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Disenfranchised Grief: When Others Don’t Understand Your Loss and How To Cope With It

Candles (Photo by Mike Labrum via Unsplash)

This article looks at disenfranchised grief, what it is, how it manifests in the culture and how to cope with it.

In 2018, I unexpectedly learned information that shattered the foundation of my life. In the aftermath, I moved through a multitude of emotions.

Even with my professional background as a therapist and trauma coach, I lacked preparation and had difficulty coping. For months, I would be up in the middle of the night, not able to sleep and researching online to find something that offered language for what I was experiencing.

Grief (Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)
Grief (Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

I found very little

Eventually, I discovered a growing online community of people who were going through the same experience. They too were struggling to find language, understanding and meaning.

Adult third Culture Kid (ATCK), Religious Trauma Expert and author Rebekah Drumsta says:

One’s sense is that a loss cannot fully express until it is named, But once named, you can better process and feel your emotions.

Like me, many reported feeling lost, alone, confused and suffering in silence before finding the group. Some were being asked to keep their discovery hidden out of fears of being exposed or public reaction.

Correspondingly for others, the stigma prevented loved ones from interacting in helpful ways and/or they were shamed, criticized, judged or blamed for disclosing their story, and even shunned.

Though not unfamiliar with the term, I gradually began to realize that a foremost, confounding factor that I and the others were experiencing was disenfranchised grief

Grief (Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash)
Grief (Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash)

WHAT IS DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF?

Disenfranchised grief is when your grieving doesn’t fit in with your larger society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss. Therefore, the lack of support you get during your grieving process can prolong emotional pain.

WebMD

Psychologist Kenneth Doca coined the phrase “disenfranchised grief” in 1987. It describes how grieving doesn’t fit in with larger society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss of someone or something important. Likewise, the term helps capture the emotions that a person experiences with a significant loss that is not fully acknowledged, seen as worth of grieving, socially validated or publicly mourned.

Generally, there is no social recognition that the person has a right to grieve or have a claim to receive social sympathy or support from loved ones or society to process the loss. The lack of recognition or support impacts a person’s ability to fully process their grief.

In their seminal Third Culture Kids book, David Pollack and Ruth Van Reken discuss “unresolved grief.” They defined this as an experience of unrecognized loss of children and adolescents, due to having lived cross culturally and having those losses not acknowledged by others.

According to Pollack and Van Reken, TCKs lose the worlds they love, and in some cases they have experienced multiple moves and losses over time. They get told that they are resilient, adaptive and will make new friends. With each move, they recycle back through the stages of the grief process, again.

Additionally, they noted that TCKs often don’t have the language to identify or process their losses. They haven’t yet learned how to deal with these losses, as they happened. In response, they may push it down, submerge it and may not be able to process their losses until later in life. 

Grief (Photo by Kat J on Unsplash)
Grief (Photo by Kat J on Unsplash)

THE ROLE OF CULTURE (LOSS OF CULTURE)

Each culture has its own way of expressing emotions and is a highly personal, subjective experience. It weaves into individuals from an early age and influences how individuals, families and communities express grief.

While some parts of the world consider the open display of emotion acceptable and expected, others might discourage this conduct based on their distinctive beliefs and practices. 

University of San Francisco professor Dr. Susan Morell states:

Every society has norms that frame the way individuals grieve. These norms also help define significant and insignificant losses.

Furthermore, she states there are losses that exist within cultures where social stigma prevents discussion or acknowledgement. When the ways individuals grieve, or the losses they endure, go beyond accepted social norms, their grief may be seen as disenfranchised.

Grief (Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash)
Grief (Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash)

TCK grief expert Kathleen Gilbert conducted a study that found the losses TCKs experience are often ambiguous and their grief is frequently disenfranchised.

Many of the losses (both hidden and recognized) dealt with to persons, places, pets and possessions. In addition, existential losses, particularly the loss of meaning related to various aspects of themselves, their losses focused on safety and trust, who they are, the loss of personal identity and the loss of home.

For immigrant and refugee communities, the complex layers of loss and grief  are similar to the TCK experience: loss of support, distance from family units, loss of deeper nuances of language and culture.

In minority cultures, marginalized communities and people who are in liminal, in-between spaces, empathic failures at the societal level can lead to unacknowledged, ambiguous and prolonged grief. Consequently, common factors are long term racism, otherism, microaggressions social invalidation by the dominant culture or society. 

EXAMPLES OF DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF

  • Failed adoption
  • Moving from hometown or home country
  • Cherished family member develops health concerns that causes relationship changes
  • Loved one dying by suicide, drug overdose or COVID-19
  • Miscarriage or giving birth to a stillborn child
  • Loss of a same sex partner or affair relationship through breakup or death
  • Revelation of family secrets not seen in a positive light or culturally taboo

WAYS TO COPE WITH DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF

  • Seek support from people who acknowledge your loss without judgement.
  • Find an online or local group that can relate in ways that friends and family cannot.
  • Employ creative expression – draw, paint, sculpt, make a collage, journal, meditate.
  • Seek therapy or coaching.

CONCLUSION

When we lose something or someone, it’s painful and hard, especially when disenfranchised by others. 

However, you can learn coping skills to honor and help yourself.

Furthermore, while traumatic events and losses can shatter one’s sense of being and existence, it also can become an opportunity to embrace a new sense of self and the life changes it brings.

Candles (Photo by Mike Labrum via Unsplash)
Candles (Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash)
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1 comment

  1. I can definitely identify with
    Disenfranchised Grief.
    As a person who have experienced losses of a spouse,
    possessions, my pet and my freedom in more ways that I ever imagined.
    I experienced the sleepless nights, feeling lost and without purpose. In addition to those feelings, I had to keep most of my feelings private so that I could protect my daughter and granddaughter whose world was also devastated when I lost my husband, their father and grandfather.
    I truly appreciate this article
    It’s ok to grieve and still be normal
    Thank you Dr. Bethel

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