“Nobody understands why I should be grieving.” ~Client X
Stories of loss and grief are part of the fabric of my work. A young woman mourns the loss of her first trimester pregnancy and the baby she will never know. A man shares about the loss of a colleague for which he secretly held a flame of unrequited love. Another woman tells about her boyfriend’s sudden illness and death on the eve of their engagement.
Most people are able to share their stories of grief openly. Some are not. When a secret relationship (or one that others don’t know about or understand) ends and you feel that there’s no one to talk to about your loss, you carry it alone. This grief becomes complicated by other issues heaped on top of your sorrow – guilt, fear, resentment, depression. Often what happens in these situations is that the person shuts down and fails to grieve.
Disenfranchised grief is a term created by Kenneth Doka, a leader in the field of Gerontology and Thanatology. This is the result of losses that are not recognized, valued, accepted, or sanctioned by society. Society has rules that tell us who is entitled to grieve and who is not; who is supported in their time of grief and who is not. When a person’s grief is disenfranchised, it means that they feel that they don’t have the right to their feelings, nor should they expect sympathy from others. They feel wrong and alone. Grief goes into hiding.
Here are a few scenarios where disenfranchised grief shows up (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):
- Grief from miscarriages and abortions
- Divorce and/or death of an ex-spouse
- Loss of a pet
- Death of a loved one in an unsanctioned relationship, i.e. an affair or another kind of relationship not accepted by family/friends
- Grief from suicide, alcoholism, or drug overdose
- Caregivers or supporter’s grief
- Partner’s gender re-assignment (Male-Female or Female-Male)
- Loss of something important to you – a job or business, friendship, health, freedom, etc.
Sometimes we grieve a loss of that which we hoped for and never had or will have. Loss of the ability to have children, to have the kind of loving relationship we wanted from a parent; these kinds of losses can go unspoken on the outside but remain unresolved inside.
The nature of a relationship that is lost has a direct influence on the severity of our grief. The ones where we are likely to experience complicated grief are the ambivalent ones – for example, the death of a family member to which you have not spoken for years. The death of an abusive parent may result in the re-opening of the trauma experienced as memories of the abuse surface.
My own experience (many years ago) of miscarrying a child was a very difficult and painful one, as the pregnancy was not a welcome event at that time. The loss of the baby brought on a significant amount of grief that I could not speak to anyone about due to my own feelings of guilt and shame. I didn’t want to be judged by others about my experience, so I kept it to myself. Only later did I have the opportunity to work through the experience of profound loss and heal the pain of it with the help of a counselor.
How does it feel when you are grieving and people say to you things like, “You’re young, you’ll have other children,” “No, you are not welcome at the funeral,” “Why are you so upset – your relationship was over anyway,” “It’s only a dog, you can get another one,” These statements cut to the bone. When your feelings of loss and sorrow are minimized by others, it can lead to confusion about your right to feel that way. This results in a disconnect. When you are disconnected from your feelings, any hope of healing vanishes. You are left with simply coping.
When a client comes to me experiencing disenfranchised grief, the first thing I do is to let him/her know that they have a right to grieve. I tell them they have a right for all their feelings to be acknowledged and validated. They have a right to cry and be comforted. This in itself can be enormously healing – to have someone to talk to about the losses that others have said are not important, not appropriate, not ok.
Here are a few tips on how you can heal your disenfranchised grief:
- Talk about it. Name your grief. Express how you feel. Exercise your right to grieve. Find someone who will listen and share about your loss. Journaling, writing, blogging, etc. are also excellent methods for telling your story and sharing your thoughts and feelings.
- Create your own ritual. Being excluded from a funeral gathering of someone you love is excruciating. You may want to have your own ceremony, write a letter and burn it, light candles, visit a place of sanctuary or worship, etc. Find what feels right for you to give you a sense of closure.
- Find a way to not take it personally when people say stupid things. Also, don’t allow yourself to get sucked into a conversation that turns into a comparison of your grief against another’s grief. Remember that no one knows what it feels like to be in your shoes.
- Remind yourself you don’t have to grieve alone. Get support through a group, counseling, coaching, online community, etc.
If you, or someone you know, is going through this experience of disenfranchised grief, let today be the day where you enfranchise your experience, where you stand up for the right to grieve, to mourn, and to heal.
Love and Blessings on Your Journey,