As with any specific type of grief, disenfranchised grief is a term used mostly by psychologists, in psychology classrooms, or maybe in a therapist’s office or on any of the new therapy apps (which are cool, and you should try them out!).
Most people who are grieving, though, aren’t giving their specific type of grief a name. In fact, some folks might not even recognize their mental state as grieving. And this can be very true with disenfranchised grief.
However, if you are anything like me and a lot of the folks I’ve chatted with about their own grieving habits, you find yourself on the internet between 3 and 5 a.m. (which is the time of grief according to the Chinese body clock) trying to put logic and research to your emotions.
In fact, it was after the passing of my step-dad that I first read Caitlin Doughty’s ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ My step-dad was the first person I knew to be cremated, and Caitlin’s book helped me understand so much about the entire death care industry that is kept behind doors (sometimes for the better if it's what you prefer, and often for the not necessary –– and she is now working on changing that, along with folks like Pale Hearse and a variety of others!).
Needless to say, in my own grief, I read a lot, and research a lot, and like to learn about what I’m going through.
And if that is you, too, then knowing what disenfranchised grief is can be incredibly helpful –– or at least get you through another early morning.
Disenfranchised means that you are denied the right to something that others have. So, what is disenfranchised grief exactly, and how does it play into the grieving process?
What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
Disenfranchised grief is grief that you (the griever) haven’t been given the right to feel. It is unacknowledged grief that often causes us into hidden sorrow and emotional pain.
That sounds crazy, right? Grief is personal and unique. How can anyone deny someone the right to feel it?
The History of Disenfranchised Grief
Great question, and in modern Western culture, that answer goes back to Italy in the Middle Ages when the Western World was seeing a massive shift in cultural rules around grieving, specifically for men.
When King Louis IX first learned about the death of his mother, reports have it that he fell to the ground with grief. Later, he was reproached for showing such strong emotion in the presence of his subjects.
Two hundred years earlier, William the Conqueror, King of England ( 1066–1087), was described in a chronicle as having been “weeping most profusely for many days” for his wife after her demise, which demonstrated “how keenly he felt [her] loss.” He was not reproached.
In fact, Sumptuary Laws in Italy soon literally governed how much you could spend on a funeral and how much emotion you could show. The wealthy then began hiring professional mourners (mostly the poor) rather than being allowed to show emotion themselves.
In the 18th century and the Victorian Age, mourning rules began to expand into dress and attire for women with rules governing how long they were supposed to be mourning for individuals. For a child, it might be 6 months. For a spouse, 5 years. For a parent, 1 year.
We know in these times that disenfranchisement in general was rampant, but so also must have been disenfranchised grief.
We now know that you cannot tell someone how long they are supposed to grieve. Grief is individual, and often, permanent. It waxes and wanes over time in intensity, but it is something each of us must come to live with rather than get over.
For many, grief is also a massive turning point in life, and we give it meaning as such. For myself, my step-dad’s loss got me into therapy, where I soon learned I was in a mentally abusive relationship (and helped me get out). For a friend of mine who lost his mother when he was a teenager in Africa, that loss propelled him to the United States, where he now lives in San Francisco as a nurse anesthetist –– a true self-made man if I ever knew one.
Both of us talk about how the loss changed us, shifted out direction in life for the better. Would we wish the events to happen again? Probably not. But did they make us who we are? Absolutely.
Examples of Disenfranchised Grief: Types of Loss Often Unacknowledged
Loss of a variety of kinds in antiquity used to be disenfranchised, but today, what kinds of loss does society push under the rug and try to tell us aren’t important? Oh, so many!!
For many of us, it isn’t until you’ve experienced this loss that you can even know how society treats it. This is how culture works. It is subversive and pervasive, and often unrecognizable until you are experiencing its side effects.
In Australia, an organization doing death and grief research for more than a deace, The Groundswell Project, recently released the world’s first ever Death Literacy Index. In that index and their research, it has become clear: you cannot improve your death literacy without experiencing a loss yourself.
Loss, after all, if something we will all experience. It is a string that ties us all together –– no matter our politics, our nationality, our race, our gender. And, many of those losses are considered lesser-than in the public’s eye. Here are a few of them, and how we can change that.
1. A death that others think shouldn’t be mourned.
All death deserves to be mourned. It is a loss of life after all. And life is the most precious gift we have. Life is what gives us meaning, it is what enables us to build connections and bonds, and when that is taken away –– grief is only natural.
But in many cases, culture doesn’t approve of grieving, especially publically or for the long-term. Here are a few of those instances.
Pets can easily become our best friends. They are members of the family for so many. And their loss is traumatic and devastating. But you won’t get bereavement leave from work for this loss, nor will everyone completely understand it.
Many people might tell you to, “just get another one,” as though that will help to solve this grief. It won’t.
Culture so often minimizes pet loss –– but this kind of loss is important. Like all loss, the loss of a pet breaks a physical connection and bond. It causes your identity to shift. It changes your daily life. Our pets are with us through thick and thin. Through birthdays and graduations, getting married and buying houses, and so on. They are there for our big events. And they mark the moments of our lives, as we do for them.
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Grieving for them is only natural, and memorializing them is becoming more and more popular. If you’ve experienced the loss of a beloved pet, you are entitled to your grief. Talk about them. Tell stories about them. And help people understand that minimizing the situation only hurts, doesn’t help.
Death of an ex-spouse or lover:
The death of an ex-spouse or lover can produce both disenfranchised grief and complicated grief. Just because you aren’t with someone anymore –– even if it has been many decades –– doesn’t reduce the connection you had. Even if the relationship didn’t end well, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t positives to the person or the relationship, or that there is still something to mourn (like the passing of time).
Grief is a fantastic reminder to us all that things are not black and white. There is so much gray area to us, and within us all exist multitudes.
You may grieve one part of a person, while feeling relief in other regards. It’s hard to tell. Either way, you are entitled to your grief for an ex-husband, ex-wife, or lover no matter what happened between you, and how long it has been.
A difficult family member:
We don’t get to choose our family –– at least not at the beginning. And many of us don’t end up so lucky. Sometimes, you have an absent parent. Sometimes, there is an abuser in the family. And when those folks die, you may still feel grief –– complicated grief, overwhelming grief, and disenfranchised grief.
Because someone has wronged you doesn’t mean you won’t grieve them, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (or that you won't).
Our bodies and brains hold on to trauma, and grief can be just one step of many to releasing that trauma, and acknowledging life.
- Perhaps you are grieving the life you wished you had.
- Perhaps you are grieving for the hope you once saw in that person.
- Perhaps you are just grieving because something in you needs to.
No matter what it is, you have every right to take the time you need to process and grieve.
Death of an online friend (cyber loss):
At the end of 2018, I received a stark email from the co-founder of a company I was partnering with. We were exchanging content and blogs, and I was excited to be working with them. This email, though, didn’t come from the co-founder I had been working with. Instead, it was an email describing a terrible accident in which the man who I had never met in person, but had emailed with multiple times, died.
It was a weird moment for me. It took me by surprise.
As did my grief for him and his family. He had built such a cool product. He was building such a great company. He was such a nice guy from my perspective –– easy to work with and fast to get things done.
I remember calling my mom to tell her about it, and telling multiple other people. Thankfully, everyone listened. When I said, “I feel so weird to be grieving him. I never even met him in person,” everyone understood.
Perhaps that is a sign of our times. All of us have friends online we’ve never met in person. But if they passed, we’d feel their loss and their absence. For these people, we too are allowed to grieve.
Death of other non-blood relationships (friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc):
Culture and society seems to deem that you are more allowed to grieve the closer you were to someone. But that is not how grief plays out in practice. The passing of friends, neighbors, and co-workers –– whether they were your close friends and colleagues, or just someone you said good morning to every day –– can shatter our worlds.
There is no such written bereavement leave for these people, but many of these folks add such value to our lives –– and are our chosen family.
A good example here is the mailman back home. My step-dad was an ardent Amazon purchaser. He had so much on repeat order. And when he passed, the mailman noticed. He asked my mom where Jay was –– and she had to deliver the sad news. The mailman was heart broken. They had only ever said hi and thank you, and good afternoon, and hope you are doing well. But the two of them had come to expect the small banter, and enjoy each other’s company. That mailmax came to his funeral.
An LGBTQI spouse or partner:
Unfortunately, writing this as a woman happily married to another woman, there are families who never accepted their adult child’s sexual orientation and who therefore don’t permit the grieving partner to come to the funeral.
How absolutely terrible and vile. Spouses and partners are often some of the most affected by death. In grief, yes, but also in daily ritual or in the household, where death leaves you with all of their things expect for their physical presence.
In the world, culture and society deem some things OK and others not, and those attitudes can change quickly as we’ve seen.
But in the longer term, in the universe, in the importance of connection and bonds, none of us know what is on the other side of death.
All we know is who we love, and that love itself is the most important thing any of us have.
As a result, your grief for your partner need not be disenfranchised. It is welcome. It is necessary. And, it is beautiful.
Grief from a miscarriage, the loss of a child, is so difficult. Sometimes, people didn’t even know you were expecting, and therefore don’t know that you are dealing with grief at all. Others know, but think that because the child wasn’t yet born, or hadn’t reached a certain trimester, that the loss itself isn’t that great.
This can’t be further from the truth. Love extends beyond death, that we know. So too does love begin before birth.
For those who have miscarried, their love is real and tangible. And their grief is complicated –– but shouldn’t be disenfranchised.
There may be guilt and regret. There may be fear and anxiety. Those can be talked about, and as a culture we can help these families heal, remember, and honor.
Grieving someone you didn’t know at all (like a celebrity):
When a major celebrity dies, so many people are surprised at the grief they feel. This is normal! Celebrities often inspire us, and encourage us, even if we never knew them in person.
While society might look down on those grieving for a celebrity, know that this has been happening since the beginning of time. You will likely mourn just about anyone who has made an impact on your life –– celebrities included.
This includes presidents, well-known CEOs, musicians, actors and actresses, etc., etc., etc.
2. Stigmatized deaths.
There are certain deaths in our culture that are stigmatized and often looked down upon. Yet, no one should be remembered for the way they died.
Life is about so much more than our final moments –– no matter what those final moments were.
Here are a few stigmatized deaths, and why they shouldn’t be (one of which is because stigmatization causes disenfranchised grief).
Culture continues to demonize suicide –– a relic from strong religious beliefs of the past. These days, we’ve come to understand that suicide is so often linked with mental health issues and a lack of treatment or fear on the part of the person who died.
At Eterneva, we prefer not to talk about the suicide itself, but instead to talk about the person and who they were.
What they loved to do, who they loved, and how they were working on growing and looking forward to life.
Mental health issues need attention, and care, and work. We shouldn’t stigmatize someone because they didn’t get that.
Drug overdoses have long been looked down upon as a failure of family to help or step in. But we know now that the pharmaceutical industry has been selling us incredibly addictive drugs for decades –– and they are now having to pay billions as a result.
So many of the overdoses these days are accidental, and began with a simply surgery or some necessary procedure that ended up leading someone down a path they would have never otherwise taken.
Liz Pires’s daughter Megan is one such story, and today, Liz works to change laws to help stop this madness.
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Death because of a car accident caused by driving drunk (or drug impaired):
Every single one of us are more than the worst mistake we’ve made. Our lives hold so much more value that that. For those grieving the death of someone who was driving drunk or impaired, others often don’t offer their deep condolences. After all, there was a law in place to prevent this that was ignored.
And while that may be true, every single one of us have made so many mistakes, many of which could have taken our lives. And yet, we skirted through.
Grief cannot be taken away, nor should a life be devalued, because of a mistake or a single action.
Gang-related deaths often scare people. They show people our human tendency to seek groups and acceptance in absence of such. But these deaths too are loss of life, and deserve grief as much as any other.
3. Death of those who were suffering.
Sometimes, disenfranchised grief can come when you’ve been expecting someone’s death.
For instance, in our society, people often minimize the loss of grandparents because they were older and lived out a long life. While that is amazing for them, certainly, it doesn’t change your own grief at their loss.
Here are a few times this might happen:
A person who had a life threatening disease or dementia:
“They aren’t suffering anymore,” is something folks often say to comfort you in your grief at the loss of someone who had a long-standing illness or dementia.
And while that may be true, it doesn’t stop your own grief from existing. This can be complicated grief as well, as you may feel some relief at no longer having to abide by the duties of taking care of them –– but even that loss of routine can cause grief.
My Aunt Ann, for instance, had a difficult situation a year or so ago. Her husband’s brother passed suddenly, and soon after, his dad became ill (dementia) and needed constant care. Ann also lives next door to her own parents who are in their late 80s –– healthy, but she still attends to them as she can.
In the meantime, her children were getting married and beginning to have kids of their own, and she found it difficult to balance and juggle everything. So, for the most part, she stayed home with her father-in-law taking care of him, and had her own mother over for lunch and tea.
When her father-in-law passed a year later, I remember her telling me: “This is the cycle the of life. It is sad, but we did all we could. Once you finish taking care of the kids, next it is the parents. And the sadness and joy exist all in the same.”
A very old person:
There is often little public sympathy for someone who passes after living a long, healthy life. But for those left behind, who were close to the person, the grief is the same.
Sure, you can be comforted by the amount of time you had with them, but it doesn’t change your sadness and grief at their absence.
Someone who was in a coma:
Modern medicine has given us so much, including hope by helping those in comas life longer and hopefully have their body and brain heal. But, it doesn’t always happen that way, and when it doesn’t, some people will minimize the situation.
But the grief you feel at their loss is the same you would feel for any other loss. You had hope that they would overcome this, and that coupled with the natural grief of their death is intense.
Ways to Manage & Overcome Disenfranchised Grief
OK, so you’ve made it this far down and now you have identified your feelings as disenfranchised grief. That’s great –– even if it doesn’t feel like it is –– because you have named the feeling. That is the very first step to working through it.
Here are additional ways to explore your feelings, and move disenfranchised grief to regular grief, and begin the healing processes, which is more of a learning to live with process, of the essential life experience.
1. Acknowledge your love for the person is real and no less valid.
This person was your best friend, your spouse, your partner, your first boyfriend, your beloved pet –– whoever they were, society can not tell you differently. How you felt, through good times and bad, is valid.
However you feel now about their death is equally as valid. Whether that is profuse sadness, confusion, or even a small sense of relief.
Grief involves so many emotions –– not just sadness –– and that isn’t talked about often. You can feel a myriad of things and still be experiencing grief. That’s ok! Acknowledge the role this person played in your life, and honor them for that role they filled for you.
2. Realize it only matters what you think.
My sister once told me, “You have a right not to know what other people think about you.” It is a saying that I remind myself of often, though only in my 30s did I begin to understand.
What she really meant was that it only matters what you think of yourself, and that you follow your own heart and needs and desires. Of course, this is only true if you aren’t hurting others!
So, remember, you have a right not to know what other people think. They can think what they want. Most of what they think is just a reflection on themselves, anyway.
You get to mourn how you want to, and as a result, you will find the people, family, and friends who understand, you empathize and who are your people.
3. Talk to a therapist.
I am so happy we are living in an era in which therapy is being desigmatized and in which access to it is becoming easier and easier. Use this tool! It helps to have an objective third-party to talk to, who can hold a mirror up to your sayings and thoughts and give you tools for how to manage certain emotions or situations.
I went to therapy after my step-dad passed and to this day, it is the absolute best decision I’ve made for my life –– both for my grief, and for the myriad of other situations I had gotten myself into leading up to that point.
Therapy and grief counseling helps the grief, as well as the whole person.
4. Do something to memorialize the person who passed.
Memorialization is how we honor those we love. At Eterneva, our goal is to change the conversation around death, grief and remembrance. It shouldn’t be pushed over the rug or disenfranchised itself. Memorialization is an incredibly important part of grieving and active mourning.
Whether you choose to have them cremated (and have an urn for their ashes or choose solidified remains) or bury them, have a memorial diamond created or a beautiful necklace, how you memorialize them should be personal and represent the unique connection and bond you built.
5. Talk to people you are close to about the situation.
Talk to people about how you are feeling. Help others understand how, if they have, minimized the situation so that they can do better.
People love you, want to help, and provide a social support system. This is often why we say the things we do, even when they hurt more than they help.
Remember, none of us are taught how to handle grief, our own or that of those we love. And in the process, we do things we think are right but aren’t. Help your loved ones understand how you are feeling, what helps, and what doesn’t, and let them be a part of your healing process.
You’ll find this build better relationships, connections, and bonds –– and helps us all acknowledge the legacy we leave when we depart this world.
Also, you can use this opportunity to find a support group if that is something that interests you.
Disenfranchised grief doesn’t feel good. In fact, it might not feel like grief at all. It could feel like anger or deep sadness, like relief or anxiety. Hopefully if you have landed here, you can learn whether what you are feeling is this type of grief –– or not. And if it is, take actionable steps to help you move yourself back to grief (not the disenfranchised kind).
Remember: grief is not something to be solved. It is something to be revered and explored.
We all will experience grief of all sorts and types. The experience of loss is just as important as other crucial experiences in life.
It is important that we let this ancient emotion affect us, guide us, and teach us that nothing in this life is eternal –– and that the time we spend with others will always impact us in one way or another.