Understanding the pain that comes with the passing of a friend or family member is pretty universal. We, as a society, know how hard that is. Some of us even go out of our way to send casseroles, cards, flowers or other gifts to help our loved ones get through the grieving process.
But what about the “situationships” people are grieving? Or body grief (missing the body you used to have), or the feelings of loss that can come with a new health diagnosis? These upsetting experiences aren’t always validated as much — and that in itself can be lonesome and sad, too.
Enter the term “disenfranchised grief,” coined by bereavement expert Kenneth Doka in 1989. It describes a loss you don’t feel entitled to, that no one seems to understand, and that isn’t openly acknowledged, mourned or publicly supported. Many situations can lead to this, and it’s incredibly valid.
“Disenfranchised grief is the experience that people have when their grief experience does not match societal expectations of loss,” explained Doreen Marshall, vice president of mission engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
It can also arise when someone grieves for longer than another person expected them to, she added, even though grief has no timeline. “It can be different for two people experiencing the same loss, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve any particular loss, despite the expectations one may feel from others,” she said.
According to the experts here, disenfranchised grief can pop up in many circumstances, including (but not limited to):
- Losing a pet
- Job loss
- A divorce or breakup
- Pregnancy-related issues (miscarriages, failed IVF attempts, stillbirths)
- Death of someone you aren’t related to or super close with
- Suicide loss survivors (if loved ones don’t support you in the way they would if the person had died another way)
- Death of your affair partner
- Pandemic-related loss, such as not having a graduation ceremony or being able to attend a funeral
- Death of a mentor
- Loss of housing
- A friend moving away
Why Is Disenfranchised Grief So Painful?
It’s understandable that the events above would be hard to go through, even if they aren’t talked about as much. Loss is loss, with all of its many implications.
“Disenfranchised grief is so painful for two reasons: One is because in the wake of a loss, grief is the only thing left over from the loss you’ve just suffered. To have it torn from you is to lose what you’ve just lost all over again,” explained MC McDonald, a grief, resilience and trauma researcher. “The second reason is because unless your grief is acknowledged and held by other people, it cannot be healed.”
She said in cases of a lost affair partner, for example, you might not be able to attend the funeral or even talk about the loss you feel because the relationship was a secret. If you do talk about what happened, you may fear the only response you’ll receive is judgment.
“This example might seem extreme, but disenfranchised grief is far more common,” she added.
People may fear sharing their grief due to many circumstances, too, not just the loss of an affair partner. As a result, the emotions become bottled up.
“Disenfranchised grievers often feel alienated because they cannot openly express or publicly mourn their grief, which adversely impacts their mental health and increases loneliness, depression and shame,” said Chase Cassine, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and author of “The Sweetest Therapy.” He added that the grieving process is complicated, nonlinear and complex, and a lack of empathy from others only makes that harder to navigate.
And when you feel as though you aren’t “allowed” to feel that grief because the situation wasn’t “legitimate” in other people’s eyes, McDonald continued, you may either internalize the judgment or feel the need to put your emotional energy toward justifying yourself.
“This can leave the loss survivor to feel isolated, stigmatized, without access to grief resources or that their feelings in response to loss are not legitimate,” Marshall added.
Lastly, it amplifies our sense of loneliness. “When we receive support from others, it can, for a moment, remind us that we are not alone,” said Ali Dennard, a clinician with The Berman Center. “When there is a formal ceremony, the loss is honored and acknowledged as significant. Disenfranchised grief often goes unnoticed, which can magnify that feeling.”
How To Cope With Disenfranchised Grief
Given disenfranchised grief can be such a lonely and isolating experience, how can you handle the sadness, anger and other emotions you feel? Here are some tips from experts:
Acknowledge and validate your situation and emotions.
It can be all too easy to chalk up your emotions to “just being dramatic,” especially if other people have said this. However, that isn’t fair or accurate — nor does it help you heal. “Validate your experience of loss, no matter the cause, as painful and worthy of grieving,” Dennard urged.
McDonald added the importance of trying to not let other people’s words get in the way of this. “Refuse to internalize society’s inability to witness your grief. Other people’s failure to attune to you is not proof that you are not allowed to feel,” she said.
Be who you need.
“Even if society does not validate your grief, remember that all of the feelings you are experiencing are valid,” Cassine said. “Instead of minimizing and suppressing your emotions by telling yourself how you shouldn’t feel this way, reframe your self-talk to process your emotions and remember other people don’t have to acknowledge and validate how you feel.”
Dennard suggested throwing your own ceremony, or honoring the loss in some other way, to get what you need. Sometimes, you have more power and control than you think.
Look into therapy, support groups and similar resources.
Cassine also encouraged finding a support group or therapist, if possible, to have a safe space to feel your feelings and develop healthy coping skills. “Spending time with others who are supportive and empowering can help in the healing process,” he said.
If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, Marshall said AFSP’s Healing Conversations program can help. It connects suicide loss survivors to those who have had similar experiences and are trained to respond with compassion and resources.
Reach out to trusted, empathetic loved ones.
If you do have friends, family, fellow church members, etc. who are supportive, lean into them without shame or feeling like a burden (because you aren’t).
“Let them know how you’re feeling and, if possible, what you need,” Dennard said. “People are often unaware of your pain, and their lack of acknowledgement is connected to the unknowing, not to [the] uncaring.”
McDonald called this space with your loved one a “relational home,” which is “where overwhelming emotions that are too much to bear alone can be borne by another who attunes to you.” (Kind of beautiful, right?)
The bottom line is this: No matter what you’re going through, you deserve love, empathy and support.