s partner or your family member’s family (aka your in-laws – whether official or not).

The way the person died is not as supported as other deaths.

This occurs when the death or the deceased person’s actions while alive are stigmatized by society as with deaths from suicide, a drug overdose, AIDS, a war, violence, or alcoholism. Sometimes a death of a person who had a long life is more discounted than someone younger.

You aren’t grieving how people expect.

This can happen when the way you are acting in your grief is unsettling or confusing to someone else. If you are “too upset” or “not upset enough” or the grief is “lasting too long” are only a few examples of this.

If you’re experiencing any of the above (or something similar), you need to know that you are entitled to your grief. Nobody has the right to take away your grief, and it is their failing — not yours — that makes your grief “unacceptable.”

Disenfranchised grief happens because your love and care for the object of your grief isn’t recognized. It happens because others don’t understand. It happens because you’re sure that others won’t understand. And it happens because you fear that everyone else will think that the grief you’re experiencing is somehow your fault.

And in certain situations you may be right — not the part about it being your fault (because it isn’t!) — but because there are certain situations where people try to turn their own pain and anguish outward at the nearest convenient target. Or they’re just super-judgmental people.

In any event, it is not your fault — it’s not like any of us can control who or what we care about — and you have a right to your grief, your style of grief or your reason for grief for one reason: because you are grieving.

If you feel grief, then it is your right as a human being to grieve and to grieve exactly how you need to as long as you are not hurting yourself or others.

It is also your right to be comforted, affirmed and validated.

Find someone who understands this and affirms your right to grieve and your right to grieve exactly as you need to. Tell yourself at least once each day as you live through your pain , that your love is real and that is why your grief is real. Find words of encouragement from others or books.

Enfranchise your grief. You are the only one who can when it is invisible to everyone else.  It is real and you owe it to yourself to shine the light on it.  Then, watch as the darkness begins to lessen.

~~~~~~~~~

Post-script:

Here are some other forms of disenfranchised grief have been experienced by my readers:

An “ex-step-sibling” died – they spent many years growing up together and grew very close, but their parents eventually split up and were forced to grow up apart.  This left the surviving step-sibling – who still felt very close – like a true sibling –  grieving alone and unable to attend the funeral which took place in another country.

An exchange student lived with a family for awhile and they were very close.  They found out that when she went to her home country, she was killed.

When a family adopts a child when they already have children, sometimes the existing children can be displaced, hurt, ignored, and traumatized by the adopted child.  The existing children’s grief and emotional pain is disenfranchised because the life they had before the adoption was taken away, nor are they are allowed to complain because they are supposed to be “grateful” and would be “selfish.” The burden of guilt a child feels in these situations is often overlooked and trivialized.

Grief can be felt after a divorce even if there was domestic violence.  Everybody thinks following the divorce there is only relief and freedom.  Those things are there, but it is still a loss and it is one that is often unacknowledged and disenfranchised.

Step-children and step-granchildren can sometimes feel that they don’t get to grieve as much as “real” (biological) children (you do! and your relationship is Real).  Their grief can become even more disenfranchised even more later in life if there are divorces and they become “ex-step-parents” or “ex-step-grandparents.”  Often the step-children or step-granchildren (who don’t feel like “exes” at all!!) are not included in funerals or memorials, which is obviously very hurtful and mean considering they probably included co-worker/former co-workers or friends and there were probably acquaintances and or plus ones at the funeral and memorial.

“Homesickness – in all its forms.  It’s especially painful when you are the only one in the family or group experiencing the homesickness like when you move to an unfamiliar area (like a marriage or adoption) and you are the only one in the family experiencing the deep loss.”

Source: Attig, Thomas, 2004, Disenfranchised Grief Revisited: Discounting Hope and Love. OMEGA Vol. 49(3). (Based on Kenneth Doka’s books on disenfranchised grief)

Ginkgo Leaf

Elizabeth Kupferman is a counselor in Southlake, Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth area) dedicated to helping women overcome depression, grief, and anxiety so they can find happiness and achieve their dreams.

Creative Commons License "Disenfranchised Grief" by Elizabeth Kupferman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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