How to Recognize and Cope with Disenfranchised Grief

If you’ve ever lost a parent, spouse, or child, you’ve probably known the healing power that comes from the loving consolation of family, friends, and coworkers. But what happens if the people closest to you aren’t there for you when you need them most?

Disenfranchised grief is grief that isn’t recognized or accepted as legitimate by the important people in your life. It doesn’t matter whether you simply can’t bring yourself to share your grief with anyone else or your grief was rejected or ignored by someone you tried to share it with. The end result is the same – your grief is very real, you’re facing it alone, and the heartbreak and loneliness you feel may be overwhelming.

Following are some examples of the ways grief can be disenfranchised, along with suggestions on what you can do to deal with it.

  • Others don’t recognize your loss because they don’t know you had a relationship with the person who died, or they don’t realize how close you were to the deceased. This can occur when you experience a miscarriage, if the person who died was your secret friend or lover, or if you are a health care professional who formed a close relationship with a patient who died. Finding a friend who is a good listener and talking about your grief can help – you don’t have to go through this alone.
  • Your grief isn’t over the death of a person. The death of a pet, a failed marriage, or loss of health, job, or finances can cause tremendous grief, but if someone close to you fails to acknowledge what you’re going through or tells you to “just get over it,” that’s disenfranchised grief. Rather than meaning any harm, that person is probably acting out of a lack of empathy. Someone who doesn’t particularly like animals may be unable to relate to the sadness you feel over the death of your beloved dog, for example.
  • Your family or friends put their judgment of your relationship before compassion. Homosexual, interfaith, cross-cultural, or interracial relationships are examples; people who judge or condemn such relationships might not acknowledge your loss. Withholding sympathy in such circumstances is cruel, but there’s nothing you can do to change the attitudes and beliefs of another person. Instead, try to surround yourself with people who appreciate and love you for who you are. If your family isn’t accepting, think about creating a family that works for you.
  • The death is dismissed as insignificant because of the circumstances surrounding it. If the actions of the deceased are viewed as contributing to his death – in the case of suicide, AIDS, alcoholism, or a drug overdose, for example – social stigma may prevent some people from acknowledging your loss. The death of a very old person or someone who has been sick for a very long time may also be viewed in this manner. The problem is, the person who died wasn’t an illness or an action or an age – she was a real human being who held an important place in your life. A support group for people who have experienced what you’re going through may be helpful.

Caring for Yourself

Above all, remember: your grief is yours and yours alone. No one has the right to judge or tell you how, when, where, or why you should grieve. If the people you turn to for love and consolation have nothing to offer, they are the ones with the problem – don’t let it become your problem, too. Allow yourself the time and space and freedom you need to honor your loss and recover from your grief. Try to connect with people who can and will support you; your doctor or your pastor may be able to suggest support groups or other resources to help you process your grief.

Have you experienced disenfranchised grief? Can you suggest resources to help others who are feeling isolated and lonely in their grief?

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