Grieving is hard enough. When those you love don’t understand your grief, it can be even harder.
We all experience loss, and loss comes in many forms and may affect different people in different ways.
Your feelings of sadness or grief over that loss, no matter what it is, are valid — no guilt needed.
While grieving over the death of a loved one is often understood and accepted by those in your life and by society at large, sometimes loss of a pet, job, friendship, home, or situation aren’t as understood or validated.
Plus, some people may have you believe that certain types of death aren’t as “grievable” or that some people like healthcare professionals should be “used to” death and not affected by it to the same degree.
When this happens, it’s referred to as disenfranchised grief, or hidden grief or sorrow.
“Disenfranchise” means to deprive someone of a right or privilege. In reference to grief, it means to deprive someone of their right to grieve.
Grief comes in many forms and is caused by various situations. However, disenfranchised grief differs from other forms of grief.
“While types of grief often intersect or overlap, any type of grief can become complicated, but not all grief is disenfranchised or anticipatory,” explains Krista St-Germain, Master Certified Life Coach and grief expert.
Complicated grief has to do with a person’s response to a loss, whereas disenfranchised and anticipatory grief have to do with the nature of the loss, she says.
How disenfranchised grief differs from complicated grief
While we most commonly think of grief as a result of death, St-Germain points out that loss doesn’t have to involve death.
“It is more accurately defined as a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about a perceived loss. As perception is unique to each person, so are the circumstances that lead to grief,” she says.
To understand complicated grief, it’s helpful to think about what happens immediately after a loss.
Typically, you experience acute grief, which involves intense thoughts and feelings that overcome your days and make it hard to focus on anything else.
While grief is thought of as temporary and something that we can recover from or move on from, loss is permanent, and therefore grief about that loss is also permanent.
“And since there is no end to grief, the goal is to adapt to the loss and incorporate grief into our life experience such that grief becomes integrated,” St-Germain says.
When you’re unable to adapt to your grief, this is referred to as complicated grief.
During complicated grief, you may think, feel, and behave as though you’re still in acute grief, as you experience feelings of hopelessness and thoughts that you can’t move on from.
“Because complicated grief is a sign that something is interfering with a person’s ability to adapt to the loss and integrate their grief into their lives, it can be experienced regardless of the nature of the loss (disenfranchised, anticipatory, traumatic, etc.),” explains St-Germain.
Symptoms of complicated grief
When you experience complicated grief you notice persistent grief symptoms over months or even years that affect your quality of life.
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- Thinking of the person, pet, or thing you’ve lost causes you intense pain.
- You focus a lot on things that remind you of what you’ve lost.
- You often feel numb.
- When you think about your loss, you’re overcome by a feeling of bitterness.
- You feel like you’ve lost your sense of purpose or motivation.
- You’re unable to feel joy in your life.
- You have thoughts of suicide or believe you should’ve died along with the person you lost.
If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can access free support right away with these resources:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24-7.
- Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24-7.
- Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-DEAF (3323) or text HAND at 839863.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
How disenfranchised grief overlaps with anticipatory grief
Disenfranchised grief occurs when your loss goes against cultural norms and isn’t seen as valid by those you care about or those in your community.
While grieving is often thought of after a loss occurs, anticipatory grief refers to grief you experience in anticipation to a loss before it actually happens or while it’s happening.
For example, this type of grief can happen when a loved one is terminally ill. You may begin to grieve their passing while they’re still alive. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused anticipatory grief in some people, as they feared the rising death rate and potential deaths within their close network.
Although disenfranchised grief is different from anticipatory grief, the two may overlap.
For instance, if you’re afraid you won’t be accepted by your family for a lifestyle choice, such as not choosing to raise your children with a certain religion, you may anticipate being rejected by your family and therefore begin to feel anticipatory grief at the loss of their support.
At the same time, your family or parts of society may consider your grief over losing their support invalid, making it disenfranchised grief.
Disenfranchised grief can occur when other people don’t recognize or validate your grief or if you think they may not feel comfortable sharing your grief. A feeling of “no one understands” can overwhelm you.
Here are a few examples of situations that might cause disenfranchised grief:
- loss of a person that others don’t recognize as painful for you, such as an
ex-spouse, abusive partner, person you were having an extramarital affair with, co-worker, teacher, or classmate
- loss of a person or animal you took care of professionally in the role of a
doctor, nurse, home care worker, or animal care worker
- breakup with or loss of a same-sex partner, if you weren’t open about your sexual orientation or your family isn’t accepting of the relationship
- loss related to a loved one who is or was suspected to have committed a crime and died after police contact
- grievance over a loved one dealing with mental health conditions, including addiction
- loss due to infertility, miscarriage,
stillbirth, or adoption that didn’t go through
- loss due to stigmatized death, such as suicide, substance overdose, or abortion
- loss of a job, home, or possessions that you treasure
- decline in health or loss of mobility
- loss of a pet
It’s important to mourn your loss, even if you’re experiencing disenfranchised grief.
St-Germain stresses that while the terms “mourn” and “grieve” are similar, they’re not the same.
Mourning is the external expression of our thoughts and feelings about a perceived loss, while grieving is our internal experience of a perceived loss.
While everyone mourns differently, the following are a few ways that may help you mourn:
Know you have the right to mourn
All thoughts and feelings you have about a loss are valid regardless of whether they’re expressed or received as valid by others, says St-Germain.
“Each griever can decide how or if to mourn and there is no right or wrong way,” she adds. “Knowing this can help someone experiencing grief rely less on the validation of others and empower them to validate their own emotional experience.”
Seek out support
If you want validation from others but aren’t receiving it from those in your support network, consider searching for online support or social media groups specific to your type of loss.
“Connecting with others who have a similar life experience can be useful in that it will often show the person that what they are experiencing is common, that they aren’t alone, and that nothing is wrong with them,” says St-Germain.
Find a therapist
If you would rather talk about your loss with someone who has professional experience helping others in mourning, connect with a therapist who can provide a open, non-judgmental space.
Express your feelings
Writing about your loss in a journal or talking about it with someone you trust is another way to release your feelings and thoughts while mourning.
Memorialize your loss
If you’re mourning a person, finding ways to honor them by going to their favorite restaurant or park or continuing a tradition they enjoyed can help keep the memory of them alive.
Finding ways to cope with grief may overlap with ways to express mourning. However, they’re not one and the same.
The following might help you cope with disenfranchised grief:
Allow yourself to grieve
Even if others don’t validate your grief, or if you fear they won’t, remember that all of your feelings are valid.
“The more significant the loss was for you, the more intense the emotions will be,” says St-Germain. “Do not tell yourself you shouldn’t feel the way you do. The more you can open up to the truth of how you feel and process those emotions instead of resisting or avoiding them, the easier it will be to integrate and adapt to the loss.”
Other people don’t have to understand your feelings in order for you to process them and take care of yourself, she adds.
Don’t explain yourself to others
If others in your life are making you feel bad about your grief, it’s not your responsibility to make them understand.
“You do not owe anyone an explanation. This is your grief and you get to decide who you will share it with and how you will navigate it,” St-Germain says.
When people in your life want to support and help you, it can be hard to accept their offer. However, it’s OK to ask for help or accept it for housework, caring for children or older parents, grocery shopping, and anything else that can free up time for you to focus on your grieving process.
Create a ritual
If a typical ritual like a funeral doesn’t happen or isn’t appropriate for the cause of your grief, creating your own ritual can help. Some ideas might include:
- gathering at a park or other location that was special to your loved one
- holding an annual event, such as releasing balloons on their birthday
- watching the person’s favorite movies or listening to their favorite music
- writing a note about the person and sharing it with others close to them
- creating a photo album of the person and looking through it when you miss them
Seek professional help
If you feel like everything you try doesn’t help with your grief, and if strong feelings of grief persist for months or even years, reaching out to a mental health professional who specializes in loss and grief might be a good option.
Loss is hard, and if others in your life don’t validate your loss, grief can become more complicated. Learning to accept that your grief is valid can help you cope and heal.
Plus, it’s good to remember that even if those close to you don’t seem to validate your grief, support is available. You may wish to search for in-person or online support groups for people who’ve gone through a similar loss. You can also reach out to a mental health professional specializing in grief, especially if your feelings of grief are persistent and affect your quality of life.
The following resources may also provide support.
- The Compassionate Friends Non-Profit Organization for Grief
- Modern Loss, a community that encourages candid and open conversations about loss and grief
- The Dinner Party, a community for people in their 20s and 30s who are grieving
- CaringInfo of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which provides resources for people with serious illnesses and their families, including tips for bereavement care