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Coping with disenfranchised grief: 5 steps to start healing

December 14, 2021 - 20 min read

disenfranchised grief_man sitting against wall (1)

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What is disenfranchised grief?

Different types of grief

Causes of disenfranchised grief

Symptoms of disenfranchised grief

5 steps to starting healing

Start to take control

Grief is highly personal. 

Grief can fluctuate in and out of your body, feeling more like a transient ebb and flow moving through your nervous system. One day, you might feel like you’re finally back to your “normal” self while later that week, you’ll feel a wave of sadness and loss overcome you.

Other times, you may feel like your grief over a certain loss is long behind you. But perhaps one day — maybe even years after you experienced a loss — it shows up in your day-to-day life without warning or cause.

Experiencing any type of loss can result in this overwhelming feeling of grief, whether it’s the death of a loved one, the loss of a pet, or loss or change in relationship.

For some, it might be difficult to identify grief because of societal pressures around what is or what isn’t acceptable to grieve. We know that not all grief is treated equally. In fact, we’re only just beginning to understand the many kinds of losses that can trigger grief reactions. 

In these past couple of years, we’ve collectively experienced new waves of grief and trauma. It’s undeniable that loss of life due to the pandemic has led to incredible amounts of grief for millions of people around the world. A March 2021 poll reported 1 in 5 Americans lost a relative or close friend to COVID-19. It's also estimated that for each loss, nine close relatives or friends are experiencing grief.

But we know millions have also experienced loss in social connections, predictability, normalcy, control, justice, and massive disruption to our well-being and mental health.

The American Psychological Association cites this collective sorrow, trauma, and anxiety as a result of the pandemic. This has led to this psychological crisis experienced by most — if not all — people living in this world.

Against this backdrop of this psychological crisis is collective trauma and grief. More importantly, this is a type of grief that society hasn’t traditionally deemed as worthy of recognition

In a time when the world is collectively experiencing an increase in grief and loss, it's imperative to support one another and recognize all grief as valid. Increasing our understanding of the different kinds of grief is more important than ever.

Without recognizing, acknowledging, and supporting all types of grief, we’re disenfranchising ourselves, our loved ones, and all those around us who have suffered a significant loss. 

Let's explore what defines disenfranchised grief and the experiences of the disenfranchised griever. We'll also dive into ways to support those who may not feel they have the permission to grieve as they should.

What is disenfranchised grief?

Disenfranchised grief occurs when the grief you are feeling is not supported by society or recognized as legitimate. Also known as hidden grief or sorrow, disenfranchised grief is often not acknowledged, validated, or understood.

This lack of validation or understanding can deeply inhibit the healing process for a person navigating this concept of disenfranchised grief. In the end, it adds several layers of complexity to the grieving process

Kenneth Doka, Ph.D., wrote in his book — Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow — that this type of grief occurs anytime someone feels that society has denied their “need, right, role, or capacity to grieve.”

Disenfranchised grievers feel that they cannot openly acknowledge or publicly mourn their grief. This results in negative impacts to mental health, like increased loneliness, anxiety, depression, and shame. 

At a time when individuals most need support and understanding, disenfranchised grievers aren't given permission to grieve. By societal standards, their grief is invalidated. A lack of social support and resources that are so crucial for any individual while navigating the grief and healing journey

For individuals experiencing disenfranchised grief, it's hard not to draw comparisons with other past grieving experiences. For example, the loss of a relationship (like a divorce or a breakup) might result in little to no support from friends and family.

However, if a person lost a loved one earlier that year, they might have been met by cards, home-cooked meals, and nightly calls or texts. Disenfranchised grievers might question this comparison and ultimately feel a lack of recognition and support.  

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What is the difference between normal or uncomplicated, complicated grief, and disenfranchised grief?

Not all grief is the same. There are some key differentiators between three types of grief: normal (or uncomplicated), complicated, and disenfranchised grief. Let's take a closer look. 

  • Normal (or uncomplicated) grief. Normal grief is the natural response to grief. Individuals move through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Eventually, this results in coming to terms with their loss. 
  • Complicated grief. For some people, feelings of loss are debilitating and don't improve even after time passes. Sometimes called persistent complex bereavement disorder, the painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe. This results in many having trouble recovering from the loss and resuming their life.
  • Disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is when your grieving doesn’t fit into society’s larger attitude about dealing with death and loss. Oftentimes, this results in a lack of support and social sympathy that inhibits a person from moving through the stages of grief. 

No matter what type of loss you have experienced, your grief is valid.

In the case of disenfranchised grief, this lack of social recognition and support can prolong the emotional pain related to grief. It adds another layer of complexity to an already-complicated grieving process. 

Over time, without proper support or resources, disenfranchised grief can turn into prolonged grief or complicated grief. If this persists, it potentially leads to the need for professional help.

disenfranchised grief_woman looking down (1)

Causes of disenfranchised grief

There are a number of causes that lead to disenfranchised grief, all of which are rooted in social norms. Social norms establish expectations for grief reactions, mourning rites, and rituals. These may vary by society, religion, nationality, or other familial factors. 

For example, in many Hispanic families, Doka says, godparents are very significant. “We even called godparents ‘compadres’ and ‘comadres,’ which literally mean ‘to father with’ or ‘to mother with.’ But if a godparent dies, most of society will just shrug it off.” 

Disenfranchised grieving scenarios don’t align with societal expectations. They are often misunderstood, undervalued, and invalidated. When looking at common grieving scenarios that disenfranchised grievers experience, we can identify five key themes.

Lack of recognition for the relationship

Whether it’s a rift or change in the relationship, loss of life, or changing dynamics, there are different types of relationships that can fall into this category.

This includes: 

  • Infidelity
  • Death of an ex-spouse
  • Hidden or forbidden relationships
  • Maintaining or attempting to maintain a relationship with incarcerated or convicted individuals
  • Maintaining or attempting to maintain a relationship with someone who is suffering from a mental illness
  • Loss of a close friend or neighbor who is like family

Cause of death surrounded by stigma

Losing someone close to you is always a traumatic experience. But for some, cause of death can come with the added stigma that may not be validated by societal norms.

Murders, death by suicide, drug overdoses, or death with some sort of criminal activity might’ve played a role can lead people to feel disenfranchised in their ability to discuss the loss, properly grieve it, or lean on support systems for their own grief.

Social expectations for your grief journey

Societal norms and a general lack of understanding of the human experience around grief can lead to judgments from others. For example, some might question how long, how deep, how you grieve, and what emotions are appropriate.

This can lead to disenfranchisement and cause the individual to hide their feelings. This only further prolongs the emotional pain and significant loss. This causes the person grieving to fall into a vicious cycle of complicated or prolonged grief, which prevents healing.

Losses considered less significant than others 

Any kind of significant loss can cause a grief reaction. But some losses are deemed less worthy by societal standards, including many non-death losses. These losses may include: 

  • Infertility
  • Divorce
  • Job loss
  • End of a relationship
  • A life-changing diagnosis like Alzheimer’s
  • The loss of a beloved pet
  • Empty nest syndrome when adult children leave the home

We often discount the grief of people who didn't have a formalized relationship. For instance, the death of a boyfriend or girlfriend might not elicit our respect and sympathy in the same way as the loss of an immediate family member.

Grievers experiencing these significant losses may not feel supported in their grief reactions, which means they're likely not receiving the support they need to process and move through their grief.

Losses where words fail

As always, these may vary by society. These can include tragic accidents, miscarriage(s), stillbirth, or the death of a child. People may not know what to say or do. They may also find it painful to face or discuss your loss. This only leads the griever to feel even more alone, misunderstood and without a sail in their grief journey.

Regardless of what category your disenfranchised grief may fall, there’s one commonality we can underpin between each of the five themes. The causes of this kind of grief are all rooted in what society tells us to be true rather than what we know and feel to be true as individuals.

It’s important to first identify your grief to begin the healing process and seek grief support. But before you can do so, you may already be feeling the symptoms of disenfranchised grief. 

disenfranchised grief_hands holding a tissue on couch (1)

Symptoms of disenfranchised grief

Sometimes, our body will tell us something is wrong before our brain can. While many of the symptoms of disenfranchised grief overlap with symptoms of normal or uncomplicated grief, it’s important to be attentive. Be aware of the physical and emotional changes as it can lead to health issues.

Here are some physical and emotional symptoms you may experience as a result of any type of grief or loss: 

In addition, those experiencing disenfranchised grief may also experience:

  • An intensified version of the symptoms listed above
  • Social isolation and deep sense of feeling alone
  • Getting stuck the grieving process, leading to complicated or prolonged grief
  • Changes to or loss of friendships
  • Sense of lack of closure
  • Feeling stigmatized, misunderstood
  • Significant changes in family relationships or estrangements
  • Feelings of shame, intense anger
  • Anxiety disorders or depression

5 steps to cope with disenfranchised grief

As we all know and have likely experienced, grief is complicated. It’s not easy to heal from trauma, loss, and hardship. When you’re experiencing grief that’s not understood, recognized, or validated by those around you, you can feel like it’s impossible to cope.

But with the right tools, resources, and people who support you, you can start to take the steps to cope with disenfranchised grief. While the coping and healing process is different for everyone, here are some steps you can take as you navigate your own healing journey.

disenfranchised grief_woman with hat (1)

Learn about grief

When you understand that your grief is legitimate and give yourself permission to experience the emotions as a result of your loss, you increase your confidence and ability to process your grief. When you gain that confidence, you also have more energy to seek out support that will help you heal.

Find your support systems

Sadly, disenfranchised grief may lead to significant changes in close relationships. You will find people who are unable to understand you or support you right now. You will find other people who emerge as your support systems.

Lean into these people, allow them space to help you, and be purposeful about who you choose to spend your time with now. You might also consider empowering growth and transformation by enlisting the help of a coach, especially if you’ve found yourself at a personal and professional crossroads in life.

Ask for what you need

Any time there is significant loss, people may not know what to say or do. They may not know how to help you. As you gain clarity on what it is that you need right now, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

The people you’ve selected to be your help and support will welcome the chance to give you what you need. They may just need more explicit and direct communication about what it is that you need at this moment. Clear communication can also help validate your needs.

Create a special ritual

Because there may not be an established societal ritual for disenfranchised losses, you can create your own ritual. Think about what you need. Think about your loss and how you can create a lasting memory and/or routine to assuage your sadness.

You may consider giving back to others, journaling, writing poetry, art therapy, taking a trip, or getting a tattoo. If you’ve experienced a shared loss with others or if you have a person in your life who can validate your healing, consider engaging. By creating your own ritual together, you can lean on each other in this shared experience.

Know when to ask for help

Sometimes, it starts with acknowledging that you can’t shoulder the grief and loss on your own — and that’s OK. Support groups are available in most communities around the world.

Most local hospices offer support groups and often specialize in certain topics like death by suicide, infant death, or overdose. Support groups can offer an outlet for your grief that family members, caregivers, or co-workers may not be able to provide.

If a traditional support group doesn’t appeal to you, seek social support. Sometimes, that just means finding one other person who you can talk to without fear of judgment or feeling the need to filter your experience.

If you are experiencing prolonged sadness, anxiety, or depression that impacts your ability to function in the world, it may be time to seek professional help with grief counseling or other mental health support. 

Start to take control 

Grief is messy.

But mourning with the feelings of grief can be even more difficult when others diminish or do not recognize your grief as valid. We know that grief is extremely personal to each person’s experience. With that said, it requires the utmost integrity and respect when navigating the healing process.

Start by taking small steps to put some strategies for practice into place. How you grieve and how you experience your loss is unique to you. Only you know what you need right now with your own grief, and how you want to honor your loss.

With the help of your support systems (including professional help when needed), you can gain the skills and knowledge to process and work through your own grief.

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Published December 14, 2021

Nikki Moberly, PCC, CBC

Better Up Premier Fellow Coach

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