Disenfranchised Grief

By Jessica Lamar - 04/04/2019


As human beings, we harbor attachments to each other, animals, places and things. With great attachment comes great loss—deaths, separations, divorces, and life transitions. When these attachments are broken we each experience a personal grieving process.

Society has developed rules about our grief process, such as what losses we grieve, how we grieve them, and who can grieve. When a loss is recognized and acknowledged by others, we begin to feel safe and empowered in our grieving process. However, certain meaningful personal losses may be minimized or even ignored by our support system. Thus, we ourselves may not even acknowledge the loss, which can create greater internal suffering. The emotional pain becomes suppressed, and it internally grows within us.

Dr. Kenneth Doka coined the term disenfranchised grief as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned” A Disenfranchised griever may feel their experience is unimportant or even wrong. They made hide their true reaction, feel isolated and/or ashamed, which can interrupt grieving and healing.

According to Dr. Doka Disenfranchised grief may occur in many ways: 

  • The type of relationship – The death of a “close blood relative” is usually recognized whereas relationships that are considered “less important” by society may be dismissed such as (but not limited to) a co-worker, a pet, an ex-spouse, a grandparent, a step-child, a partner, a stillborn child, or a neighbor. 
  • The loss is not socially defined as significant – Individuals experience many losses—some death-related such as perinatal loss or other non death related losses such as divorce, incarceration, and job loss. Some profound intangible losses may not be recognized or validated; a loss of a dream or goal, the loss of reputation.  This is a short list of possible losses that deserve recognition and space for healing if needed. 
  • When the cause of a loss is seen as a socially unacceptable, such as drunk driving, violence, addiction, and/or suicide, grief may be hidden from others. The additional feelings of guilt, shame and blame can make it challenging to discuss the loss and seek out support due to fear of judgement.
  • The person is not socially defined as capable of grief; such as young children, the elderly, and the seriously mentally ill are perceived to be incapable of grief, thus the right is taken from them. There is little or no social recognition of the loss or their grieving needs.

There is no prescribed way to grieve. We can acknowledge the loss as legitimate, real, and worthy of our attention, validation, and healing. Honor your experience in this life by giving your grief voice, express yourself, create a meaningful ritual. What you’re going through is your experience and is your truth. Our heart, our mind, and body are there to guide us. 

Article by Jessica Lamar, Psy.D., LAC

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