Typically, when we experience a loss of life, we are met with kind words and shows of love and support, allowing us to feel like our loss has been accepted and recognized.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, is disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is grief or sorrow that is hidden, invalidated, unrecognized, or not supported. It can feel like your sorrow is being minimized, and this makes the grieving process even more difficult.
If you believe you are experiencing disenfranchised grief, or have spotted disenfranchised grief in a loved one, learning more about this experience can help you help yourself or those around you.
We have your guide to disenfranchised grief so that you and your loved ones can better understand what you are feeling and how to cope.
What Does it Mean for Grief to Be Disenfranchised?
Grief is disenfranchised when the griever avoids discussing the loss or minimizes the loss, or when other people attempt to minimize or invalidate someone else’s loss.
The grieving process is painful and difficult, and when we do not have the support we need, it can become even harder. When grief is disenfranchised and invalidated, the griever will likely begin to hide their grief from the public, making their grieving process feel increasingly lonely.
There are several different situations in which disenfranchised grief commonly occurs, and understanding these can help you recognize when someone is in need of support.
What Does Disenfranchised Grief Look Like?
There are five main ways that disenfranchised grief may manifest.
A loss that is considered less significant.
Losses like breakups, broken engagements, or estrangement can very well be significant and powerful experiences, yet some people do not consider them to be as significant as other forms of loss. Because of this, the associated grief may be minimized by those around you.
This most commonly occurs with non-death forms of loss, such as:
- Adoption of a child that does not end up working out
- Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
- Loss of possessions
- Loss of safety or independence
- Loss of years of your life due to neglect or abuse
- Loss of mobility or health
Aside from non-death losses, there are even some forms of death that may be treated as insignificant. These include the death of:
- Teachers, mentors, and students
- Patients or therapy clients
- Children of friends
- “Honorary” or “adoptive” relatives
Unrecognized relationships can be another reason why grief becomes disenfranchised. If you felt the need to keep your relationship private, you may be at a loss when it comes to expressing your sorrow when your partner has passed away. Those around you may struggle to support you during the grieving process for a partner that they did not know about.
Scenarios where this might take place include:
- People in the LGBTQ+ community who were not out and did not feel safe or comfortable enough to speak about their partner
- The death of a casual partner, like a friend with benefits or casual hookup
- The death of an ex-partner, especially if this was someone with whom you remained close
- The death of an online friend or pen pal
- The death of someone you never knew, like an unknown sibling or absent parent
Losses that are stigmatized.
Certain losses are also surrounded by stigma, and this can lead to disenfranchised grief when others begin to criticize or judge you or the loved one that you lost.
Situations that may be stigmatized include:
- Death by suicide or drug overdose
- Miscarriages or stillborn children
- Estrangement with a loved one who is struggling with addiction, severe mental health conditions, or a loss of their cognitive function
- Loss of a loved one who was convicted of a crime and imprisoned
These are just a few examples of losses that pertain to topics that may still be considered controversial or otherwise stigmatized.
Exclusion from mourning.
There are certain losses after which you may feel like you do not have a right to be in mourning when this is not the case. This can include the loss of:
- Extended family members
- Best friends
Generally, these feelings occur when the loss you experienced was not that of your partner or an immediate family member. However, it is important to remember that any loss is still a loss, and whatever extent of grief you are experiencing is valid.
Grief that does not align with social norms and expectations.
Experiencing grief that does not align with social norms or societal expectations can also cause your grief to be disenfranchised. Society can sometimes have some unofficial, unspoken expectations when it comes to the way that we grieve.
When you experience a loss, people may expect you to:
- Visually show that you are hurting, such as by crying
- Withdraw from social events and activities
- Lose your appetite
- Spend most of your time sleeping
However, some people simply do not grieve in these ways, and may get through the grieving process by doing the opposite of many of these things. Or, your grief may manifest itself through things like anger, a total lack of emotion, or the use of substances and alcohol, which are all very common, but less validated ways of showing grief.
Different people cope in different ways, and that grief is valid regardless.
What Can Disenfranchised Grief Lead To?
If disenfranchised grief continues to be invalidated, unrecognized, or otherwise criticized or dismissed, it can lead to more serious health issues. These can include:
- Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
- Substance misuse
- Stomach distress
- Unexplained pain
- Other physical symptoms
- Diminished self-esteem and self-worth as a result of being judged
- Feeling ashamed of your grieving process
- Relationship problems
- Trouble focusing
- Feeling overwhelmed by your emotions
- Mood swings
The people in your life who are criticizing or judging your grief and the way that it manifests will likely not be there to support you when it becomes apparent that you need a support system.
Learning how to cope with your grief can open the door to a healthy road to recovering from your sorrow, regardless of whether or not the people around you are showing you the kindness you deserve.
How To Cope
When it comes to coping with disenfranchised grief, or any grief, the most important thing you can do is start to validate yourself rather than relying on validation from others. Check in with yourself each day to see what you are feeling, and remind yourself that your feelings are valid.
Mourning the loss and acknowledging the grief through ritual can also be extremely beneficial. You can do this by having your own private ceremony or memorial, or by remembering your loved one in another creative way that has meaning to you.
Finally, seeking help from a doctor or mental health professional is a great way of supporting yourself when others are not giving you the support you need. Grief counseling can make you feel heard and understood, which may be just what you need.
YANA is an online mental health clinic that matches you with a doctor. After your consultation, you will receive a treatment plan that has been tailored to your specific needs so that your concerns are taken care of. If medication is necessary, it will be prescribed and discreetly delivered straight to your doorstep.
While professional help won’t be an instant remedy, it can give the guidance you need to properly experience and go through your grief, helping you begin the road to recovery.
Grief becomes disenfranchised when it is hidden, minimized, criticized, or invalidated in some way.
Certain situations may be more likely to lead to disenfranchised grief, such as the loss of a loved one to suicide or drug overdose, or non-death losses that are stigmatized, such as abortion, infertility, or estrangement from a partner.
Disenfranchised grief can cause more problems in the long run, like insomnia, anxiety, depression, and diminished self-esteem. Learning coping strategies for disenfranchised grief is an important part of pushing through the grieving process regardless of what that process looks like for you.
Validating your own feelings and experiences is a major part of coping with grief, and reaching out to a mental health professional can help you get things under control. Disenfranchised grief can make you feel like your emotions are wrong even though this is not the case, and seeking help from a professional can give you the support you need.