By Surabhi Ashok
Imagine you lose your house in a fire. All your possessions, your clothes in your closet, your bulletin board covered in pictures, your memories, are gone. However, you push away your sadness and tell yourself that you should be glad that at least your whole family is safe, that other people lose more than objects in fires this big.
This is an example of disenfranchised grief, which is any hidden sorrow that is undermined by society. This type of grief is hard to heal because people often fail to acknowledge the extent of it. Just know, your grief is always valid.
Disenfranchised grief often occurs due to unrecognized relationships, “less significant” loss that does not necessarily deal with death, stigmatized loss, exclusion from mourning, and grief that looks different than what society expects. Private or unrecognized relationships may cause disenfranchised grief because not only would it be hard to express heartache but also outside people may fail to understand why one would mourn a supposed stranger. For instance, people who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community might experience this feeling if they aren’t out and they lost a partner.
The deaths of a casual partner, an ex, an online friend, or a pen pal can also cause disenfranchised grief. Even the death of someone who you did not but could have known, such as an absent parent, can create grief because you additionally mourn the lack of relationship.
Society sometimes pits different experiences against each other, making people feel as if their situation does not matter because someone somewhere is going through worse. Remember the existence of someone’s pain does not erase your own. However, this feeling that there is somehow a “less significant” type of loss often generates disenfranchised grief. For example, loss that is not related to death can be seen as less significant even though a person can be permanently removed from your life even if they are alive. Breakups, estrangement, dementia/Alzheimer’s (when mourning memories that are slowly being destroyed), loss of possessions, loss of safety or independence, loss/waste of time, and loss of health causes unvalidated distress. Even more, people expect the death of a teacher/student, a patient, a pet, a co-worker, or a friend’s child to hurt less because they don’t view the relationships made as intimate. The loss of all of these examples is deemed less significant in society, which makes people suffering from these situations hide their pain.
Stigmatized loss definitely causes people to hide their grief because they might be criticized if they didn’t. Especially on the internet, strangers find it okay to voice their opinion on a situation, making jokes and passing their judgement on something they have no say on. These instances can cause one to feel more angry or ashamed rather than comforted. Grief that is caused by infertility, suicide, overdose, abortion, miscarriage, estrangement with a loved one who is experiencing hardships such as mental health issues, or the loss of a loved one who was imprisoned all bring up a certain stigma. For instance, a person experiencing the grief of losing a loved one who was convicted might invalidate their feelings because their loved one was not a good person, and therefore according to society, is not worthy of being mourned.
Hidden grief can also occur when one is excluded from mourning. Societal stereotypes make it seem as if one has less of a right to mourn a loved one that was not a partner or immediate family, once again making one’s grief seem “less significant” even if that’s not true. It is okay to grieve a best friend, an extended family member, or a classmate, and no one should be excluded from feeling sad about their death. In addition, children and people with cognitive impairment or striking mental health issues are excluded from mourning because people assume they lack the ability to properly understand what is going on. By doing this, people invalidate their distress and act as if it isn’t there, which in turn causes the one grieving to push it away as well.
Finally, disenfranchised grief is caused by societal expectations vs reality. When norms such as crying, visible sadness, social withdrawal, and loss of appetite aren’t shown, people may deny the fact that someone is grieving at all. For example, anger, a lack of emotion, increased work, and substance use are all reactions to loss that society does not commonly expect. It’s important to note that no two people will deal with a situation in the exact same way, and by creating a universal conclusion on how grief should look like can discredit one’s experiences.
Now, all of this suppressed grief can result in insomnia, substance misuse, anxiety, depression, shame, and even physical problems. Furthermore, because unspoken emotions can be very taxing on a person, one might also experience mood swings, relationship problems, and a lack of focus. If someone close to you has just recently lost someone, do not dismiss or minimize their grief because they will start to doubt their own emotions which then leads to the development of an unhealthy process of grieving. Just offer support always and allow them to take the time they need for themselves.
To cope with your disenfranchised grief, first acknowledge your pain and why you are feeling that way. Talk to your friends, a therapist, or support groups who understand and relate to your grief. Make your own ritual to honor your loss such as planting flowers, journaling, etc. in order to achieve well-needed closure. And remember, your grief is valid.