Have you ever experienced a loss so heartbreaking and no one was there to console you, to hold you, to hear you, to listen to your story, to cry with you, to help mend your broken heart? There was no Rabbi or Pastor to turn to, no group to give you a safe and non-judgmental place to mourn your loss, to heal your broken heart. This is what Disenfranchised Grief looks like. You feel utterly alone and silenced.
When Disenfranchised Grief becomes your companion it is usually the result of a loss that leaves you with no socially accepted way to grieve. Your thoughts reflect confusion bordering on despair: Where do I go? How do I mourn what has happened? Who can I talk with about my terrible loss?
You find yourself walking alone in solitude and silence.
There are many people and relationships that all too commonly result in Disenfranchised Grief. It may your ex-husband, the father of your children. Instead of listening to you with compassion and understanding, your family and friends may say — “Get over it. Move on. You have a new marriage. You should feel lucky you are divorced.”
Or it may be your elderly mother who has died. People say — “You are so lucky to have had her all of these years.” You, in response, can only think, “ How could they say those words? Having her all those years only makes it harder.”
Disenfranchised Grief does not always involve death. It can be a response to the virtual loss of someone you love — someone who is alive but absent, perhaps because they are suffering dementia. Your loved one doesn’t recognize you any more and all the memories you hold are the memories of how life used to be. For months, perhaps years you have been experiencing the loss of someone you used to know.
If you have experienced grief and mourning attached to the death of someone you have loved and find there is no place to go where you can grieve and mourn publicly, then you have experienced Disenfranchised Loss. This is a term that describes a death or other loss that has restricted public and social rules of grieving, and no rituals associated with mourning.
If you have experienced a Disenfranchised Loss, then your feelings may have been denied for years. If so, those feelings may surface later, often triggered by a subsequent loss or losses. At this point, you may find yourself feeling intensified anger, depression, guilt and powerlessness; you may find yourself isolated because there are few or no places to gather support.
Kenneth Doka is a well known researcher of the grieving process and grief responses. He suggests that there are circumstances that set up conditions where the loss you experience is not socially acceptable, including:
- Your relationship is not socially recognized. It may be the death of an ex-spouse, the death of a gay or lesbian partner, the death of a friend or possibly a loss from suicide.
- Your loss is not socially recognized or is hidden from others. It may be an abortion, being gay or lesbian or the death of your pet.
- The griever is not socially recognized. These people include the mentally ill, the very old and very young.
- The death involves stigmatized circumstances, including suicide, AIDS and drug overdose.
- There are cultural differences that may prevent the recognition of certain causes of death that are deemed stigmatized.
When you are finally able to acknowledge that you are grieving a death and there is no socially acceptable way to grieve that loss publically, what can you do to help yourself?
- Acknowledgement of your love and loss is the beginning of the healing process.
- No matter the loss, grant yourself the time and space to grieve. No one else has the right to pass judgment on your grief. Know that your love was real and your grief is appropriate.
- It is most important that you identify your grief, validate yourself for taking steps to feel that you are normal and find resources that can help support your grieving.
- Remember you are not alone. Join a group, maybe a self – awareness group or see a private therapist. When you feel isolated and lonely it is often a function of not reaching out. Research your options!
- Reach out in personal ways. Consider the following: journaling, art, photography, joining a community, learning Canasta or Bridge, square dancing or joining a book club. Invite someone for dinner and make it a special occasion.
- Volunteer to support someone else who is in need of help.
In the end, there is no magic, but there is certainly much hope. Hope lies in gaining knowledge about yourself and Disenfranchised Loss. Have faith that you will be resilient and you will have the courage to be true to yourself and recognize what you can change and what is not in your power to change.
Social mores and rules do not change overnight but you surely can have a voice in a change for the future by sharing experiences with others, and being good a listener, giving permission for others to grieve their “Disenfranchised Loss.” You never know when you will say, “I have been there, too.”