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  • Writer's pictureCayla Townes

Understanding Disenfranchised Grief: Validating and Managing Loss

Updated: Jun 12

Grief is a natural response to loss, but it's not always recognized or validated by society. When others fail to acknowledge and understand our grief, it can be a lonely and isolating experience. This type of unacknowledged grief is known as disenfranchised grief, a term that refers to any grief that goes unacknowledged or invalidated by social norms. In this post, we will explore the various aspects of disenfranchised grief, including its causes, symptoms, and strategies for managing and validating loss.

older person grieving head in hands sad

What is Disenfranchised Grief?

Disenfranchised grief, also known as hidden grief or sorrow, is a type of grief that is not recognized or validated by society. It often arises when the loss we experience falls outside of social norms or is not considered "worthy" of grief. While society tends to understand and accept grief following the death of a loved one, other losses such as the loss of a pet, job, friendship, or home may not receive the same level of recognition or validation.

The experience of disenfranchised grief can be particularly challenging because it can leave people feeling unsupported and unable to express their sadness or navigate the healing process. It is important to remember that all forms of grief are valid, regardless of societal norms or expectations.

Understanding the Manifestations of Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief can manifest in a lot of different ways, often depending on the specific circumstances of the loss. Here are some common examples of how disenfranchised grief may present itself:

Unrecognized Relationships

Certain relationships may go unrecognized or unacknowledged by society, making it difficult for people to express their grief when those relationships end. This may include:

  • LGBTQ+ individuals who are not out and feel unsafe grieving the loss of a partner

  • Polyamorous individuals who lose a non-primary partner, particularly when their involvement was not known

  • The death of a casual partner, friend with benefits, or ex-partner, especially when a close connection was maintained

  • The death of an online friend or pen pal

  • The loss of someone you never knew, such as an unknown sibling, absent parent, or famous figure

Loss Considered "Less Significant"

Certain losses are often seen as less significant and may not receive the same level of recognition or validation as other types of loss. Some examples of non-death loss include:

  • Breakups or estrangement from family members, which are often not perceived as significant losses

  • Dementia or Alzheimer's disease, which can lead to the loss of a loved one even while they are still alive

  • Loss of possessions, such as due to theft or natural disasters

  • Loss of one's home country and the associated cultural connections and sense of belonging

  • Loss of safety, independence, or years of one's life due to abuse or neglect

  • Loss of mobility, health, security, or independence due to chronic illness or disability

  • Job loss or loss of financial stability

Society may also minimize the grief associated with certain deaths, such as the loss of a mentor, teacher, patient, therapy client, pet, co-worker, or an "honorary relative" like a friend's child.

Loss Surrounded by Stigma

Losses that are surrounded by stigma can be particularly challenging to grieve because they often lead to judgment, criticism, or shame. Some examples include:

  • Grief related to infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, or adoption that didn't go through

  • Grief following the death of a loved one by suicide or overdose

  • Grief following an abortion, which is often disregarded by society

  • Grief after the loss of a loved one due to addiction, cognitive decline, or severe mental health issues

  • Grief following the loss of a loved one who has been convicted of a crime and imprisoned

Grief after an abortion can be especially complex, as society may disregard this grief and people may also invalidate their own grief due to a decision they made.

Exclusion from Mourning

Mourning is how feelings of grief are expressed publicly, such as wearing black or attending a funeral. Mourning is often associated with the loss of a romantic partner or immediate family member. However, individuals may also grieve the loss of other relationships that are not traditionally recognized and be excluded from participating in mourning for various reasons including:

  • Lack of perceived closeness to the person who died

  • Lack of identity or association with a particular cultural or religious group

  • Familial or social tension

  • The connection being unknown to the people involved with caring for the person who died

Certain groups may also be excluded from mourning due to societal assumptions, including children, individuals with cognitive impairments or developmental disabilities, and those with serious mental health conditions.

Grief that Defies Social Norms

Cultures often have unwritten "rules" about how grief should be expressed, which can lead to invalidation of grief that does not align with these norms. Some common expectations include:

  • Crying and visually showing sadness

  • Withdrawing from social events

  • Losing one's appetite

  • Sleeping excessively

When individuals express their grief in ways that do not conform to these norms, they may be met with confusion or accusations of not truly grieving. For example, anger, lack of emotion, increased busyness, or using substances or alcohol to cope may be less acknowledged ways of expressing grief.

It is important to recognize that everyone experiences and expresses grief differently. Assuming that everyone will react to loss in the same way only serves to invalidate the experiences of so many people.

person with hands on face sad grieving

The Impact of Disenfranchised Grief on Your Well-being

Experiencing disenfranchised grief can have a significant impact on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being. In addition to the typical feelings associated with grief, such as sadness, anger, guilt, and emotional numbness, disenfranchised grief can contribute to a range of symptoms and challenges, including:

  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances

  • Substance misuse as a coping mechanism

  • Increased anxiety and worry

  • Symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities

  • Physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, unexplained pain, or stomach distress

  • Diminished self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness

  • Shame and self-blame

  • Relationship problems and conflicts

  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing

  • Feeling emotionally overwhelmed and/or easily triggered

  • Mood swings and emotional instability

It is important to recognize that individuals who do not understand or acknowledge your grief may also struggle to provide the support and understanding you need. This can make it challenging to take the time and space you need to heal. Additionally, dismissing or invalidating your grief can lead to doubt, guilt, and difficulty coping with future losses.

Coping Strategies for Disenfranchised Grief

Coping with disenfranchised grief is a complex and individual process. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating this type of grief, the following strategies may be helpful:

Seek Support from Understanding Individuals

Although not everyone in your life may be able to validate your feelings or offer the support you need, there are likely individuals who can. Reach out to friends and family members who:

  • Knew about your relationship or connection to the person, relationship, or thing that you lost

  • Have experienced a similar significant loss

  • Are able to listen empathically without minimizing or denying your feelings

  • Validate your experience and provide a safe space for you to express your grief

In addition to personal connections, anonymous support can also be valuable when working through disenfranchised grief. Look for local support groups in your area or online communities where you can connect with others who are navigating similar feelings and experiences.

Create Personal Mourning Rituals

Rituals can provide closure and help you come to terms with a loss, even if that loss is not widely recognized or accepted by society. If your grief is not widely known or if traditional rituals are not appropriate, consider creating your own personal mourning rituals. Some examples include:

  • Boxing up the possessions of an ex-partner after a breakup

  • Writing a letter to say goodbye to someone you lost

  • Planting a tree or creating a memorial in honor of your loved one

  • Making a collage of photographs and mementos that remind you of the person or pet you lost

  • Holding a private memorial or remembrance ceremony in a place that holds significance for you

These personal rituals can help you find closure and reach a point of acceptance that allows you to move forward while still honoring your grief.

Communicate Your Needs

It can be challenging for others to understand your grief and offer support, particularly if they have not experienced a similar loss. However, many people want to help but may not know how. If you have specific needs or ways in which others can support you, do not hesitate to communicate them. For example, you might say:

  • "I don't want to be alone. Could you keep me company for a while?"

  • "Can you help me find something distracting to do?"

  • "I want to talk about my loss. Do you mind listening?"

  • "I need some time off from work or other responsibilities. Can you help me with that?"

  • "Every time I go to the grocery store I start to cry. Do you mind getting my groceries for me?"

By expressing your needs, you provide others with concrete ways to support you during your grieving process.

Seeking Professional Help

While it is possible to work through grief on your own, disenfranchised grief can be particularly challenging to overcome without professional support. Grief counsellors and other mental health professionals can help you acknowledge and accept your loss while validating your pain. They can also provide resources on peer support or self-help groups and assist you in navigating the complex emotions associated with disenfranchised grief.

If you find that your grief does not improve over time, you struggle with frequent mood changes or managing emotions, physical symptoms do not improve, or you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, it is important to reach out for professional help. Additionally, if your grief begins to affect your personal relationships or your ability to carry out daily responsibilities, seeking professional assistance can provide the guidance and support you need to navigate through this challenging time.

Moving Forward with Validated Grief

Mourning can be especially difficult when others dismiss or invalidate your grief. However, it is essential to remember that all grief is valid, regardless of others' opinions or societal norms. Draw strength from those who understand and support you during your grieving process, and do not be afraid to seek professional help if needed.

Remember that grieving is a unique and personal journey, and there is no right or wrong way to navigate it. Take the time and space you need to mourn your loss, and be gentle with yourself throughout the process. By validating your own grief and finding support from understanding individuals, you can begin to heal and incorporate your loss into your life in a meaningful way.

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