Disenfranchised Grief

Mary’s 21-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in his dorm room at college during a break between semesters. Three days later he was discovered by a cousin. He had a history of addiction, but was thought to be doing well. Mary’s family and friends were devastated but did their best to comfort and support the grieving parents. However, an aura of judgment and indifference began to emerge from some friends, with a cloud of implied questions like: “What kind of parents were they?” and “How could they let this happen?” Mary and her husband eventually made the decision to move to a new location for a fresh start.

Anne’s sister died by suicide. Anne was overwhelmed by grief and unable to fully comprehend what had happened, let alone answer the questions of others. The unending “Whys?” and the feelings of guilt and anger obscured any offers of comfort. Anne was also part of a cultural community that did not acknowledge suicidal ideations or acts. Anne felt incredibly alone and did not know how to mourn her loss.

I reconnected about a year ago with a relative whom I had not seen or heard from in many years. We enjoyed phone calls across the country, reminiscing about family stories, trading news of a family separated by life. Then, after not being able to reach this woman for several weeks, I received by return mail a card I had sent her with the shocking word: “deceased” handwritten on the front of the envelope. Because of family difficulties over the years, there was no one I could call to commiserate with, or who could even tell me the circumstances of her death. It was a lonely and painful feeling because of the death itself and because there was no one to share the grief.

These are examples of disenfranchised grief, a term that refers to relationships or circumstances of a death that are considered out of the mainstream or unusual in some way. These types of losses do not elicit the kind of sympathy or support one might receive in more “normal” circumstances.

While disenfranchised grief is more familiar to grief counselors and academics, this type of grief happens in real-life settings everywhere. Knowing there is a name for it often helps people understand and cope with their losses. Simply put, disenfranchised grief can occur when people are denied the right to grieve or even to fully express their mourning.

It can also come from a death that is stigmatized by society: the result of a suicide, overdose, drunk driving, or a family member dying in prison. Other examples include deaths of an ex-spouse, a co-worker, a same-sex partner, a stillbirth, a stepparent or stepchild, a neighbor, a friend or other non-blood relationships, including the death of a beloved pet. These are often the types of relationships that others perceive as somehow less important than they are.

People manifest grief in many ways: sleeplessness, sleeping too much, overeating or lack of appetite, physical pain, crying, not crying, numbness or oversensitivity, lack of focus or hyper focusing. In short, anything that people experience in grief is normal. The process of grieving and mourning is not time-specific and there is no set order for stages of grief. These symptoms of bereavement are common to all types of grief and loss. Simply recognizing that people in disenfranchised grief are hurt by these less visible types of losses, and that their grief is no less real or painful than others, is helpful.

Disenfranchised grief is real and more difficult for its hidden or camouflaged aspects in the lives of the sufferers. As a friend recently said to me: “People in disenfranchised grief are victims twice. Once for the loss itself, and once for the shame or guilt or loneliness they experience.”

Acknowledging loss in all its manifestations helps to alleviate the pain caused by death. Leave any judgment of character or morals aside, and simply bear witness to the pain of another.

Most people who go through loss eventually come to a state of reconciliation with it. The key phrase in this statement is “go through,” as someone finding their way in uncharted territory. Each person’s journey is unique. Friends and family can offer support, bravely making themselves vulnerable in the face of another’s pain. By standing alongside the sufferer, not as a guide, but as a fellow sufferer, we can help those who mourn.

Vicki Husted Biggs is a longtime social worker who lives in Home.

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