What is Disenfranchised Grief and How Might it Apply to Me?

November 30, 2020

What do the following have in common: Romantic breakup, Alzheimer’s and Infertility. What these all have in common is they are losses that can occur in everyday life and thus may have a sense of commonality or normalcy. The list could go on and on (pet loss, changing of schools, bankruptcy, etc). Because we experience them as part of life and window dress them as “things that happen” we might not think of them as grief worthy – thus our grief gets disenfranchised. We also might not recognize everyday losses if it seems like a positive thing – such as in substance use disorder recovery. While there is no arguing the merits of recovery it does come with a change in lifestyle and maybe social network as well (“when I got sober, people told me to just do what I like doing but there is nothing I like doing that doesn’t involve alcohol”).

Let’s take a step back before moving ahead. Any life change comes with a loss. We can’t go forward without leaving something behind. This is not meant to trivialize or reduce everything to grief. However, what is valuable to one might not be valuable to another. Nevertheless, being mindful to not minimize someone’s experience of loss is our responsibility as caring people. Over time all grief becomes disenfranchised (“that was such a long time ago”) but maybe we can shift the culture to recognize grief over something meaningful is forever and a path to managing this is to reconstruct the meaning of the relationship in order to go forward with it – not move on from it.

Disenfranchised grief occurs when:

The loss is not recognized

The relationship is not recognized

And / or 

The griever is not recognized

A psycho-social loss is the loss of something or someone that may not be publicly recognized, socially sanctioned or thought of as significant. We might not recognize the loss of an ex-spouse or partner. There might be an implied value judgement that “it’s in the past”, “I thought you were over that” or “it’s not like you were still together”. An unexpected and sudden move to another home or the ability to function as you once did due to a life changing injury may be very powerful and impact you for an extended period of time.  However, these losses can be thought of simply as transitions we have to make in life. Also, we contribute to our own disenfranchisement and minimization with statements like “it could have been a lot worse”. 

Grief doesn’t go away and instead arrives in any of the following ways. (Please note; grief in situations that are recognized or sanctioned can also show up in one or more of these ways):

Emotional – One can have a range of feelings; sad, angry, shocked and relieved

Behavioral – Too much or not enough (i.e., socializing, eating, sleeping, working)

Cognitive – Forgetful, confused, disoriented, planning or time management struggles

Physical – Grief goes to the body; neck, back pains, stomach distress, “always tired”

Spiritual – Losing faith in wherever faith is held or enhanced questioning 

Lose is loss. The more we learn to walk with it, and not resist it, the more the road seems manageable.