Disenfranchised Grief—Grief That Doesn’t Fit Society’s Standards and Is Not Often Acknowledged—Is Complex But Common

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We’re led to believe that grief can be quantified and divvied up into distinct stages. We also tend to associate it with specific events, typically the death of a loved one. But grief is more nuanced and pervasive than popular perceptions would have us believe.

We see this with disenfranchised grief, which, according to Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle, is the grief people experience “when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.”

Chances are you’ve experienced disenfranchised grief at some point—maybe during your last big breakup or when your childhood dog passed away. However, just because your situation doesn’t fit in with society’s mold of grief, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be validated and processed. Skipping those all-important steps can have detrimental impacts on your mental health, and you may feel isolated and unsupported.

Situations that can lead to disenfranchised grief

Megan Negendank, LMFT, founder and executive director of Love Heal Grow Counseling, says disenfranchised grief can arise from several circumstances: losing a pet, miscarriage or stillbirth, health changes or losing physical abilities, a change in one’s work identity (e.g., leaving a job or retiring), moving, or losing a friend or family member that society wouldn’t consider a significant loss.

Because we don’t carve out space to mourn these losses—most workplaces don’t offer bereavement for miscarriages or adjusting to a new chronic illness—your feelings can bottle up. In fact, Negendank says that we may tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be grieving, and we can end up feeling especially alone in our grief during these times.

Signs and symptoms may not be so subtle

Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a professor, speaker, and author of the forthcoming book Platonic, says disenfranchised grief can show up as feeling stagnant for a long time. “When you’re not getting over it, don’t talk about it, or minimize your own feelings, you’re stuck in disenfranchised grief,” she says. Dr. Franco also points out that disenfranchised grief can cause feelings of shame because it causes you to feel “othered.” Over time, the overwhelm and isolation brought about by disenfranchised grief can lead to depression.

Know that you can cope and find effective ways to move on

Your loss may deviate from what’s considered “normal” by society, but that doesn’t mean that you should try to push through your grief. Negendank says it’s important to practice self-compassion as you navigate these difficult feelings, and connect with others who have dealt with similar types of loss. This can look like putting less pressure on yourself to be as productive as you normally would, or joining a support group. Negendank also points to journaling and reading books that relate to the type of loss we are feeling as a way to heal.

Professional help can also be beneficial, as this can offer coping mechanisms and insight. “Talk to a therapist who specializes in grief or life transitions,” Negendank says. They have experience working with clients who have been in similar positions as you, and can offer a safe and nonjudgmental environment in which you can work through your grief.

Dr. Franco emphasizes that we should experience our emotions. “Cry, listen to music, talk to people you feel safe confiding in,” she says. Social support during this time is paramount, as it can remind us that we’re not alone. Above all, Dr. Franco says we can keep our common humanity in mind when we experience disenfranchised grief: “A lot of people have grieved for a similar situation we’re in, like losing a friend, for instance.” Though we may feel alone, we aren’t alone.

Both Negendank and Dr. Franco highlight the importance of validating our own feelings. This reminds us that it’s okay to feel our grief, and helps us let go of a lot of the self-criticism that arises during this time. And that, in turn, creates more space to process our feelings and move forward.

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