Understanding the causes and settings of disenfranchised grief can help reduce stigma and provide support for those in need.

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Grief comes in many forms. But what happens when society downplays your experience and insists that your loss is invalid? Or that you’re not grieving “the right way” — whatever that means.

Grief that’s unacknowledged or rejected by others can lead to a lack of care for the person grieving. And during a time when you need support the most, feeling judged or invalidated for not grieving “properly” can further prolong your healing.

This is known as disenfranchised grief, which hurts individuals and our collective as a whole.

“Disenfranchised grief is any loss that is not recognized as having an impact by the griever and/or their support system,” explains Jill A. Johnson-Young, LCSW, certified grief recovery facilitator, author, and international speaker on grief and loss.

It also occurs when you:

  • are made to feel you’re not entitled to mourning
  • are made to feel you’re “not sad enough”
  • lack coping resources
  • don’t have anyone to talk to about your experience
  • don’t have a way to find a larger meaning in the loss

There are many causes of disenfranchised grief, and the way you emotionally react can vary throughout the grieving process.

It’s important to understand how this type of grief might show up to avoid it turning into complicated grief or negatively affecting your well-being.

When does disenfranchised grief become complicated grief?

“Without support and understanding from other people, disenfranchised grief can become complicated grief if a person is not able to express and work through their grief,” explains Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in resolving trauma and grief.

“When grief is not named, addressed, and worked through, it stays,” adds Johnson-Young. “When another loss occurs, it attaches itself to that loss and makes the impact far more intense. It can also cause the symptoms of initial grief to stay and go unrecognized as grief, leading to prolonged symptoms and complicated grief.”

According to Larsen, if your grief lasts for more than 6 months, involves intense, distracting longing for the person who passed, and significantly impacts day-to-day functioning, there’s a chance it’s become complicated grief.

Miscarriage or stillbirth

Many pregnancy and child loss resources are specifically aimed toward women and childbearing people, but partners, potential grandparents, and other people closely related to the situation can experience grief, too.

Research suggests that men in particular are likely to experience double disenfranchised grief after pregnancy or neonatal loss. This is due to a lack of social support or recognition of their emotions and the expectation to care for their childbearing partner.

Increased access to support can help improve and expedite their healing process.

Healthcare workers

If you work in healthcare, especially in settings like a pediatric intensive care unit or hospice care, loss becomes part of your job. But your grief may not be validated by the systems in which you work.

A 2017 study on disenfranchised grief and physician burnout suggests that unacknowledged losses can negatively affect folks who work in the healthcare industry.

Receiving support and having the ability to discuss grief — especially while on the job — can help prevent burnout that may occur over time.

Coping with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. You may have lost loved ones, your job, your home, or access to things you used to enjoy.

Recognizing that everyone’s experiences are different, and that we all experienced loss in some way, is an important step in destigmatizing our grief and allowing people to express and work through emotions.

Losing a loved one to police violence

Instances of police violence are becoming increasingly publicized. The media and masses alike typically respond with inappropriate criticism and judgement of those who died as a result of police contact.

This is dehumanizing and can lead to varied levels of grief among those directly and indirectly affected by the loss — especially mothers and parents losing a child to homicide.

A 2021 study on families’ experiences of death after police contact in the United States suggests that finding a socially acceptable way to grieve that loss can be difficult.

The Black community is especially affected by disenfranchised grief around police violence, and their grief, too, may become policed. Everyone involved in this situation, especially those closest to it, deserve to be treated with respect and receive proper support.

Animal care workers, or those who have lost pets

Disenfranchised grief is common among people who work in animal care as well. In fact, in one study, 66% of animal care workers noted that it was difficult to cope with the losses associated with their job, especially due to a lack of grief support.

Grieving the loss of your own pet is also valid. Society typically doesn’t recognize pets as “family members” but they can feel like family to us.

For those of us who find a sense of love and comfort in our pets, their death can leave a hole in our lives — and a lack of support at that time can lead to disenfranchised grief.

If you want to support someone who just lost a pet, you may try:

  • reaching out to the person whose pet recently died
  • sending them a card
  • donating to an animal shelter in their pet’s memory

Support like this can help them cope with the magnitude of their loss.

Stigmatized deaths

Deaths that are charged with stigma, like suicides or abortions, can also lead to disenfranchised grief.

  • Suicide. As a suicide survivor, you may feel blame or shame in addition to your grief. Group therapy for people who have lost a loved one to suicide can allow you to share common feelings and reduce the weight of stigma surrounding the experience.
  • Addiction. Stigma is heavily attached to losing a loved one to a substance use disorder or misuse. These conditions are complex, but the person who died was still human. Rather than reducing their death to a statistic, offer support and care to those mourning the loss.
  • Abortion. You never know for what reason someone decided to have an abortion. Coping with the aftermath of the procedure on top of stigma can amplify the hardship. Try to be kind and compassionate to both parents when someone shares their experience to help them grieve.

Non-death related losses

“There are also losses that don’t involve death, but need to be healed nonetheless,” says Larsen.

Examples of non-death related losses that may result in disenfranchised grief include:

  • people whose family members have been deported
  • losing someone to dementia
  • breaking ties with a loved one with an active addiction
  • breaking up with or divorcing a long-term partner
  • losing the ability to move physically due to a disability
  • losing a job or home

You don’t have to grieve alone. Support, understanding, and validation are within reach and can help you navigate the grieving process easier than doing it by yourself.

Speak with loved ones

Support systems are crucial in helping us overcome grief. Connecting with friends and family about what you’re going through can bring you a sense of relief.

But Johnson-Young reminds us to be careful when choosing whom to speak to about your experience.

“Loved ones can be helpful, but they can also be critical of the way a griever is coping and their progress, whether it’s too fast or too slow for their determination,” she says.

“Grievers need a support network where they can be supported — sometimes in silence, and always without hearing the phrases that are meant to be helpful but in fact can cause hurt,” she adds.

Find a creative outlet

Channeling grief into art can offer healing as well. Try painting, making music, writing, or any other hobby that might help you relieve stress in a creative way.

Johnson-Young also recommends journaling in guided grief journals, or anywhere you can “dump” your thoughts at the end of the day.

Reach out for help

Help is readily available when you need it.

If you need to speak to someone, consider seeing a grief counselor or therapist with grief training. A mental health professional who specializes in grief recovery can validate your experience and offer support in your time of need.

Larsen also notes that therapy can help you work through accepting and understanding your loss, so you can move forward in peace.

Support groups and organizations can help, too. Consider contacting any of these resources:

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline. This hotline can connect you with referrals to mental health professionals, support groups, and other community resources that may help you heal.
  • American Veterinary Medical Association. The AVMA offers a variety of grief treatment resources for animal care workers.
  • The National Alliance for Mental Illness. NAMI provides a page for healthcare workers seeking grief support. NAMI also has resources for people affected by COVID-19 or those who’ve lost loved ones during the pandemic.
  • My Good. This nonprofit provides help to those who have lost loved ones to police violence.
  • COPE Foundation. This organization provides support to families who have lost children, including an online forum and referrals to in-person support groups in your area.
  • Missing Grace. Parents who have lost children to miscarriage or stillbirth can find online and in-person resources here.

You can also build community and find a sense of relief in connecting with other people who share similar losses.

Johnson-Young recommends reaching out to folks who have similar outlooks or experiences, such as those who’ve lost LGBTQIA+ partners, children, pets, or people with substance use disorders. That way, you can ask questions about who and what they’ve found helpful in their grieving journey, which may be able to help you, too.

We all experience grief differently, but all forms are worthy of recognition and support — including disenfranchised grief and complicated grief.

Understanding the causes of disenfranchised grief and where it’s typically minimized or stigmatized by society, then adjusting our response to offer care and hold space, can go a long way in helping people heal.

Causes of disenfranchised grief may include losing a pet, domestic partner, or job due to COVID-19, having a miscarriage or stillbirth, or losing someone to police violence or a substance use disorder. All these examples of disenfranchised grief are valid and real.

“Grief support needs to fit the person. It’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Johnson-Young. Various resources are available to help you through your grieving journey, including communities and support groups, hotlines, and grief-trained therapists.

Find what feels best for you, offer yourself grace, and avoid passing judgment on yourself or others along the way.