“Disenfranchised grief” is when your heart is grieving but you can’t talk about or share your pain with others because it is considered unacceptable to others. It’s when you’re sad and miserable and the world doesn’t think you should be, either because you’re not “entitled” or because it isn’t “worth it.”
See if any of these examples of disenfranchised grief ever applied to you:
Your relationship is not recognized by others because they didn’t know you had a close relationship.
This can occur when there is a miscarriage; a friendship not known to the family; caregivers such as a health professional when a patient dies; a former exchange student lived with you for awhile and when she went to her home country, she was killed; when you are extremely close with someone and someone they love is dying of has died; or the family knows about the relationship, but doesn’t know how close it was. It could also occur because you had to give up a child for adoption or if you were given up for adoption. Children can experience disenfranchised grief when they experience a loss and their grief is not acknowledged.
Your loss isn’t a person.
Examples that fall in this category are beloved animals, your failed marriage, your unfulfilled dreams, a financial loss or business loss, a loss of health, the loss of a loved one’s functioning (such as in the case of Alzheimer’s).
Your relationship was real, but the family (or members of society) would not or does not approve.
This can occur if there is a so-called non-traditional relationship such as a homosexual relationship, especially when the person who died wasn’t out or if there is discrimination in the family. It can also occur if a family member is estranged. A stigmatized relationship like an extra-marital affair or when a woman has an abortion are other examples of this.
Another example of this is when a relationship ends in divorce, but members of the grieving person’s church does not approve of the divorce or the divorce is against church doctrine. This can be difficult because not only is your support group not supportive, but you may feel ashamed and afraid to connect with your religion or spirituality while grieving. It can also happen when an engagement or marriage fails and you were connected to your family member’s partner or your family member’s family (aka your in-laws – whether official or not).
The way the person died is not as supported as other deaths.
This occurs when the death or the deceased person’s actions while alive are stigmatized by society as with deaths from suicide, a drug overdose, AIDS, a war, violence, or alcoholism. Sometimes a death of a person who had a long life is more discounted than someone younger.
You aren’t grieving how people expect.
This can happen when the way you are acting in your grief is unsettling or confusing to someone else. If you are “too upset” or “not upset enough” or the grief is “lasting too long” are only a few examples of this.
If you’re experiencing any of the above (or something similar), you need to know that you are entitled to your grief. Nobody has the right to take away your grief, and it is their failing — not yours — that makes your grief “unacceptable.”
Disenfranchised grief happens because your love and care for the object of your grief isn’t recognized. It happens because others don’t understand. It happens because you’re sure that others won’t understand. And it happens because you fear that everyone else will think that the grief you’re experiencing is somehow your fault.
And in certain situations you may be right — not the part about it being your fault (because it isn’t!) — but because there are certain situations where people try to turn their own pain and anguish outward at the nearest convenient target. Or they’re just super-judgmental people.
In any event, it is not your fault — it’s not like any of us can control who or what we care about — and you have a right to your grief, your style of grief or your reason for grief for one reason: because you are grieving.
If you feel grief, then it is your right as a human being to grieve and to grieve exactly how you need to as long as you are not hurting yourself or others.
It is also your right to be comforted, affirmed and validated.
Find someone who understands this and affirms your right to grieve and your right to grieve exactly as you need to. Tell yourself at least once each day as you live through your pain , that your love is real and that is why your grief is real. Find words of encouragement from others or books.
Enfranchise your grief. Shine the light on it and watch as the darkness begins to lessen.
[An important note from Elizabeth: If I have not listed the kind of relationship that you lost, but you have been disenfranchised, you may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know so I can add your contribution. You deserve to have your relationship listed here.]
Source: Attig, Thomas, 2004, Disenfranchised Grief Revisited: Discounting Hope and Love. OMEGA Vol. 49(3). (Based on Kenneth Doka’s books on disenfranchised grief)