What Is Disenfranchised Grief?

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We all have different ways of grieving, but what happens when a loss is not openly acknowledged?

Many people experience disenfranchised grief when their grieving does not fit into society’s acknowledgement about dealing with death or loss and hence may not be socially mourned or publicly supported. It could also mean that loved ones do not understand the pain a friend or family member is going through. Disenfranchised grief often leaves a grieving person feeling isolated, further worsening their symptoms.

Examples of Disenfranchised Grief

The death of a co-worker, ex-partner, patient, abuser, or pet may not be acknowledged, or the larger society may not understand the extent of grief.

However, the term does not only refer to when someone dies. It could include other losses that are not typically acknowledged, such as the addiction of a loved one, dementia of a loved one, losing a job, or the loss of a loved one convicted of a crime and imprisoned. A breakup or a divorce, moving to a new community, adoption loss, or infertility can also lead to grieving.

In other cases, the loss of cognitive function or mobility involves disenfranchised grief. Grief after an abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth can be an especially complex example of disenfranchised grief.

The Grieving Process

While grief can fluctuate in and out of someone’s body, the grieving process is generally outlined to involve five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

To begin grieving, a person has to endorse a loss and express their emotion, accept it, and then adjust to the change it has caused. However, not all grief is treated equally. When a person’s friends, family, colleagues, employers, or community members do not consider their suffering legitimate, their grief becomes disenfranchised, making matters worse.

Someone mourning may experience feelings of sadness, despair, anger, and guilt. In grieving, they may also miss the joy of social outings, volunteering, or even mourning their daily commute because it gave them alone time and a space to decompress. These symptoms add to the physical symptoms of grief, including changes in appetite or sleep problems. When others do not recognise a person’s grief, it is easy for all these symptoms to be exacerbated.

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Experiencing Disenfranchised Grief

Since disenfranchised grief – also known as hidden grief or hidden sorrow – is not legitimised, validated, or acknowledged by others, the individual suffering may be unable to express their feelings or thoughts. Many people grieving hide their feelings due to being judged by others. 

The lack of social support during a grieving process can prolong emotional pain and cause the person grieving to fall into a vicious cycle of complicated grief, ultimately preventing healing.

Causes of Disenfranchised Grief

What makes it hard for people to acknowledge someone else’s grief? There are various causes of disenfranchised grief. One reason is that a relationship may not be recognised as significant, so the individual’s grief seems unwarrantable.

Often losing people – or relationships – who are not immediate family members is not understood by others. Even though it can still impact someone intensely, others may not be able to see why those relationships are so important, making the grieving experience even more isolating. This is common in cases of an ex partner death, losing an absent family member or abusive partner.

A lack of social understanding regarding a relationship combined with social norms may make people expect someone to move on faster. For example, people may expect others to move on from a breakup within a few weeks or months, or an employer may expect an employee to be productive despite an experienced loss. Sometimes, when parents lose a child, the grandparent’s grief goes invalidated or under-acknowledged. This is an example of double-grief, as they would grieve the loss of their grandchild and their parents. 

The reason behind a loss is often judged, causing people’s grief to be disregarded. Taboo or socially stigmatised causes of loss and death, such as murders, drug overdoses, suicides, or imprisonment, may be challenging to discuss and cause people to avoid talking about their feelings. Causes such as HIV/AIDS, lung cancer, or drug addiction are often reasons for others to shy away from supporting someone who is grieving. Others may not want to revisit or discuss a traumatic event as it is too emotionally demanding.

Furthermore, losses that do not involve death are more easily disregarded. A loss of a relationship with a close friend can cause immense sadness, but wider societal beliefs may not frame non-death losses as significant enough to justify grieving. When someone does not show the expected emotions as a reaction to significant loss, their grief may become disenfranchised too.

Even widely recognised forms of grief can become disenfranchised grief when friends and family of the griever attempt to limit the time of a person’s right to grieve. 

Helpful Strategies for Your Grief

While societal behaviour can disregard a person’s grief, the person suffering may also invalidate their own grief. This is particularly true if the loss resulted from a decision they made. Experiencing grief without support makes the process harder to navigate. As others may be unable to understand their reasons for suffering, many people feel guilty, angry, or ashamed of themselves, which harms mental well-being and makes the difficulty of coping with grief even more difficult. There are, however, some things that people dealing with disenfranchised grief can do to help themselves. 

Perform a Ritual

Recognising and validating a loss is an essential element of the healing process. Performing your own ritual to honour and process your disenfranchised grief can be very helpful. Doing something personally meaningful, such as writing a letter, planting a tree of remembrance, or holding a small ceremony, can help to reach the point of acceptance, enabling someone to move forward.

Grief counselors also use ritual elements in therapies and through practices such as meditation, yoga, or mindfulness. Studies show it can reduce symptoms such as grief, depression, despair, panic behaviour, avoidance, emotional loneliness, and emotional numbing. It also improves positive mood, personal growth, and meaning integration.

Process Your Anger

While anger is a natural part of grieving, this emotion can be exacerbated when people experience disenfranchised grief. They may disregard memories because of their anger and avoid processing emotions.

It is vital to allow oneself to process grief. Unaddressed grief, also known as complicated grief, can lead to mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Complicated grief, common among 10-20% of grievers regardless of age, can come with persistent symptoms over many months or even years, significantly reducing the quality of life.

Signs that someone may be experiencing complicated grief include extensive focusing on things that remind them of the loss, feeling numb, or feeling intense pain when thinking of the person, pet or thing lost. Thinking about the loss may also overwhelm someone with bitterness and make them feel like they have lost their sense of purpose.

Lean into Support Systems

Since a disenfranchised griever is usually judged for grieving, they often need more support and understanding. While a disenfranchised griever may find their relationships with close friends and family change, other people usually emerge as a support system. Allowing these people to help can be very helpful.

Receiving external support outside of friends and family can also be positive. For example, joining support groups where other disenfranchised grievers share their experiences or using the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if dealing with grief becomes too much. 

Therapeutic Help

The best friend of disenfranchised grief is professional help. Grief counseling and mental health assistance provide the recognition and validation of the many aspects of loss or grief.

A mental health professional specialising in loss and grief is a great option for those who are associated with social stigma. Beyond identifying causes for disenfranchisement, therapeutic interventions include individual therapy, support and self-help groups, narrative therapy, or the therapeutic use of ritual.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one form of therapy that can help someone cope with disenfranchised grief. It targets negative thinking patterns that contribute to guilt, regret, mourning, or shame, while acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) focuses on tools for accepting negative feelings and increasing cognitive flexibility. Another form of psychotherapy is group therapy, where others experiencing disenfranchised grief can make someone feel supported, share their insights and experiences, and provide coping mechanisms.

It is important to seek professional treatment if grief does not improve over time, if a person has frequent mood changes, or is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Managing emotions and physical symptoms is easier with the help of a treatment professional and can help someone process their grief healthily.

Support From The Wave for Disenfranchised Grievers

If you or a loved one is struggling with disenfranchised grief and the mental health issues it comes with, you are not alone. The Wave is here to help.

We understand how difficult it is to relive memories and deal with the physical, social, and emotional changes that come with loss and grief. Here at The Wave, we firmly believe that no young person should feel overlooked or unseen because of internal or external challenges related to stigma or health.

That is why we provide stability, time, and a safe space for you to heal from the past and truly transform. We know that the healing process involves change, and we focus on providing the care and support young people and their families need to work through it.

Our programmes include the perfect combination of skills for mental health services, experiential pursuits, and living. The Wave can help you develop resilience, process and balance high levels of emotional response, and heal through cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), group therapy, and ritual and experiential therapies such as meditation or yoga.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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