Maybe you're sad about pandemic-related life changes. Or perhaps you find yourself taking longer than you (or others) expected to move on from the end of a close friendship. If so, you may be experiencing disenfranchised grief.
People commonly associate mourning with the death of a loved one. But loss of all kinds — including the loss of a routine, job or your health — can trigger grief. And although society may not recognize the cause of your bereavement, your grief is valid and you deserve support.
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To help, here's an overview of disenfranchised grief, including what it is, its signs, examples and tips to help you process your loss.
Naming your loss, creating rituals, focusing on the present and asking for help are some of the ways you can cope with disenfranchised grief.
What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
"Disenfranchised grief is grief that doesn't fit in with your society's attitude or thoughts about how one should deal with death and/or loss," says Kate Cummins, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. "It is different from other types of grief because those around you or your community may not support the grief you are experiencing."
Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka, PhD, coined the term (which is sometimes also referred to as hidden grief or sorrow) in 1989 after a student shared that she felt like she didn't have the right to grieve the death of her ex-husband, as his second wife was his widow and not her. What's more, she received little social support after his death, although she had spent 25 years with him and they shared children.
So be it the death of someone you no longer have a close connection to or the loss of a home, pet or career opportunity, disenfranchised grief is more common than you might think.
Signs and Symptoms
According to the Cleveland Clinic, signs and symptoms of grief may include:
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Loss of hope about the future
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Increased alcohol or drug use
These signs can apply to any form of mourning, and you may experience different symptoms as you process your pain. "Signs of disenfranchised grief are similar to the five stages of grief — denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance," Cummins says.
Moving through disenfranchised grief can be made all the more complicated by the fact that others may dismiss your loss, which can lead to its own set of issues. For instance, "disenfranchised grievers are at risk for developing depression and other mood-related disorders," says Ajita Robinson, PhD, grief and trauma therapist and author of The Gift of Grief.
People experiencing disenfranchised grief may also feel guilt or shame if others invalidate their bereavement or don't offer support. This can lead or contribute to grieving for a longer period — a condition called complicated or prolonged grief, which happens when the painful emotions associated with grieving don't improve over time.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people experiencing prolonged grief may also deal with:
- Numbness or detachment
- An inability to enjoy life or remember good times
- Problems accepting the loss
- Intense sorrow, pain or rumination over the loss
- Trouble carrying out normal routines
Sometimes people with prolonged grief may consider suicide, per the Mayo Clinic. If you feel you might act on suicidal thoughts, call 911 immediately.
Examples of Disenfranchised Grief
The loss of any form of stability or familiarity can trigger disenfranchised grief, according to Alison LaSov, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and chief executive officer of Advekit.
Here are some examples of experiences that can lead to disenfranchised grief (though this list is by no means exhaustive):
- The loss of a job
- The loss of a friendship
- The loss of a home
- The loss of a particular lifestyle
- The loss of regular routines
- The loss of a pet
- The loss or decline of your physical health
- Loss of sentimental objects
- Loss of community
- Loss of a loved one with dementia, even if they're still alive
- Estrangement from family or friends
- The loss of someone you never knew or are no longer close with
- Loss of culture, language or traditions
Many of these losses are encapsulated by the coronavirus pandemic, which Robinson says has opened up a wider conversation about different forms of grief as we collectively mourn lost time, routines and a sense of normalcy. "COVID forced us to acknowledge these non-death-related losses because many of us didn't know how to name them or what was happening to us," she says.
The acknowledging and naming of disenfranchised grief has also had a unifying effect because, as Cummins says, "Disenfranchised grief has been the baseline for every human who is alive [during] the pandemic, as people have lost jobs, houses, family members and friends and heard stories of people they know who have died or have lost during this time."
How to Cope
Grieving can be a non-linear process, disenfranchised or otherwise. In other words, you'll have good and bad days.
And the key to healing may lie in adapting rather than merely coping with your loss.
Why? Adapting can help restore your sense of autonomy in the face of difficult pain, according to the Columbia School of Social Work Center for Complicated Grief. When it comes to pandemic-related loss, adaptivity can also help you better adjust to the ongoing changes of the pandemic, per a July 2020 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Learning healthy ways to cope plays a big role in your healing. Here are some ways you can begin to move through your disenfranchised grief as you adapt to life in the face of an unrecognized or hidden loss.
1. Name Your Loss
Naming your loss is the first step to processing grief. "We must first name our losses and identify people who can bear witness to our grief journey," Robinson says. "Who are the people in your life, personal or professional, who see you? Telling our stories help us in being seen, heard and supported."
2. Ask for Help
Asking for help isn't always easy. "It is difficult for many people to ask for help, as this puts the individual in a vulnerable position that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar," LaSov says.
But it's worth it: Even though you may feel isolated in your grief, finding at least one person — like a loved one, therapist or someone else — who can listen to and support you can make a big difference.
3. Create Rituals
When someone dies, there's often an outpouring of condolences and spiritual or cultural practices to honor the loss. But how do you honor the loss of time spent with family and friends, a job or pre-pandemic life?
Cummins recommends creating rituals that give you space to process your grief, care for yourself and give you a sense of control throughout the experience. Her suggestions include:
- Expressing your feelings or experience through art
4. Focus on the Present
Staying present can help you feel grounded. LaSov recommends starting your morning by making a short list of experiences that could improve your day, like dancing, singing, cooking a nutritious meal, trying a new coffee shop, journaling or talking to a friend who makes you feel safe. Focusing on that one small intention or moment of joy each day may help life feel less daunting as you grieve.
Minimizing your screen time can also help with being present. "Turn off the news, disconnect from your phone, take time to do things with people you love (safely) via video chat or in person," Cummins says.
How to Support Someone Experiencing Disenfranchised Grief
On the flip side, the best way you can support someone navigating disenfranchised grief is to just be there for them.
"Show up emotionally and recognize that it is your job to listen and provide love and empathy," Cummins says. Resist the urge to offer advice or try to relate by sharing a story about yourself, as it may detract from the other person feeling fully seen and heard in their time of need.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.