Some forms of grief are unaccepted in our society. This has come to be known as “disenfranchised grief.”
For example, Carl’s partner Bob died. Bob’s parents would not allow Carl to play a role in Bob’s funeral plans. Peggy’s beloved dog Lolly died three months ago, and her friends don’t understand the depth of her grief. Janet’s ex-husband died in a car accident, and her friends think she should be glad he is finally out of her life instead of being sad and grieving. Barbara’s best friend committed suicide, and she feels more judgment than compassion from her peers regarding the death. Laurie’s son has been diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness, and her family and friends don’t understand her grief.
These are all examples of what has been called (Doka, 1989) “disenfranchised grief.” Disenfranchised grief has been described as “a grief that persons experience when they sustain a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported” (Doka, 1989, p. 6). Disenfranchised grievers may feel that they don’t have the right to grieve, and may feel abandoned or isolated in their pain. Validation, acknowledgement and support are vital to the healing of grief, and when these elements are missing, the grief process can become complicated and difficult, requiring professional grief counseling.
Disenfranchised grief can occur when (1) the relationship is not recognized, (2) the loss is not recognized, or (3) the griever is not recognized. Examples of unrecognized relationships include those between gay partners, ex-spouses, neighbors, colleagues, counselors and others. In the example of Carl and Bob described above, Carl sought grief counseling to work out his feelings of anger toward Bob’s parents and toward the medical establishment. My nonjudgmental validation of Carl’s feelings and acceptance of his grief assisted him on the road to healing.
Pet loss is an important example of a loss that is not recognized. Peggy came to see me because her grief about the loss of her beloved Lolly had become depression: she blamed herself for Lolly’s death, and was judging herself and feeling shame for having such strong feelings of grief. Peggy’s harsh self-judgments were reinforced by the responses of her friends that it was “only a dog” and that she should “get over it.” In validating the depth of Peggy’s grief, I assured her of the strength of the human-animal bond and the unconditional love we receive from our pets, and that her grief was not only acceptable, but right.
Other examples of losses that are not universally recognized or accepted include abortion, divorce, infertility, job loss, disability, suicide and witnessing another’s decline due to dementia. Some of these losses, such as suicide or abortion, are not always socially validated, and cannot always be publicly expressed. A deep sense of loss may be felt after losing a job, losing one’s independence due to disability or illness or having a loved one with dementia. However, because there is no literal, physical death in these situations, the grief that these types of losses can cause is not always recognized or accepted. Group support, in addition to counseling, for these types of losses can be very helpful and validating.
Disenfranchised grief can also occur when the griever is not recognized, because it is incorrectly assumed that he or she is not capable of grief. Examples include children, people with dementia, roommates in nursing homes, and people with developmental disabilities. Everyone experiences loss and grief, and a person’s level of cognitive development or dysfunction must be taken into account in providing support and counseling.
Those experiencing disenfranchised grief may lack the social (or societal) support necessary to face the pain of grief and accommodate it, and if the relationship has been severed or not openly acknowledged, there are often no bereavement rituals or outlets for expression to help the disenfranchised griever cope with the loss (Rando, 1988). Indeed, the “very nature of disenfranchised grief creates additional problems for grief, while removing or minimizing sources of support” (Doka, 1989, p. 7). The support of a grief counselor or group can be of great help for those experiencing the complications of disenfranchised grief, so that the loss can be validated and the grief transformed into healing and growth.
Doka, K., ed. (1989). Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York: Lexington Books.
Rando, T. (1988). How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books.