Say the word grief and the next word that comes into the minds of most of us is death. That’s because in our culture grief is closely associated with death even though there is a multitude of other tangible and intangible things that we can and do grieve for. Human beings live complicated existences that include attachments to family, friends, and things. When these attachments are lost, grief predictably follows. Losses come in the form of situational changes, separations, divorces, and yes, death. In reality, there are many types of loss, not just death.
While a loss may be profound to the person experiencing it, this grief may not be recognized or validated by others. Grief develops within a characteristic pattern yet individuals feel, think, express, and adapt to this emotion in different ways. What happens when one experiences a loss, followed by grief, but others do not recognize that grief? Some clinicians term this experience, “disenfranchised grief.”
What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
Have you ever gone through a loss but felt you had no right to grieve? That feeling is at the core of disenfranchised grief and can happen when society doesn’t recognize the value of your loss in the same way that you do. This can occur with significant relationships that others do not appreciate as you do. For instance, you may have formed a close, intense bond with a roommate, colleague, caregiver, or counselor and feel the loss of that relationship deeply. Others may not comprehend the significance of that bond and be unable to understand or support your grief. And, in certain circumstances, some feel that despite their loss they are not entitled to support and acceptance.
Loss and Its Social Significance
Disenfranchised grief can also occur when a loss is perceived to have little or no social significance to the non-affected parties. Examples of such types of loss can include the loss of material possessions, the loss of a job, divorce, or even incarceration. Sometimes the loss is death-related such as perinatal loss. Sometimes the loss is intangible, which makes it even harder for others to recognize your grief and sorrow. For example, a woman may lose her ability to bear children, a person may lose their good reputation, or a disabled individual may undergo a loss of dreams. Life transitions are also accompanied by loss. Aging across the lifespan necessarily involves losses such as the loss of childhood, physical ability, mental acuity, and friends and family.
In some cases, when loss occurs through death, it is the very nature of the death that can affect how others respond to the bereaved. For instance, suicide represents an occurrence that leaves many individuals uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond to the survivors, resulting in avoidance and a diminishment of support. Additionally, many survivors who lose a loved one to suicide can feel a sense of stigma and worry that others will judge them. In such cases, the survivors may be reluctant to ask for support as they grieve.
Disenfranchised grief can also occur in situations whereby we do not see the bereaved as being fully capable of experiencing a loss. This happens when others do not define or perceive an individual as capable of grief, including the very young and the very old. When this happens, loved ones do not respond in comforting ways to the bereaved because they simply do not recognize that the individual has felt a sense of loss and subsequently mourns. Despite research that shows the old and the very young are cognizant of loss, they typically are considered as having little comprehension of such. In the same way, mentally challenged individuals may be at risk for feeling disenfranchised grief.
Don’t Take It Personally
Disenfranchised grief can be the result of cultural expectations, family traditions, or individual standards. For example, societies that promote keeping, “a stiff upper lip,” or individuals who value stoicism, may express grief in a seemingly indifferent manner that actually discourages social support. It’s important to remember that grief is still grief even when an individual feels the need to keep their emotions hidden or their feelings private. As well, some people may not even realize they aren’t responding appropriately, or perhaps they don’t even know you are grieving.
It isn’t always a reflection on the person grieving, so they should never take it personally when others don’t respond as expected. All individuals going through the grieving process need empathy, validation, support, and an opportunity to engage in rituals that address their pain and mark the start of the healing process—disenfranchised grievers in particular.
Starbent Recovery was founded on the belief that people suffering from a substance use disorder, trauma, and other co-occurring issues can thrive in the right environment. We recognize the need to grieve losses and the specialized support someone with a substance use disorder could benefit from. Our professional, dedicated staff have the understanding, experience, and compassion necessary to support each resident’s clinical treatment team goals. To learn more, call us at (800) 673-0176.