Disenfranchised Grief – What is it, and how to cope?

What is disenfranchised grief?

Though unpleasant and painful, grief is something we’ve all experienced (or will experience) at some point in our life.

Whether it’s triggered by divorce, the passing of a loved one, or a sick pet you had to put down, grief is a process that helps you cope with loss and all the painful feelings that accompany such terrible events.

As social creatures, we tend to rely on others to help us carry the emotional burden of loss and transition such difficult periods without losing ourselves completely.

But what if there’s no one around to understand your pain? What if that something you’ve lost might not be considered a “real” loss by society? Like losing a pet, for instance.

Or what if you lose a friend with benefits (with whom you were also close) or pen pal? Someone who society might not label as a “close” person.  In essence, disenfranchised grief occurs when you can’t mourn your loss with other people because they interpret loss differently and don’t understand where your pain is coming from.

Grief and loss

As we all know, grief is a normal process that facilitates recovery after a significant loss.

Grief differs from one person to another depending on coping styles, personality type, belief system, life experience, and type of loss.

But one crucial aspect of the grieving process the social support that you typically receive from friends and family. They are the first to respond and provide comfort when you’re grief-stricken.

When it comes to duration, there’s no standard interval for how long the mourning process should last. Although it usually lasts around six months, it could also last up to one year.

If the symptoms persist for more than one year, what you’re experiencing might be the onset of depression or other mental health issues.

Many believe that if they ignore what they’re feeling, the pain and suffering will somehow disappear.

Unfortunately, the more you ignore your painful feelings and declining mental health, the more you complicate and postpone the healing process.

To avoid adding more pressure to your grief-stricken body and mind, always remember that you have the right to grieve, regardless of whether others understand your pain or not.

Here’s how the grieving process should unfold:

I’m guessing most of us are probably familiar with ‘the 5 stages of grief or at least heard about them.

But let’s take a moment to go through each stage and better understand how the grieving process should unfold.

 1. Denial

Paradoxically, denial is a defense mechanism that postpones your confrontation with a harsh reality and gives you time to process the situation.

During this first stage, you tend to view loss in terms of: “This isn’t real”; “This can’t happen to me,” “It’s just a matter of time until he/she comes back.”

2. Anger

Anger is typically the voice of pain, helplessness, and sadness.

You’re angry with the person whom you’ve lost, angry with those who try to help you process your loss, angry at God, society, and so on. Although it’s irrational and misdirected, anger helps you process the unbearable emotional pain associated with losing a partner, husband, loved one, a person whom you considered close.

3. Bargaining

Just as denial, bargaining is a defense mechanism that creates the false illusion that you can control what happened.

The bargaining stage is characterized by messages like: “If I had done the shopping instead of her, she wouldn’t have died in the accident” or “Please God, bring him back to me, and I promise to…”

But what if you’re denied this process?

In theory, no one can deny you the right to grieve a significant loss.

Whether you’ve lost a marriage or relationship, a parent, a pet, or your life savings, it’s perfectly ok to mourn your loss.

But even though nobody is deliberately stopping you from grieving, people’s attitude towards what you consider a loss can indirectly prevent you from achieving recovery.

For example, some might minimize the negative impact of your loss; others might not understand why it’s taking you so long to get past the situation.

There are also situations where you can’t talk openly about a person you’ve lost without touching on a ‘sensitive’ topic. Like when you’re mourning the passing of your ex or a person with whom you were having an affair.

Long story short, lacking a safe space where you can process your pain without fear of criticism or denial and being surrounded by people with whom, for various reasons, you can’t share your burden can cause significant difficulties.

It could lead to incomplete or unresolved grief, which in turn generates a lot of emotional distress. In time, the situation will only get worse as you’ll lose the motivation to engage in new activities, struggle with poor academic or professional performance, and resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g., alcohol and substance abuse).

 What exactly is disenfranchised grief?

While there’s many types of grief, a there’s often a lack of understanding around the question “what is disenfranchised grief?” So let’s diver deeper.

Although it may not seem like it, your life is partially governed by cultural and social norms. These unwritten rules can dictate your preferences, expectations, and attitudes.

From how you speak and dress to what you should or shouldn’t grieve for, the people who make up your social circles, the community you belong to, will often impose their standards upon you.

In most cases, this happens indirectly and unintentionally.

For example, you may hear messages like: “So what if he was in an accident. He’s your ex, you shouldn’t care.” or “I know it was your first pet, but it’s not like you’ve lost a child.”

Nobody is deliberately trying to stop you from grieving or show you the “right” way to grieve.

However, their attitude towards your loss and the standards they impose on you can generate feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. As a result, you end up feeling like you’re the one who’s exaggerating the magnitude of your loss.

And that’s when guilt and shame interfere with the grieving process, making things worse than they already are.

The concept of ‘disenfranchised grief’ is a term that experts use to describe situations when, for some reason, the griever cannot overcome loss and achieve recovery as he/she sees fit.

In plain English, disenfranchised grief is the burden you carry alone because nobody seems to understand what you’re going through, and even those who see your struggles might not think it’s that big of a deal.

Given that disenfranchised grief is a relatively atypical condition, let’s look at some examples to see who’s at risk of dealing with this complicated type of grief.

Who’s at risk of dealing with disenfranchised grief?

  • Physicians who struggle with burnout because of continuous adaptation efforts. [1]
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community who are not out and don’t feel safe grieving the loss of a partner, and that grieving cannot be openly acknowledged.
  • People who mourn the death of an ex-partner or casual partner with whom they’ve shared a certain level of closeness or relationship.
  • People who’ve lost teachers, mentors, business partners, or co-workers.
  • Mental health professionals who’ve lost a client.
  • Sex offenders’ significant others. [2]
  • Individuals dealing with infertility and couples who fail in their endeavors to adopt a child.
  • Foster carers dealing with the cessation of a placement. [3]
  • Women who’ve had an abortion.
  • Women who’ve struggled with traumatic child births. [4]

Long story short, any loss surrounded by stigma or considered ‘less relevant’ by society can lead to disenfranchised grief.

The hidden dangers of disenfranchised grief

In the absence proper mourning period, the painful feelings associated with loss could set the stage for depression. It’s not uncommon for people experiencing disenfranchised grief to deal with major depressive episodes or even anxiety attacks resulting from feeling overwhelmed and not getting the compassion or support they need.

Although grief and depression have similar symptoms, these phenomena differ in many aspects. The better we understand the similarities and differences, the earlier we can observe when disenfranchised grief turns into depression.

For starters, we have a series of symptoms that depression and mourning share, such as insomnia, extreme sadness, loss of appetite, low sex drive, and weight loss.

But the main difference between grief and depression is that when you’re navigating a mourning period, these symptoms tend to fade over time. However, there will be occasions when certain memories trigger you.

When you’re dealing with major depression, the symptoms become more intense and acute as time goes by.

While grief is not usually treated with medication, major depression often requires the use of psychiatric drugs, which speed recovery and can also enhance the positive effect of psychotherapy.

How to cope with disenfranchised grief:

 1. Mourn your loss as you see fit.

Mourning the loss of someone or something that held a special meaning to you is a profoundly subjective and personal process.

Some choose to cry alone and let it all out in the comfort of their home, while others prefer the empathetic ear of close friends and family members.

Some need to take a break from work and focus all their energy on recovery, while others prefer staying busy.

There are no right and wrong ways to grieve your loss.

Do whatever helps you process your emotional pain and accept your new reality.

You are free to mourn your loss in whichever way you see fit, as long as you don’t do something that puts you or others in danger.

2. Share your pain with people who understand you.

When it comes to grief and loss, social support is a vital component of the recovery process.

Each culture has its mourning rituals that typically bring people together to assist the griever in his/her journey towards recovery.

Unfortunately, dealing with disenfranchised grief means social support might not be an option.

Maybe the loss you’ve experienced doesn’t fall within your community’s definition of ‘loss,’ or perhaps it’s a delicate aspect that not many people would understand.

But all hope is not lost.

If no one in your social circle can provide an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, look for online support groups dedicated to people who’ve experienced the same loss as you.

It may not be the same as having a close friend or family member to comfort you, but it’s better than dealing with grief all by yourself. 

3. Consult a grief counsellor.

We know for a fact that repressed feelings can lead to all sorts of mental health issues.

And since disenfranchised grief is often a burden you end up carrying alone, the long-term consequences can be devastating.

In the absence of proper support, you risk remaining stuck in grief for years, battling shame, guilt, and helplessness, day in day out.

As you can probably imagine, this outcome can profoundly impact your personal, professional, social, and romantic life.

In such cases, a grief counsellor can provide the empathy you need to feel understood and assist you in processing your painful emotions.

Final thoughts

Grief and loss are unique experiences that each of us processes differently.

Navigating the mourning period is a complicated process that takes you through a whole range of unpleasant emotions, from anger, denial, and helplessness to sadness, guilt, and depression.

It’s even worse when no one seems to resonate with your loss or validate your pain.

To avoid dealing with a complicated process such as disenfranchised grief, make sure you create your own mourning ritual, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help, especially if you can’t find support within your social circles.

About the editor, Poorni Selvaraja

About the editor, Poorni Selvaraja

Poorni Selvaraja, Psychologist Registrar, BA(Psych); Hons (Psych); MPsych (Clinical) is studying to become a clinical psychologist. Poorni has had extensive experience within international settings, which has given her exposure to many mental health adversities and challenges within different societies and communities.

Find out more about Poorni Selvaraja

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