Dealing with disenfranchised grief

5 min read

When your mourning is not acknowledged by those around you

  • With disenfranchised grief, your family and friends do not recognize your need to mourn someone or something and may encourage you to “get over it.”

  • Alternatively, we can deny our own right to grieve because we‘ve internalized societal rules.

  • The lack of emotional support makes the grieving experience extremely isolating and can prolong your pain.

  • It is important to give your grief the space and time to heal, whether others recognize your loss or not.

  • If there are no established mourning rituals for this kind of loss, many people find it helpful to create their own.

When someone close to us dies, we generally have established rites and rituals to serve as milestones on our grief journey, with friends and family supporting us as we process the loss.

But if your community does not support you because the source of your grief is seen as invalid or not worthy in some way, you can experience prolonged pain due to the lack of emotional support. This is what is known as “disenfranchised grief.” 

Psychologist Kenneth Doka, who coined the term, defines it as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.”

Disenfranchised grief is common when your relationship with the person who died is not recognized by the community. In other situations, your method of grieving is questioned.

Grieving is hard, but disenfranchised grief can be traumatizing. It can be incredibly hurtful to someone who is grieving to feel judged or shamed for not “getting over” the loss quickly.

Feeling like we are not living up to society’s rules about grief can lead to feelings of isolation, shame, and guilt. Even if you do not receive direct criticism from others, you may have internalized these rules and feel guilty for your grief, or think that you must suppress or deny it.

Since people who experience disenfranchised grief often have trouble in coping with subsequent losses, it is important to give your grief the space and time it needs, no matter what your community may tell you about it.

Am I in disenfranchised grief? 

Disenfranchised grief can manifest in a wide range of circumstances, such as grief over an ex, grief over an unmet relative like an absent parent, or grief over a teacher or co-worker. It can also include grief over non-death events your community might not consider significant, like a financial loss or a failed job interview, or losses that are not often talked about publicly, like miscarriage or infertility.

Another common example is grief that is not recognized by your community as legitimate because your outward emotional state is not sad but rather numb or angry, or even focused and productive.

The fact that these stories of grief—and the many, many others like them—are not acknowledged by one’s community does not make the grief itself any less real. Often it makes it much harder to process.

Because others do not understand how significant this loss is to you, the grieving experience is extremely isolating. Those around you may avoid talking to you about your loss, or they may minimize it. In some cases, you may be the recipient of even more dismissive, hurtful comments. 

Finding the comfort you deserve

It can be very helpful to sit your loved ones down and explain that even though what you’re experiencing is not the grief they may be familiar with, it is very real to you, and you would appreciate their support. Tell them that grief isn’t something you can control or dictate, and the best way for you to heal is to let it proceed naturally without judgement or denial. You may find that they are more receptive than you expected.

Even if the people you usually depend on for support do not understand or cannot help, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to others about how you’re feeling. Finding community in support groups, whether in person or online, can help you create connections and process your grief. There’s power in being with people who have an understanding of what you are going through. You might also want to seek the services of a therapist who can help you rebuild thought patterns and coping methods and let you heal without judgment.

Grieving is hard, but disenfranchised grief can be traumatizing.

In general, there are no established rituals or practices of mourning for the losses associated with disenfranchised grief. Many people find it helpful to create their own. You may want to observe an anniversary or birthday, visit a grave, or keep the person’s items close to you to help you process the loss. You can express your feelings through journaling, creating art, planting flowers, running a race, or getting a tattoo. All grief is processed at a very personal, individual level, so what you choose to do will be specific to you and how you are feeling.

Through these efforts, you may be able to get to a new place with your grief. Through it all, it is important to keep in mind that your grief is yours to feel, process, and do with what you wish, and nobody can tell you how you should feel. There is no right way to grieve, and no right way to deal with disenfranchised grief ●