A very sad person, crying and holding their head in hands.

Recognizing and Coping with Disenfranchised Grief

Communities rally around people who have suffered terrible losses. Something about a tragedy brings out the very best of human empathy, something which drives us to hold candlelight vigils, pack the pews of funeral services, bake casseroles, and run errands, campaign, and fundraise in the effort of supporting people during the worst moments of their lives. Regardless of its scope, this envelopment of love and support can be a critical step in the grieving process, which allows the bereaved to fully acknowledge the impact their relationship with what has been lost and engage with their grief.

Sadly, not all losses are met with the same level of empathy, and not all people affected by a loss are treated with the same level of respect. Many people are forced to process their grief alone, without the benefit of usual public recognitions of support. These people often suffer from disenfranchised grief. 

What is disenfranchised grief?

The concept of disenfranchised grief (DG) was first introduced by Dr. Ken Doka in the late 1980s. It is defined as “grief experienced by those who incur a loss that is not, or cannot be, openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported,” whether that lack of acknowledgement is for the nature of the relationship, the loss itself, or the griever. This often occurs when a person’s loss or their relationship to their loss is not deemed “acceptable” by society’s standards. For some, the risk of recognizing their loss can put the bereaved at risk of social rejection or even overt discrimination at a time when they most acutely need support and care.

Who is at greatest risk for disenfranchised grief?

Though people from all backgrounds and identities can experience disenfranchised grief, certain populations, relationship dynamics, or types of losses may pose the greatest risk for the bereaved.

  • LGBTQ+ individuals who aren’t out and/or are unable to acknowledge their relationship with the deceased. LGBTQ+ older adults are particularly at risk due to many couples having to maintain secrecy for the majority of their lives, who may also fear discrimination from the healthcare system if their relationship is disclosed.
  • Members of other marginalized communities or identities who grieve the loss of members of their community to systemic violence or oppression, even if they did not share a personal relationship. 
  • Distant or past relationships, including those grieving a casual or ex-partner, a friend with whom they’ve lost touch, family members they’ve never met, or other relationships not immediately valued or recognized by society.
  • Stigmatized cause of death or loss, including those who died of suicide, a drug overdose, during incarceration, or due to socially stigmatized condition (such as HIV/AIDS, and most recently, COVID-19). Additionally, this can include pre-bereavement for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia or other progressive illnesses.
  • Losses that are not related to death, including the loss of a job, a beloved home, or the loss of a significant relationship. These traumas provoke a strong and similar grief response to someone grieving a person who has died, but significantly less support is available to cope.

How does it affect the bereaved?

Forced into isolation, people facing disenfranchised grief are left at a high risk for negative social, physical, and mental health outcomes associated with complex or unprocessed grief. As a result, the bereaved may experience the following:

Mental Health

  • Complicated or prolonged grief
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Emotional Overwhelm
  • Difficulty Focusing

Physical Health

  • Muscle tension
  • Chronic Pain
  • Insomnia
  • Disordered Eating
  • Substance Misuse/Abuse

Social Support

  • Forced “identity concealment,” causing isolation from community. 
  • Loss of friendships or close relationships
  • Estrangement or exclusion from family members

How can you support yourself to heal from disenfranchised grief?

First, if you or someone you know is suffering from disenfranchised grief, it is critical to acknowledge that your loss and your experience of grief is completely valid. However, it’s important to find ways to support yourself in your healing process when your experience hasn’t been recognized or accepted. 

Create a ritual to honor your grief and your relationship.

Grief rituals are structured, personal acts that can be utilized to regain a sense of control for bereaved people. They provide a time-limited safe space to access and process more difficult emotions related to a loss. These can be done on your own and can be tailored to your specific loss and individual needs and can mark the beginning of a new chapter of your grief journey.

Seek out non-traditional support from like-minded peer groups and communities

Though you may prefer to be supported by close family or friends as they move along their grief journey, it can be helpful to find groups and communities of peers who can better empathize with your individual experience. Grief support groups are a great way to find groups of people who have had similar experiences with a certain degree of specificity. Resources like Meetup, Grief Share can provide details on more general groups that may be meeting in your area. Other organizations, like Center on Halsted’s Senior LGBTQ+ Grief and Loss Group, LOSS (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide), or GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing) provide opportunities for individuals looking to connect with people about specific grief experiences.

Get involved in advocacy and community initiatives to decrease stigma.

It is important to acknowledge that many instances of disenfranchised grief are directly driven by implicit bias, stigma, and oppression/discrimination at a systemic level. Many of the direct consequences and risks of publicly acknowledging these losses cannot be changed without macro changes to policies and institutions. However, getting involved in advocacy and social justice can be an important and healing part of the grief process for individuals affected by disenfranchised grief, helping to create supportive groups and spaces to help others in the future.

Use grief therapy to process and validate your emotions.

For some, meeting regularly with a grief therapist in the wake of a loss can provide an opportunity to process the details of the loss with someone who will support and validate their emotions unconditionally. Grief therapists utilize a wide variety of therapeutic techniques to help you develop coping skills and find meaning as you move forward, including cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and narrative therapy. 

We all deserve a space where we are sought to be understood, and for those whose voices have been silenced, this is all the more important. You are entitled to all the emotions that come up during this time, whether that be sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, disappointment, relief, and sometimes even joy. You do not need to earn the right to grieve.

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