What is disenfranchised grief, and why does it matter how others respond to your mourning?

“Disenfranchised grief” definition

Disenfranchised grief occurs when others don’t see your experience as grief-worthy. The term refers to grief that isn’t commonly recognized, understood, or accepted as valid.

You have experienced a loss. Grieving and mourning feel appropriate to you, yet others around you misunderstand or just don’t get it. Friends and loved ones under-value your feelings because they don’t think what you’re going through is worth grieving. But these feelings are real.

If you’re feeling grief for your experience, the experience counts as grief-worthy.

Some examples of what you are feeling may come from a pet who has gone missing or died, receiving and coming to terms with a difficult medical diagnosis for you or a loved one, or maybe you have been displaced from your home, your belongings, or your job. 

Why are these experiences of grief “disenfranchised”? 

Society as a whole doesn’t always view at pets as equal to human family members. Therefore, mourning the loss of a pet might not be understood or accepted. Getting that difficult diagnosis might point to an eventual loss, but if you are technically “fine” right now, others might see grief as an overreaction. And in the case of an occupational or financial loss, you might face judgment for getting yourself into the situation-even if it was through no real fault of your own.

Why does it matter whether others understand your grief?

Well, quite simply when you are not sure how others will respond to your less-conventional grief experience, it can exacerbate fear and anxiety. This intensifies the depression you’re already experiencing. Being concerned about feeling judged or criticized, rather than receiving compassion and support, may create additional emotional stress.  

Also, when others understand your grief, they can help validate your emotions. Validation can help you find the courage to accept and “sit with” difficult emotions. Knowing others “get” what you are going through gives uplift and hope.

Understanding and validation can additionally help create a feeling of connection, which is a key to healing. Talking things out or having an empathetic ear to listen offers relief and a chance to navigate through your experience. Knowing you are not alone provides you strength.

In the case of disenfranchised grief, even if others understand what you’re going through, the weight of your experience may not be reflected in societal norms and attitudes. At work, it’s expected you may take time off for the loss of a close family member–usually no questions asked. But what about a friend? Or when your pet dies? Then, others’ reactions become less clear-cut, which can complicate your healing process.

Examples of disenfranchised grief and its impact on your healing process

What if you’ve had an affair and suddenly lose that partner? Or you recently ended another form of unrecognized relationship. You may not feel comfortable disclosing the grief you’re experiencing. It’s harder to feel the healing power of connection as you grieve in secret. 

Maybe you were extremely close with your late ex-sibling-in-law, but aren’t on speaking terms with your ex. Disconnection from a meaningful extended family relationship is a painful deprivation. How do you navigate the murky social waters of that situation?

What about having an invisible illness that leaves you mourning your past status quo? Struggling to cope with loss of physical or cognitive ability causes mourning for a time of activity and independence. But if your loss isn’t outwardly obvious, it may feel strange to share your feelings about it.

Unexpected events of death by suicide or addiction often carry an uncomfortable stigma. How are you expected to grieve these lives lost? Compassion seems to come with reservations under such circumstances.

The pain of infertility or miscarriage for persons wanting desparately to have offspring to share love and life is unbearable. Without realizing other’s comments of temporary separation from living children tear at the heart of a mother who has no child to raise. 

Frankly, disenfranchised grief comes in many forms. However, grief can be felt for a plethora of reasons–all valid. Period.

How can you help others understand your disenfranchised grief?

You can do something to assist people in their reaction to your disenfranchised grieving process. 

Invite others in and ask for what you need

In the case of disenfranchised grief, loved ones may not grasp what your experience feels like. You may have to name what happened and then describe the depth of its emotional impact on you to help them understand. You may have to ask for precisely what you need from them, emotionally.

  • “I’ve been feeling deeply lonely since X. But I don’t really have any words. Would you be willing to sit quietly with me for a while?”
  • “I feel like my life has stopped because of X. Next time you get out and about, could I come along with you?”
  • “After X, my only feeling is Y. I feel like people don’t understand why I feel this way. Do you have emotional space for me to talk it out?”
  • “I haven’t been feeling myself lately. I am working through X. Have you ever experienced something similar? What did you do?”
  • “All I think about is losing X and it is overwhelming. Could I share about X with you? Maybe it would help me to move on and feel better.” 

Communicate around responsibilities

Those who rely on you, such as employers, co-workers, community members, may not understand that you are grieving. This may require you to approach responsibilities differently. In cases like these, express what you’re struggling with, aiming to minimize the impact to all involved.

  • “I understand that this is an uncommon situation and our organization may not have a protocol for dealing with this kind of grief. Could we work together to find a mutually agreeable accommodation during this difficult time?”
  • “I am struggling to keep my head straight after X happened. I know it might not be relatable, but I really appreciate your understanding and patience with me.”
  • “My responsibilities usually include X, but X has been triggering overwhelming emotions related to Y. How would you like me to proceed when this happens? Is there a temporary solution to work around this?”
  • “Some of the recent changes here at work have caused me to feel X. Perhaps no one else feels the same way. Will you give me some advice on how to come to terms with the changes?”
  • “I know I am usually much more involved and motivated but when Y happened I felt very X. Please realize I want to feel like myself again, but it may take time.”

Find a support system of people who understand

Finding or creating a support system of people who are familiar with what you are going through is something you may want to seriously consider. It may take courage to seek out and enlist their help. However, their comprehension and sensitivity will likely be magnificently therapeutic.

Finding a support system of people who might be understanding of your grief means you will have to be willing to talk about uncomfortable or painful feelings with your family and friends. Ecclesiastical leaders and school psychologists often provide free community counseling or resource help as well.

Maybe a more anonymous support system? You might look up local support groups for grieving and loss. Try searching online communities. One place to turn is www.Supportiv.com, which offers 100% anonymous peer support and specific resources for your situation.

Seek professional support when necessary

Getting professional help to cope with disenfranchised grief is a good idea. Know when you need to ask for help. Signs your grief is getting serious and you need professional intervention include:

  • Grieving has not improved or changed over time
  • Frequent changes in mood or hard to manage emotions
  • Your responsibilities and interests are negatively affected
  • Personal relationships are conflicted
  • Physical symptoms of grief persist
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm 

If you relate to any of the above, consider professional therapists, helplines, or even just talking to your primary care doctor.

You’re not broken for feeling grief–no matter what’s causing it

Emotions help us identify our needs and get those needs met. We have emotions to experience feelings, not to be judged. There’s no sense in judging what you feel or why you feel it.

Likewise others shouldn’t judge your emotions. It is nobody’s business to tell you how or what you should be feeling. What does matter is you are getting your needs met and seeking the help you need.

So, if you are grieving right now, do not deny or repress your feelings of sadness, loss, or guilt. Figure out how you might effectively mourn and then recover from your grief. 

You deserve to be happy. You deserve to feel like yourself again. And you can.