Everyone will experience grief at some point during life. It can be after the death of a friend or loved one, or from a divorce, pregnancy loss, a major life change like moving away from your closest support circle, or even pet grief. For some, they take even longer to grieve, resulting in prolonged grief disorder, while others experience anticipatory grief before experiencing a loss.
However, grief doesn’t come in the form of a “typical” experience for some people, where their pain is acknowledged and supported by others in their life. As a result, they might feel like they can’t openly grieve because it’s not socially acceptable. They might feel even more pain because their loss isn’t valued. In these cases, people might be suffering from what’s known as disenfranchised grief. Going through disenfranchised grief can mean someone feels like they need to keep their sorrow to themselves.
Disenfranchised grief, like most forms of grief, is complicated. Understanding more about it — like what the signs are and how to cope with it — can be integral in surviving and healing. Read on to learn more.
Signs and Examples of Disenfranchised Grief
What is disenfranchised grief? While grief is generally a painful experience, the process can be even more challenging when you can’t express your struggle.
How do you know if what you’re experiencing is “normal,” or if you’re going through something more complex? There are several common signs of disenfranchised grief.
Everyone’s grief journey is different. Grief over a loss that’s not considered a big deal by others can be excruciating. Just because other people in your life don’t recognize it, though, doesn’t mean that your emotional pain isn’t real.
Grief can cause anger, sadness, guilt, and a sense of numbness. Some of the more obvious signs you may be going through a disenfranchised grieving process can include that, in addition to all those “normal” grief symptoms, you also might:
- Have extreme feelings of loneliness and longing
- Feel like you can’t talk to anyone
- Experience shame over how you’re feeling
- Have insomnia
- Feel anxious or have intense anxiety
- Are depressed
- Experience a pervasive feeling that life isn’t worth living
- Feel in shock or numb
- Notice you’re avoiding places or things that remind you of the loss
- Begin having physical symptoms such as inexplicable pain and muscle tension
Often, feelings of disenfranchised grief are caused by several similar situations such as:
The loss of someone who isn’t a spouse, child, or parent
Society can place an invisible limit on who you can grieve — for example, most people “allow” you to grieve a spouse, child, or parent. However, our culture often doesn’t always accept or understand if you’re grieving a close coworker, ex-husband, abusive partner, or even someone with whom you were having an affair. Because of this, people who lose a non-traditional relationship might feel compelled to hide their feelings from friends and loved ones.
The death of a patient in your care, whether person or animal
Healthcare workers in hospitals or veterinary offices have to deal with loss daily. Unfortunately, losing human or animal patients isn’t always recognized as a true loss that’s worthy of grief.
A loss due to infertility or miscarriage
While the topics of miscarriage and infertility are discussed more today than they were even just a decade ago, it’s still common for a timeframe to be placed on this type of loss. For many, the loss is forgotten by others as soon as someone physically recovers. Some people don’t consider the emotional grieving involved, and this dismissal can give way to disenfranchised grief.
A loss due to stigmatized death
If you lose someone in a way that’s stigmatized in society — such as abortion, suicide, or AIDS — your grieving may be ignored.
The loss of a same-sex partner
Whether your relationship ended or your partner died, you might feel like you can’t freely grieve if you weren’t open about your sexual orientation or identity to friends or family.
Grieving over a loved one who’s dealing with mental health conditions
When a loved one is suffering from a difficult mental health condition, such as addiction, depression, or a personality disorder, grief is common. It can be hard to accept the sense of loss for the person you once knew. Many people don’t understand this type of “loss” because it’s not physical.
The loss of a home or job
It’s completely normal to grieve the loss of a home or job that you valued deeply, especially if it was unexpected or unplanned. For example, if you were let go from your job, you may feel sad about not seeing your cherished coworkers daily. In addition, if you had to sell or leave your home, you may grieve the loss of shared memories in that space.
A loss of mobility
If you’re diagnosed with a chronic health condition or have a loss of mobility, it’s common to grieve losing your former abilities and freedom and the life you once lived.
The loss of a pet
For many of us, pets are members of our family, just like children. Unfortunately, some parts of our society seem to put an invisible timeline on the allowable grief for the loss of a pet.
“The experience of disenfranchisement is no less damaging when it comes to grief and bereavement. In our society today, together with the impact of COVID, therapists should have a heightened awareness when it comes to disenfranchised grief. Those feeling unrecognized or not acknowledged with regard to the loss of a loved one or any other type of loss, such as employment or change in stability, can be common, particularly stressful times. Feeling as though your loss doesn’t fit into the norms of grief can prolong or complicate the healing process. Finding professional therapeutic support during your loss journey can help immensely.”
What Causes Disenfranchised Grief?
Disenfranchised grief can be caused by several things. It’s often experienced by marginalized groups or populations who might not be socially accepted by some people, including certain:
- Religious groups
- Racial or ethnic groups
- Sexual minorty goups
- Persons living with disabilities
Causes of disenfranchised grief can include:
- Workplace culture doesn’t allow for a relationship to be open
- Relationship status isn’t recognized by others
- Emotional response to a loss isn’t deemed “normal” or acceptable
- Cause of death is stigmatized
- Reasons for grieving aren’t understood by others
Disenfranchised grief can stem from white supremacy and/or patriarchal values that have been perpetuated and reinforced through the media.
How to Cope with Disenfranchised Grief: 5 Ways
Hidden grief won’t stay hidden forever. Most people understand and accept that grief is complex. It’s not easy to recover from loss or trauma. When you experience invalidated grief, though, it can create feelings that seem impossible to cope with.
However, there are ways to move forward with the right tools, help, and support system. Here are 5 ways you can learn to cope with disenfranchised grief.
1. Take care of yourself
Grief can affect the body in numerous ways. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, and staying hydrated are all essential to your recovery. If you can, try to exercise, even if it’s just taking a short walk outside. Recent studies show that physical activity can offer a distraction from grief, and ultimately, physically taking care of yourself can benefit you emotionally in numerous ways.
“Hidden loss, suffering, or sorrow, can certainly impart more isolation and more difficulty processing the layers of grief. You might find great comfort in honoring the loss of a loved one by acknowledging or imparting a ritual of peace.”
2. Educate yourself about grief
It’s important to educate yourself about disenfranchised grief so you can understand what you’re feeling and experiencing. Watching documentaries or movies and reading books that are specific to your experience can be beneficial. It can validate your grief and help normalize what you’re feeling. Many materials are available like videos, podcasts, support groups, and books.
3. Ask for help
People often want to help someone who’s grieving, but they don’t know how. They may not understand what you’re going through, but they can help with meals, childcare, or errands. It’s important that you reach out and ask for help if you’re struggling.
4. Find a support group
If you don’t have a supportive family or friend group to rely on, you may want to look for a support group. Grief is common, and sharing how you feel with others who can relate to your pain is valuable. In addition, research shows that support and validation from others are vital to moving forward.
“Sometimes support groups can be a wonderful supplement to individual therapy, while they can help you keep connected and less alone in the process.”
5. Seek professional help
There comes a time when someone might need professional help to heal from grief. This can perhaps be even more likely if you’re struggling with disenfranchised grief. The feelings you’re having are even more complex due to the fact that you’re questioning whether they’re valid or not. Therapists are trained in helping someone navigate the grief process. If you need guidance, don’t be afraid to find a mental health professional.
“Working through the loss with the help of a professional can help you process what you may be feeling most, especially while it may feel difficult to acknowledge or accept.”
Professional Treatment for Disenfranchised Grief
Therapy can get you through your grieving process, and treat any additional mental health concerns that might be developing or triggered as a result of your grief. There are many types of therapy available for someone with disenfranchised grief, including the following.
Talk therapy (also called psychotherapy) can help someone identify and cope with difficult emotions, behavior, and thoughts.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves efforts towards changing problematic or harmful behavioral and thinking patterns. Tactics used in CBT can include learning problem-solving skills to manage challenging situations.
Group therapy is a form of talk therapy. A grief group can allow you to share your experiences and ultimately feel validated by others.
Support groups are similar to group therapy but aren’t always led by a therapist. Instead, you can connect with others who might share similar grief experiences.
There are additional forms of therapy for both disenfranchised and ambiguous grief (which stems from not being able to find closure on a loss).
- Acceptance commitment therapy (ACT), where you learn to accept and embrace your feelings and thoughts as opposed to fighting them.
- Art therapy, where creativity can be used as an outlet that allows you to share and heal.
- Brainspotting, an alternative type of therapy that uses your field of vision to help your brain process trauma and heal.
Overcome Your Grief with Talkspace
Just because you aren’t a family member of the deceased doesn’t mean your grief reaction isn’t valid. You, too, can seek grief therapy. If you’ve been trying to answer the question: what is disenfranchised grief, or what is ambiguous grief, the information here should help. Whatever or whomever you’re grieving, it’s important that you don’t feel ashamed about how you feel. If a loss was significant to you, your feelings are completely valid. Remember that grief is natural and healthy. It’s a necessary way for us to heal and let go. If you have unresolved grief, that can lead to other emotional problems. Seek social support while mourning and reach out to people that can help.
For real healing to occur, you need to find a way to face and cope with your grief. Actively dealing with disenfranchised grief will be your path toward healing. Online grief counseling or therapy can help you cope with your feelings after experiencing a loss. An online therapist can help you do this, with experienced grief counselors and therapists who understand the pain and process you’re going through.
Learn more about how Talkspace’s online therapy platform can help you manage your disenfranchised grief and understand that you are going to be OK.
1. Williams J, Shorter G, Howlett N, Zakrzewski-Fruer J, Chater A. Can Physical Activity Support Grief Outcomes in Individuals Who Have Been Bereaved? A Systematic Review. Sports Med Open. 2021;7(1). doi:10.1186/s40798-021-00311-z. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8028581/. Accessed June 28, 2022.
2. Nordal, PhD K. Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/families/grief. Published 2020. Accessed June 28, 2022.