Society often fails to acknowledge some types of grief, making it challenging to express your sadness or navigate the healing process.  “Disenfranchised grief” is a term that refers to grief that is not recognised or accepted by society and occurs when a person loses someone or something that is not traditionally seen as a valid reason for grief. Sometimes societal norms around grief are not followed and people do not understand the loss of a pet, death in a non-traditional relationship, death after a divorce or the termination of pregnancy. This kind of grief is often minimised or stigmatised, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through. You feel that you have been deprived of your right to grieve when you experience loss.

Circumstances that are not openly discussed, such as infertility, suicide, a fatal overdose, abortion, miscarriage, or stillborn children, may be difficult for people to respond to. If the circumstances of your loss cause others to judge or criticise you, you may receive the message that you should grieve alone.

People may find it difficult to support a grieving family if they have lost an estranged loved one, someone who has had an addiction, or lost someone with dementia or serious mental health problems. In a way, the loss has occurred before the actual death of the person who no longer recognises you. In a sense you can lose a person twice and grief becomes an extended and painful process.

Losing a loved one who has been convicted of a crime and imprisoned is another example where society sometimes places a stigma on grieving. Post-abortion grief is a particularly complex example of disenfranchised grief. Society may ignore the grief under these circumstances, but those experiencing it may also try to nullify their own grief, as it stems from the choices they have had to make.

If you lose a loved one who wasn’t a romantic partner or part of your immediate family, you may face implications that you have less of a right to mourn them. In reality, it’s absolutely normal to grieve the loss of anyone you had a meaningful relationship with, including: your best friend, someone in the extended family, a classmate or a former husband/wife/partner.

If for some reason you feel the need to keep your relationship private, you may not know how to express your grief when your partner passes away. This includes the death of an online friend or correspondent, a casual partner, or ex-partner, LGBTQ+ partners, or a non-primary partner, especially if no one is aware of your involvement. Even the death of someone you didn’t really get to know, such as an unknown sibling or an absent parent can evoke emotions that you find hard to deal with or talk about. “In the entire catalogue of human suffering, there is not a more agonizing feeling than the first conviction that the heart of someone whom we most tenderly love is estranged from us.”  Henry Bulwer

Sometimes the interaction we had with a pet or someone that is not related or that we only admired from a distance can leave an imprint on our minds and memories.

The unofficial “societal rules” about grief include expectations around how people mourn their losses but in the situations described above, the water gets muddy. Assuming everyone will react to loss in the same way as others (let alone if the loss was experienced for someone or something that differs from the norm), only serves to invalidate the experiences of many. People will express emotions in different ways. Grief typically progresses through several stages, but with disenfranchised grief you may find it more difficult to proceed through these stages in a productive way. Along with typical feelings associated with grief, such as sadness, anger, guilt, and emotional numbness of feeling overwhelmed, disenfranchised grief can also contribute to insomnia, substance misuse, anxiety or depression and a variety of physical symptoms (e.g. muscle tension, unexplained pain, digestive problems). Feelings of diminished self-esteem or shame may occur, resulting in conflicting emotions, trouble focusing and mood swings.

When others dismiss your grief or suggest you are “too emotional” you might even begin to doubt the validity of your feelings. By internalising the negative inputs, you effectively disenfranchise your own grief, which can lead to doubt and guilt around your assumed “inappropriate” reaction. This will again make it difficult to work through your distress and lead to problems in coping with future losses. People who don’t expect you to grieve would also not understand your need for support as you process the loss that you have experienced. This can make it hard to take needed time away from work or school.

Coping tips

If you’re having a hard time dealing with a loss that others might not understand, consider the following:

  • Reach out to friends and family who knew about your relationship with the person or pet you lost, or those who have experienced a similar, significant loss. Talk to those who you know will listen empathically without minimising or denying your feelings.
  • Anonymous support also helps many people working through loss. Local support groups in your area, or even online communities, can connect you to people also trying to navigate the complicated feelings of disenfranchised grief.
  • Rituals can often provide some closure and help people come to terms with a loss. If your grief isn’t widely known or accepted, you may not have any official ritual (like a funeral or other memorial) to follow. Creating your own ritual can help you reach a point of acceptance that enables you to move forward. Some example rituals include: boxing up an ex’s possessions after a breakup, writing a letter to say goodbye, planting a tree in your loved one’s honour, making a collage of photographs and mementos, or holding a memorial on your own in a place that holds significance.
  • When it comes to losses by suicide, miscarriage, and other sensitive circumstances, people may find it difficult to reach out to you. You may not know exactly what will help, but if you need something specific, let your loved ones know. This can give them a concrete way to be there for you.
  • Disenfranchised grief, in particular, may be particularly hard to overcome without professional support. Grief counsellors and other mental health professionals can help you acknowledge and accept your loss while validating your pain. A therapist can help you to normalize your feelings and offer a safe, judgment-free space to express grief. They may provide resources on peer support or self-help groups.

Grieving is a complex process that has no single right way to navigate it. All grief is valid, so rather than suffering alone, try to reach out to those who you know will try to lighten your burden, rather than making you feel worse.

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