Disenfranchised Grief Might Be the Hardest Kind to Process—Here's What It Is and Why, According to Experts
This type of grief can bring on challenging emotions.
It's natural to grieve someone or something we love when we lose it. But some types of losses are less likely to be accepted by a culture or society, which can add another layer of difficult emotions, like guilt and shame.
This kind of grief is known as disenfranchised grief or hidden grief, and it refers to any grief that is not acknowledged or accepted by society at large.
"We understand the death of someone close, a divorce or perhaps a job loss as 'warranting' grief, but in reality we are grieving many things in the course of our lives, and when that grief gets stuck or is too big we need help," Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City, tells Health. "So the concept of disenfranchised grief is meant to underscore the ways these accepted versus ignored forms of grief can be acknowledged versus ignored."
Disenfranchised grief can happen when others don't believe the grief someone is experiencing is either worthy or understood. "The person who is grieving can feel like they don't have the right to grieve or have actually been told by society's standards that their grief does not matter," Diane P. Brennan, LMHC, founder of Life & Loss Mental Health Counseling in New York City, tells Health. "You can think of it as not being seen as a griever and feeling that the pain of your loss is invisible to the world."
Types of disenfranchised grief
"Disenfranchised grief refers to any grief over a meaningful loss that is not socially acknowledged, validated as important or not publicly mourned," M. Katherine Shear, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and director of the Center for Complicated Grief, tells Health.
Typical examples include relationships that are LGBTQ, polyamorous, cross racial, or cross-religion. Hidden grief might also apply to people who lose a casual partner or an ex-partner they were still close to, or people who lose an online friend or someone they never knew, like an absent parent or sibling.
Another type of disenfranchised grief is when someone grieves the loss of a person who's still alive, i.e. after a breakup or as a result of an illness like dementia. It's still a permanent loss that has the potential to cause deep distress, but many people don't consider this to be significant enough to grieve. Other examples of non-death loss are failed adoptions, the loss of possessions, the loss of health or mobility, the loss of your home, even the loss of part of your life to abuse or neglect.
The loss of certain relationships, such as the death of a pet, a co-worker, or a teacher, can also cause disenfranchised grief, because many people don't consider grief over these losses to be significant.
What does disenfranchised grief look like?
Disenfranchised grief has multiple levels. On top of the grief response to the primary loss, there's the loss of acknowledgement and the absence of important avenues of social support. "The main difference from 'regular' grief is the added burden of the loss of social acknowledgment, validation, and support," explains Dr. Shear. This is a crucial distinction, because social support, shared grief, and validation of grief responses are important avenues of support for adapting to loss—it's the way grief is processed.
Dr. Shear points out that grief is always unique to each person and each loss, so the generalities in how disenfranchised grief is experienced are pretty broad.
Because disenfranchised grief is minimized or not understood by others, it can be particularly hard to process and work through. Basically, the rituals and support systems that typically go hand-in-hand with grief, from sympathy cards to extra bereavement leave from work, don't exist when the loss is one that society doesn't validate. And then there are the dismissive comments, like "it was only a dog" or "at least you're still alive," which can make the grief resolution process even harder.
Processing disenfranchised grief
One of the first steps in dealing with hidden grief is to recognize that grief that's not acknowledged or validated by one's social group is not "invalid" grief, says Dr. Shear.
The process may be easier if you can see grief as a form of love, she adds—the form love takes when someone we love dies, which deserves to be honored as such.
Social expectations can make dealing with disenfranchised grief more difficult. For instance, friends and family members might expect you to "get over" a breakup within a certain length of time. Or your employer might expect you to be productive even if you've just experienced a loss. This can increase stress, which makes self-compassion so important. To think of it another way, it means being aware of your own suffering, accepting it, and treating your own pain with sympathy without letting it take over your whole life.
Mindfulness meditation, which involves paying close attention to your own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in a non-judgmental way, is one way to cultivate self-compassion. Dr. Shear also suggests educating other people about loss and grief to obtain their support. In many cases, this isn't possible, which is why grief support groups can be invaluable.
"Grief support groups are effective because they create connections with others who understand grief because they have had a similar experience," says Brennan. By helping individuals give voice to their feelings and learn ways to acknowledge and express their emotions, groups are natural support systems. "They provide those who are grieving a space to openly talk about their grief related feelings, and to be understood," Brennan adds.
It may also help to acknowledge and process any anger, shame, or guilt associated with disenfranchised grief, which may be easier with professional help. A good therapist or counselor won't judge you or downplay your grief but instead offer you the support you need.
How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.