Understanding Disenfranchised Grief (and Why it Matters)

You’re dealing with the aftermath of a loss, and no one seems to understand why you’re cranky, uninspired, or unable to eat. You get the usual “be strong” ,  “it will pass, so don’t worry”, “move on…”, advices.

Sounds familiar, right? Disenfranchised grief, is grief that does not align with the greater society’s expectations about death and loss.

It is widely misunderstood and mostly dealt with quietly by the griever because of the lack of support  they get from family, peers or the community during the mourning process.

Disenfranchised grief can be difficult because the griever must deal with their emotions alone, and without any guidance or motivation from others. It is also not uncommon for a disenfranchised griever to be chastised for their grief simply because society expects them to act or feel a certain way.

When something dies

Death or loss is not always associated with physical death. It can also refer to a loss of security, identity, reputation, relationships, objects, locations, memories, and so on. We grieve when someone or something important to us is taken away or withdrawn from us.

Mourning for reasons other than physical death is frequently dismissed as childish. It is not realized that loss is highly personal and subjective.

Grief caused by circumstances such as a house fire, the death of a pet, or the loss of a job is frequently misunderstood and invalidated by comments such as “Be thankful that you are alive, when others are killed in the fires,” or “It’s only a pet, you can always get a new pet,” or something similar.

Most of the advice we receive when we express our grief is undermined by “logical” solutions. It’s no surprise that people experiencing disenfranchised grief feel misunderstood and prefer to keep their grief to themselves.

The grieving process is thought to follow a formula based on Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model: Denial or refusal to accept the loss; acceptance of the loss; Anger, or intense frustration, usually results in blaming something or someone else for the loss; Negotiating or bargaining in an attempt to change or reverse the loss; Depression,  defined as “ a major mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest and can interfere with your daily functioning (Mayo Clinic)”; Acceptance, or acknowledging the loss, is followed by planning or readjusting to a new reality following the loss.

In reality, one can experience more than five stages of grief. Each stage is a micro-emotional journey in and of itself. The process of moving through each stage is difficult and painful.

Vulnerable targets

Everyone, rich or poor, young or old, has experienced disenfranchised grief in some form or another.

Nonetheless,  certain sectors or demographics in our society are vulnerable to suffering from it constantly as a result of social norms or society standards and expectations; or when the griever is stigmatized by social norms or belongs to a marginalized part of society; or when some losses are less significant than others.

A widow laments the untimely death of her husband – the family’s main breadwinner has left behind his stay at home wife and four school-age children. The husband’s death from an undiagnosed illness has dimmed any hope of surviving the daily grind. Life is difficult – with rising commodity, utility, education, and rent prices, how can she make ends meet and raise her children alone?

 “Why can’t she find more work to support her children?”, “She is not an invalid person; she can seek alternative sources of income; “She does not need a husband to survive”, etc, are cliché remarks to such stories. Some will also say, she must not waste time grieving because she has to be strong for their children.

Women/mothers – widow, single mothers, mothers who suffer miscarriage or abortion; abused, molested and raped women, etc. ; men, fathers – single fathers, divorcee, widower; abused, molested and raped men, etc. ; seniors, members of the LGBTQ+ community, physically challenged individuals, workers, etc. are all targets of disenfranchised grief.

“Their relationship is immoral!”, or, “Their union is not recognize by the Church and the Law! “, is often the reason why society discredits the grief of a transgender person who has lost their partner. As a result, the grief is immediately invalidated, and the griever is frequently mocked for being “overly dramatic.”

Failure to acknowledge the grief of someone whose sexual identity, orientation, or expression diverge from social constructs is not humane.

Coming to terms with grief

In grief, the term “healing” has been misinterpreted to mean “getting past the sadness, trauma, or emotional sufferings.” When situations arise that cause disenfranchised grief, sufferers may not be able to get over or overcome it, but they must deal with it at some point in order to function.

Grief is an intense emotion. However, some people tend to minimize others’ grief by placing it in situations that are familiar to them. For instance, grief over the death of a pet. If you do not own a pet, you will not understand how pet owners feel. The grief of a widow, or someone without a spouse, may be difficult to comprehend.   

Similarly, just because some people grieve for longer than expected does not mean they are weak.  That said, we must respect other people’s grief and the uniqueness of their grief journey.

When we define a time frame for healing, or when we undermine the grief being experienced, we are disenfranchising their grief.

The death of a spouse is said to be the most difficult grief to bear; however, one cannot say that grief resulting from a loss of dignity (as in sexual violation) or a loss of democracy (as in a despotic government takeover) is any less painful.

Everyone goes through the stages of grief at some point in their lives.

Each stage is a micro-emotional journey in and of itself. The process of moving through each stage is difficult and painful.

Getting unstuck from grief

Easier said than done, I know. But remember that acknowledging your grief is the first step toward healing. You are your own ally, and you must look after yourself. Thus,  self-care is your first line of defense.

Begin making plans as soon as you are able. Allow for errors and unmet expectations when creating a strategy.

However, keep the plan simple and manageable. If you believe the economy’s future is bleak, for example, make a spending or savings plan. Make provisions for additional income. This is also a great time to develop your skills.

You must also follow through on your plan. Make a schedule for completing the plan. Make both short and long-term plans.

Each day should be taken as it comes. Begin by focusing initially on short-term objectives. Take small steps forward. It can help you prepare for the future by increasing your motivation and confidence.

Use this opportunity to rethink your values, goals, and life.

There are various ways to use the experience to change your life or be in such a state of contentment because no economic, political, or personal insecurity can prevent you from living the life you wanted.

Look for a support system. Speak with a trusted relative or friend. Join online support groups or forums that discuss situations similar to yours.

Begin journaling as a cathartic outlet for your grief.

Avoid using substances, alcohol, or other vices to distract yourself.

Rediscover your passions, such as songwriting, singing, cooking, film reviews, painting, dancing, gardening, and so on. The idea of engaging in creative activities or activities that can make your mind critical or analytical.

Eat the right foods and take regular baths

Stay in the present

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please seek professional help.
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