What Is Disenfranchised Grief, Exactly?

As a society, we don’t talk about grief enough. This can leave mourners feeling alone and unable to process a loss. But what about those times when the grief you feel remains unrecognized? For a variety of societal reasons (we’ll get into that soon), your pain is not validated or even acknowledged. This is called disenfranchised grief.

Just when you need collective support, it is denied to you — often for reasons you can’t understand. Such a scenario can leave you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, isolation, shame, and loneliness. To confront this reality, we must first identify what’s going on and why.

Why is Some Grief Not Recognized?

“The loss isn’t that important”

No one would say this if a close family member has passed away. But strangely, unwritten “rules” exist as to who is unworthy of bereavement, e.g.

  • Non-blood relationships (even step-children or step-parents) 
  • Online connections
  • Ex-spouse 
  • Co-worker
  • Miscarriage 
  • Pet 

In some cases, the loss of a same-sex partner can actually be downplayed. 

“It’s complicated”

The cause of death may be something that leaves the griever feeling uncomfortable talking about it. Even worse, the people in their life choose to dismiss the loss because of any perceived stigma. This, for example, may involve suicide, prison, drunk driving, child abuse, drug overdose, or HIV/AIDS.

“It’s not like someone died”

What about the countless forms of loss that do not involve death? Who gets to decide if anything on the list below is “worthy” of grief? 

  • Divorce or the end of any relationship
  • Losing a job
  • Serious medical diagnosis
  • Infertility
  • Empty nest syndrome

Signs of Disenfranchised Grief

You will experience symptoms that fall into the “normal” category for grief and/or depression. For example: 

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep and eating disturbances
  • Anger
  • Loss of focus
  • Inability to deal with stress
  • Anxiety 
  • Losing interest in activities that once excited you

More specifically to disenfranchised grief, a person may display behaviors and perceptions like:

  • Withdrawing from people and losing friends
  • Estrangement from family members
  • Lacking closure related to the loss
  • An overwhelming sense of shame, stigma, and being misunderstood 

How to Manage and Resolve Disenfranchised Grief

1. Be Kind to Yourself

You don’t need anyone’s permission to feel sad — very sad. You are worthy of your emotions and you know your grief is valid. 

2. Create Rituals

If standard methods of bereavement seem to be off-limits, do it your way. Choose methods and rituals that move you toward peace and closure. It could be as simple as handwriting a letter to say goodbye and fully express what you are feeling. 

3. Connect With People Who Understand

If your normal support system is letting you down, you have other options. There are powerful support groups across a broad range of connecting issues. For example, if you are grieving a loss via suicide, connect with people who are also enduring this kind of grief. You can find resources via any search engine. In addition, reaching out to a mental health professional will expedite this process.

4. Help Others

Many folks are experiencing disenfranchised grief. In the midst of your lonely sorrow, you can find meaning in being there for others who feel dismissed. If anyone can understand the value of being validated, it’s you. Put that knowledge to good use.

Do Not Attempt to Go It Alone

Grieving in any way can be very isolating. Disenfranchised grief is particularly lonely. Despite the potential for shame, it is essential to connect with an experienced guide. Therapy is an excellent setting for making sense of a scenario that defies all expectations. If any of the above resonates with you, I’d love to talk with you soon.