What employers need to know about disenfranchised grief

4 min read

Grieving a loved one who has passed is one of the most difficult experiences anyone will go through. 

The shock of their passing can overload mental and physical capacities for a time, as the person struggles with simple yet incomprehensible fact of their loved one’s absence. Or it can trigger a numb state, with the person feeling almost nothing, as they take one step after another toward a new life without their loved one. 

Everyone grieves differently, and there is no right or wrong way to face loss. All of it is valid, and all of it is hard. 

There are things that can make this wrenching situation even more difficult, though. One example: disenfranchised grief. 

What is disenfranchised grief?

When someone close to us dies, we generally have established rites and rituals as we mourn, with friends and family supporting us as we process the loss. 

But if a person’s grief is seen as invalid in some way—because others don’t view the relationship as close enough or important enough—they can experience prolonged pain due to the lack of emotional support. This is what is known as ”disenfranchised grief.

Grief is a profound, natural process that connects us all. At the same time, it can be mysterious—not only does everyone grieve differently, each episode of grief may be wildly different. 

Because of the magnitude of emotion involved in grief and loss, it makes sense for us to try to impose some order or control over it, by creating a hierarchy of who we should grieve for most. 

And it may seem logical, especially when creating workplace bereavement leave policies, to prioritize certain family relations over others. 

But this type of ranking only hurts the person who has suffered a loss. 

Effects of disenfranchised grief 

Family and friends who minimize the death of a pet, for instance, or the grief felt after a miscarriage are not helping by urging their loved one to ”get over it.“ 

People in crisis need support, not direction. After all, their reactions may be bewildering to them, too. And the more they internalize societal rules, the more they may deny their own right to grieve. 

Feeling lonely and isolated is a common feeling in the aftermath of loss. With disenfranchised grief, the lack of emotional support intensifies feelings of isolation and can prolong pain.

Disenfranchised grief can have a substantial impact on a worker’s productivity, motivation, and ability to concentrate.

It’s important to remember that these feelings follow a person throughout their day—they don’t stay neatly contained in their home life. In fact, disenfranchised grief can have a substantial impact on a worker’s productivity, motivation, and ability to concentrate.

Empathy’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report showed that nearly half of respondents said their job performance was negatively affected by loss, with 31% finding it hard to focus and 25% reporting they were constantly distracted. 

Helping employees with disenfranchised grief

It is important to create a culture where loss is respected, and employees have the space and time to heal, whether others recognize their loss or not. 

A major first step: establish trust with your employees by no longer defining your bereavement policies as reserved for select family members. 

Disenfranchised grief comes from the idea that only certain losses are ”real.” Rejecting that kind of counterproductive thinking is a game-changer for a workplace culture.

In addition, employers can show that they understand the true burden of loss with benefits like flexible leave policies, employee assistance funds, or even meal delivery services. Consider yourself an ally in the grief process with your employees, offering as much support and recognition as they can.

While such policies can be costly, it is far better than the alternative—burnt-out employees. And on the positive side, understanding how to deal with grief and loss in the workplace effectively will lead to a more resilient organization that’s ready for any challenge that the future brings.