The Pain of Unaccepted Grief

Carl’s partner Bob died. Bob’s parents would not allow Carl to play a role in Bob’s funeral plans and Bob’s healthcare providers did not recognize Carl’s decision- making authority. 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.

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.

References

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.

Mind the Gap: Living in the Space Between Loss and Healing

One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning.  All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief.  For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one.  Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change.  The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.

Our lives are always in transition.  Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation.     After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable.  William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something.  So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”

Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth.   How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something?  The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety.  Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity:  Where do you feel it in your body?  What is it telling you?  Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.

Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone:  Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath.  Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath.  Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.

Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone.  Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious.  We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.

Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone.  The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward.  Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves.  Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal.  Without death, there can be no rebirth.

The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change.  We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them.  Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise.  As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found.  It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self.  We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”

REFERENCES

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA:  Perseus Books.

Washburn, M. (1996).  The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It:  The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith.  In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York:  G. Putnam’s Sons.