When you feel the ache of grief, it can seem like you're alone in your pain. The support of friends and family can help get through each day and live with your loss, but what if your feelings are ignored or even stigmatized? This experience is called disenfranchised grief, a term coined by Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., a professor at The College of New Rochelle in his book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
- What Does Disenfranchised Grief Look and Feel Like?
- Examples of Disenfranchised Grief
- How to Cope With Disenfranchised Grief
- How to Help a Loved One Cope With Disenfranchised Grief
It's not easy to go through grief feeling isolated and misunderstood, but it's more common than you might think. We’ve put together some examples to help understand what disenfranchised grief is and learn to recognize how grief can be discounted.
What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
Some people grieve losses that are not openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. This grief is defined as disenfranchised because it is pushed to the side or discounted in some way.
For example, when your well-liked neighbor dies from a heart attack, you express your grief and sympathy with an easily found greeting card, by speaking with the family at a memorial gathering, or attending a public funeral.
However, what if your home gets flooded? You lose many personal possessions, and you have to move to a different city as a result. Your grief will likely be disenfranchised after some time because there is no established social process for handling it.
Disenfranchised grief vs. abnormal grief
By definition, disenfranchised grief is not well-supported or recognized. This can differ from abnormal grief, which is a prolonged and intense yearning that does not improve with time, even with support.
Disenfranchised grief does not always develop into abnormal grief. Some disenfranchised grievers can move through their grief with limited support and still rebound to their daily lives.
The odds do stack up against someone with disenfranchised grief because it involves isolation and a lack of support.
What Does Disenfranchised Grief Look and Feel Like?
In many ways, disenfranchised grief can feel as strong as other types of grief. For example, the grief you feel for a miscarried baby is just as legitimate as your grief for a beloved elderly family member. The difference may be in how others recognize the loss.
Your elderly family member may have had a funeral, memorial service, and many shared memories from loved ones. By contrast, very few people may have a connection with your miscarried baby. While there may be more people who publicly acknowledge the pain of miscarriage, it is often a very private experience.
There are far fewer funerals or memorial services for the situation, and many people feel uncomfortable talking about this kind of loss. Your grief is just as legitimate, but the lack of recognition for miscarriage can lead to feelings of isolation.
Grief often looks like sadness, but it may also show up as anger, frustration, exhaustion, or lack of focus. Depending on what phase of grief a person is in, their emotions may appear more or less obvious. This is all true for disenfranchised grief, but it may include a few other experiences as well, such as the following:
- Trouble connecting with others because of shame, isolation, embarrassment, or anxiety over the hidden nature of the loss
- A lack of closure, like their loss is open-ended or less defined
- Feeling stigmatized or guilty, wanting to avoid the scrutiny that may come from talking about it
- Symptoms may appear more intense than for a more publicly acknowledged loss because they have more difficulty coping with less support
- Stuffing feelings, grief may pop up unexpectedly when triggered at another time
Examples of Disenfranchised Grief
Grief is not only for mourning the loss of life. A dramatic or significant life event can also trigger it. Because grief doesn't always fit into a neat category, many experiences can seemingly fall outside the norm. Here are some examples:
1. Loss of a close friendship
Friendships come and go throughout life and some end without much explanation. When attempts to revive a relationship go unanswered, this abandonment can feel similar to death.
This experience is common when people move, change jobs, or leave school.
It takes effort to maintain relationships over a long time, and sometimes there are too many variables to keep up. Relationships have cycles of activity and eventually come to the end of their lifespan, even if both people are still living. Though no human death is attached to this kind of loss, the griever may not know how to identify or express their feelings clearly.
2. Grieving a family member’s divorce
The loss of a relationship can impact more than just the two people in it. When someone goes through a divorce, the ex-spouse separates from everyone in the family as well. Extended family members can feel a sense of loss when the ex-spouse is no longer at gatherings.
The elephant in the room may be the gaping hole in the family, left by the ex-spouse and family members may not feel comfortable expressing their sorrow over the ex-spouse's absence.
They're more likely to keep the peace and avoid stirring up animosity or uncomfortable feelings. They may recall positive memories of the ex-spouse as a comfort, but keep these thoughts to themselves.
3. Losses from addiction or abusive situations
Grief can become complex when mixed with painful circumstances. Chronic traumatic situations like addiction or abuse can create many losses over a person's life.
A survivor of abuse can grieve years of lost freedom and safety. Furthermore, because of the guilt and shame that can develop with abusive situations, survivors are often reluctant to speak openly about their grief.
Addiction can cause similar losses due to chronic substance use. Lost opportunities, wasted money, and damaged relationships often weigh on people while in recovery. Some will admit grieving the loss of their alcohol or drugs, including the habits, relationships, and physical effects.
In some cases, substances fill a large emotional void for the addicted person, and as a result, many people experience this grief in silence.
Infertility is another silent loss for many people. Childless couples or individuals are more commonplace than ever before, and many choose to live that way.
Living without children is an increasingly accepted lifestyle in many societies and not usually seen as a loss. But for parents who face infertility, the dream of having biological children can die a little bit every time a menstrual cycle starts or a treatment fails.
For couples who wait month after month, hope is built up and lost repeatedly. As time goes by, the reality of infertility can settle in. Reminders of this loss can be everywhere, including Mother’s Day, birthdays of children in the family, or anniversaries of miscarriages.
5. Severe memory loss
A person often begins grieving for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or severe memory loss before that person actually dies. Memory loss interferes with a person’s relationships, making them gradually disappear into the fog of their mind. The person’s awareness often dies long before their body does.
Memory loss takes the essence of the person away, and by some social standards, their value. Family members who grieve over memory loss may feel like their grief is often minimized socially or not given much attention and subsequently, disenfranchised and isolated.
6. Loss of a job or opportunity
Not all loss is due to physical death. Any opportunity or situation that creates a high level of anticipation can lead to feelings of devastation if something goes wrong. This could apply to a job interview that goes poorly or a long-planned trip canceled at the last minute.
The anticipation of a meaningful event can cause emotional daydreaming. We have seen caricatures of this emotion in the media for decades. The person sees themselves doing the very thing they most wished for and how they would feel at that time.
For example, interviewing for a dream job could stir up images of a happy work environment or moving to a nicer neighborhood. Emotions of satisfaction and happiness follow, creating an emotional attachment to these images.
If the dream job falls through, these attachments have nothing to connect with in the physical world. In effect, they die within the person’s mind and heart.
7. Loss of a baby or child with physical or intellectual disability
The death of a baby or a child is often viewed as a tragic loss of innocent life. Unfortunately, the lives of intellectually or physically disabled children are often valued differently. Some see these children as less useful or less capable of having a real life.
Grieving a child like this can be an isolating experience for some. People might say things like, “It’s a blessing they died young,” or, “It’s better they didn’t suffer a sad life.” While these comments may be given as condolences, they are far from comforting.
These heartbreaking words can make a person cautious of showing their grief out in the open. Instead of being given empathy like anyone is experiencing grief, they may feel like their grief is less important.
8. Loss from natural disaster
Natural disasters can wreak havoc for communities, creating loss for many people at one time. During a destructive storm or earthquake, people experience immediate loss on a large scale. Seemingly permanent fixtures like buildings and bridges can be wiped out in a matter of minutes.
Witnessing this kind of dramatic loss can trigger intense grief. While many roads and buildings may be rebuilt, some living things like trees or animals cannot easily be replaced. People grieve not only the loss of physical items, but also the sense of predictability and security they once knew in their daily life.
Often, there’s no funeral and no sympathy card for this type of loss. Instead, it is both a public and a personal grief experience. Communities often face these losses together at the beginning. But when the disaster fades from the headlines, many still struggle with grief on their own.
9. Mourning the death of a pet
Most people sympathize with the death of an animal, especially a beloved pet. However, not everyone understands why a pet’s death would still deeply affect someone months or even years later.
Some may assume that the death of a pet is not very meaningful. Since the person could get a new pet, some believe they should be able to get over it fairly soon. However, most pet owners are highly devoted to their animals, developing a unique connection that can last years after a pet’s death.
The loss of a pet can be especially difficult for individuals who live alone. When their pet is no longer there to greet them, the emptiness can be difficult to cope with. If the prevailing thought is that pets are replaceable, grieving pet owners can have difficulty finding support for their loss.
10. Death of an ex
When an ex-spouse or former significant other dies, the surviving person may struggle to process this loss. They are likely no longer part of that person’s inner circle and may not feel comfortable going to a memorial ceremony or funeral. If they share children with their ex, they may attend anyway but feel somewhat out of place.
Depending on how the relationship ended, the grieving person may have a mix of emotions. They may feel regret and a longing for missed opportunities. Their grief may also stir up distress and frustration, reminiscent of their time as a couple.
For most people, being an ex means they are on the outside looking in. They feel a connection to their ex from the past, but have no clear place in the present moment. Grief like this is stigmatized and often managed without much support.
How to Cope With Disenfranchised Grief
Hidden grief is much more common than people think, and it’s easy to lose sight of this when nobody seems to talk about it. Here are some ways to cope with disenfranchised grief of all kinds.
Acknowledge your grief - it’s real
One of the most challenging aspects of hidden grief is a lack of acknowledgment from others. Even if someone knows about your loss, you may feel guilty bringing it up or assume that no one cares about your grief. But that doesn't mean your feelings are fake or lack value.
Your grief is real, and you deserve to have it recognized. And if others don't seem to see your loss, the acknowledgment may need to start with you. Think about it, journal about it, or talk to someone else when it’s on your mind.
Care for your physical needs
Grief affects more than just your mind and emotions. Your body feels it too. If you ignore your physical needs, you'll find yourself exhausted and overwhelmed. Remember that you are a whole person, and your mind, body, and emotions are all connected.
Caring for your body is part of addressing your grief. Get rest, drink plenty of water, and try to stick with healthy foods. Your grief won't go away, but you'll be better equipped to handle it every day.
Learn more about your type of loss
It's easy to feel like you're the only person in the world coping with a hidden or disenfranchised loss. It can seem like the world is going on around you, and nobody understands what you're going through.
If you're coping with one of the losses mentioned earlier, like infertility or the death of an ex-partner, you may be surprised at how many others are struggling in similar ways. Grief counselors and support groups can help you learn more about dealing with your type of loss. You may also find message boards or online groups of people you can relate to.
Create a ritual or moment of recognition to honor your loss
If you feel like nobody sees your grief, you may feel lost without a closing ritual. Losing your home in a natural disaster, breaking up with someone, or mourning the loss of a childhood friend you’ve lost touch with can be challenging. There’s often no set ritual or acknowledgment for these types of losses, but you may feel better creating your own. Here are a few ideas:
- Find a way to say goodbye, either privately or with others
- Remember the good times and record them verbally or write them down
- Write a letter to the person or object you lost
- Create a piece of art honoring your loss or expressing your feelings
- Hold a memorial ceremony, even if it’s just you in a quiet space
How to Help a Loved One Cope With Disenfranchised Grief
Helping a loved one through disenfranchised grief can feel like a delicate dance. They may feel isolated by their unseen loss while possibly feeling sensitive about people recognizing it. Here are some tips for helping them through it.
See and acknowledge their loss
Grief is difficult enough to bear, and it can be even more painful when it feels unseen. One of the most important things you can do is to gently recognize your loved one’s pain. It can seem awkward, and you may feel like you’re doing more harm than good by bringing it up.
Your loved one may be struggling with their own mixed feelings, especially if their grief involved something hidden or taboo. Acknowledge it and then give them space. Follow up later so they know they aren’t forgotten and be patient with their grief process.
Help them face their emotions, even if they’re mixed
Grief can span across so many different emotions. It’s often surprising for people to realize that grief can lead to anger, resentment, anxiety, and even emotional numbness. And for someone with disenfranchised grief of some kind, they may also feel guilt, confusion, or shame.
No matter what your loved one’s emotions may look like, they’re all real and need recognition. Emotions don’t go away if they’re ignored or covered. Grief that goes unfaced or unrecognized can linger for years. Helping them acknowledge and accept their feelings is essential for healing.
Remind them they aren’t alone
People in grief often feel like they’re the only ones suffering from pain, especially for a hidden loss. They may believe their loss is so strange or unusual that almost nobody could understand them. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If you know what type of loss they’re going through, learn more about it and share your resources. Help them find grief support groups or online support for their specific type of loss.
Offer your support - don’t wait for them to ask
There’s a stigma about expressing grief publicly. Many feel like they need to hide their emotions and keep up a facade. This happens for people going through known losses, and it can be even more pronounced for people feeling disenfranchised grief.
Gently offer to spend time with them, and extend your invitation multiple times. It may take a while, but your loved one may take you up on it when they’re ready to share.
Dealing with Disenfranchised Grief
Disenfranchised grief can be a lonely experience, but it is a common one. It’s normal to feel grief for many types of losses, even those that don't involve human death. Online and social media support groups now exist for just about any kind of loss, especially ones you may find on this list. If your grief becomes too overwhelming to deal with on your own, there are many professionals to seek out for support and guidance.
- Koda, Kenneth. Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. Lexington Books, 1989. Print.
- "Abnormal/Complicated Grief." The University of Arizona, (n.d.) mfoconnor.faculty.arizona.edu.
- “Disenfranchised Grief.” The Rosemary Branch, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, (Autumn, 2015), grief.org.au.
- "Whole Health: Change the Conversation."University of Wisconsin, (n.d.) projects.hsl.wisc.edu.