Grief is a normal emotional process. We experience it anytime we undergo a loss. This loss might be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or loss of life experiences, much like we’ve seen with the COVID pandemic.

Grief is an experience of deep sadness and sometimes numbness. Disenfranchised grief happens when our grief somehow defies societal expectations. 

Societies hold a lot of expectations of grief. Think about how we depict it in books, films, and other media. One of these expectations is the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Let’s look at how these expectations contribute to disenfranchised grief. 

What is Disenfranchised Grief?

Disenfranchised grief is grieving that does not fit with the larger society’s attitude about how to deal with death and loss. It can lead to a significant lack of emotional support. It’s essentially the belief of others that you “should have moved on by now” or if that someone expects you to maintain productivity despite a loss. This lack of support then perpetuates and prolongs the emotional pain that comes along with grief. 

Causes of Disenfranchised Grief

The widespread beliefs and attitudes about how a person should grieve, where they should grieve, and for how long are present in multiple parts of our lives. They affect our relationships and our work lives. In some cases, our work lives can be the source of this grief. 

  • Work culture: Emergency responders and other medical personnel often experience loss as part of their careers. Even therapists can experience the loss of a patient through tragic happenstance. But society’s expectations often are that these losses shouldn’t bother you, because it’s part of your profession. 
  • Non-romantic relationships: Most people can understand a brief grieving period after a breakup. (Though that grieving period is often much longer than people think it “should” be.) But most people don’t consider other relationship losses. This goes beyond just family, too. Think about a colleague who moved jobs that perhaps you were attached to. There’s grief associated with these transitions as well. 
  • Invalidated emotions: It’s painful to think about, but other people’s reactions to your grief can make you feel as if you have no right to grieve at all. This might be because of a taboo cause of death, like a drug overdose. In this case, people may feel that you should be more callous about the loss than you are. Or it might be because someone says something well-intended like, “Stay strong,” or, “Just try to move forward.”

Symptoms of Disenfranchised Grief

So how do we act if we’re experiencing disenfranchised grief? It can be tricky because it can look similar to complicated grief. Disenfranchised grief includes:

  • A loss within the last 6 months
  • Distracting and intense feelings of longing
  • Constant numbness or state of shock
  • Avoiding places or objects that remind you of the loss
  • Obsession with the circumstances of the loss. 

Treating Disenfranchised Grief

Healing from this particular kind of grief takes time. It takes patience and the willingness to allow for grief to be a process instead of a single emotion. Allowing your grief to exist as it is, and without the parameters of personal or societal expectation, can significantly help your recovery. You can choose to address it personally or seek professional help. Treatment options include: 

  • Talking with friends about your grief 
  • Allow yourself to feel how you feel without judgment
  • Using art or journaling as healthy outlets
  • Creating rituals or traditions to commemorate the loss
  • Talk therapy with a certified professional therapist
  • Group therapy with others who experienced a similar loss

If you’re experiencing disenfranchised grief or grief of any kind, reach out today for support.