The word grief has come to be understood solely as a reaction to a death which is not always the case. Disenfranchised grief, also known as hidden grief or sorrow, refers to any grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. This kind of grief is often minimized or not understood by others, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through. When we lost something we love, we mourn. That is human nature–a natural process to the order of things. Not everyone understands that loss though.
Grief is an expression of the tremendous amount of sadness and other feelings you have surrounding loss which may or may not include death. There are several types of grief unrelated to death including, but not limited to, the following:
- Loss of identity: The person mourns a lost sense of self when something happens and a life role is lost. For example, a divorced person is no longer a spouse, an empty-nester mourns the lost identity of parenthood, LGBTQ+ people who aren’t “out” may grieve the loss of a partner whom everyone else perceives to be “just their friend”, a person who loses their job or switches careers are no longer identified as the person they were (e.g. boss, supervisor, teacher, police officer, doctor). The grief may be compounded if the person feels like they had no control over the decision. For example, a breast cancer survivor who undergoes a double mastectomy may lose that sense of femininity, or an older person no longer able to care for themselves may experience a lost sense of identity as a contributing member of society. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- Loss of safety: We expect to feel safe in our homes, our communities, or our relationships. When something happens to damage that, we feel distinctly unsafe and begin to experience hypervigilance even in the absence of danger or numbness. Survivors of trauma or violence or unstable homes experience a breach in their internal safety which may feel hard to restore or regain even after circumstances improve and the threat is longer present. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- Loss of autonomy: This type of grief happens when a person feels they have no control over their own body or their own mind. The person may grieve their loss of physical abilities, decline in social roles, and loss of independence. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- Loss of dreams or expectations: Most of us have a sense of how we expect our life to play and a sense of how we expect the world to operate. Sometimes, dreams or expectations go unfilled and we feel a deep sense of disorientation. For example, a person or couple who struggles with infertility may experience a sense of failure that makes the grief process more difficult to navigate. Their parents may struggle with acceptance of not having biological grandchildren. A person who expects to go into the military to follow the family tradition but is unable to do so because of health reasons may also experience that sense of failure and disorientation. The individual who has been sheltered her whole life may experience a sense of unfairness when life events violate their expectations. The overachieving student may experience a loss of dreams or expectations when he or she struggles to find a place in the “real world.” These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- A loss that’s considered ‘less significant’: Maybe you wonder if you’re “too sad” over the loss of your pet, perhaps when someone offhandedly says, “It’s not as if you lost a child. Society tends to minimize loss associated with adoptions that don’t go through (“you’ll get another one”), loss of home country (“you’re here now. What’s the big deal?”), going through a breakup (especially if you’re the one that got “dumped”), or loss of possessions (“that stuff can be replaced. You should be happy you all got out safe.”). Maybe you lost a favorite teacher, a favorite coworker, or an honorary relative (e.g. a friend’s child, long-time friend of the family). People still feel deeply wounded and broken. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- Loss surrounded by stigma: Some losses bring more criticism or judgment making you feel embarrassed or ashamed (e.g. infertility, suicide in the family, miscarriages, estrangement with a loved one due to substance misuse, a family member struggling with severe mental health issues or neurocognitive issues which causes incapacitation, incarceration of a loved one, abortion). Many people don’t want to discuss a traumatic event that led to death because they “don’t know what to say.” Meanwhile, you are left struggling alone. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
- Exclusion from mourning: People sometimes assume you have no “right” to mourn if the person lost was not part of your immediate family or a current romantic partner (e.g. loss of a best friend, a classmate, an ex-partner/spouse). People also assume children, people with cognitive impairment, developmentally disabled, or serious mental health conditions are unable to mourn. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
People who grieve are expected to show it according to the unofficial “rules” of behavior. For example, you’re expected to cry and show sadness visually, lose your appetite, sleep a lot, and/or withdraw from social events. You might hear: “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?” or “You have to stay strong and keep moving forward”, and, my personal favorite, “If you don’t cry, that means the loss doesn’t affect you.” You are not expected to show anger, lack of emotion, throw yourself into your work, misuse substances to cope, or even feel relief. These are all normal reactions that should be acknowledged.
Grief typically progresses through several stages. If you can’t openly mourn, though, it’s hard to proceed through these stages in a productive way. Along with typical feelings associated with grief, such as sadness, anger, guilt, and emotional numbness, disenfranchised grief can contribute to insomnia, substance misuse, anxiety, depression, physical symptoms, like muscle tension, unexplained pain, stomach distress, diminished self-esteem, shame, relationship problems, trouble focusing, and mood swings.
Disenfranchised and complicated grief can have particular details:
- The loss happened at least 6 months ago
- Intense, distracting feelings of longing and loneliness
- Feeling that life isn’t worth living after the loss
- Constantly feeling in shock or numb
- Excessively avoiding or seeking places, objects, or other things that remind you of the loss
- Obsession with the cause or circumstances of a death
Processing grief isn’t exactly fun but is important and necessary for good mental health. It is wise to reach out for help if your grief begins to affect your responsibilities or personal relationships, or you continue to lack interest in the activities you usually enjoy. All grief is valid and you have the right to mourn something or someone you lose. No one gets to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t feel sad or if you’ve been grieving too long.
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