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What is Disenfranchised Grief?

Hello again, Gina here. Today I felt compelled to write about an often-overlooked type of grief that feels important to name as we continue to live through precarious times. It’s called disenfranchised grief.


Disenfranchised grief, often referred to as “invisible grief”, “hidden grief”, or “silent grief”, is the bereavement we experience due to a loss that isn’t recognized within our society, and therefore isn’t deemed socially acceptable to mourn. Doka (2008) put it simply, “although the individual is experiencing a grief reaction, there is no social recognition that the person has a right to grieve or a claim for social sympathy or support”.

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Examples of invisible grief can include:

  • an adult child grieving their parents’ divorce

  • the death of a pet

  • the loss of a child in a custody battle

  • the loss of physical autonomy after an accident

  • grieving the future you were promised versus reality (millennials and gen z, I’m giving you a knowing nod)

  • the loss of a job or a relationship

  • the loss of personality due to a neurocognitive disorder

  • having to relocate to a different city

  • experiencing trouble conceiving a baby or the loss of an unborn child, whether it be by choice or by nature

  • grieving the loss of biodiversity on this Earth

The list goes on and on. Hidden grief can also occur in instances when a human dies. It may take the form of our sorrow being invalidated because we “weren’t as close to the deceased as their partner/child/best friend” or perhaps not allowing certain family members to attend a funeral to “protect” them. It can even take the form of a loss a family experiences when a member is on death row.

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Disenfranchised grief is a byproduct of cultural norms or “grieving rules” (Doka, 2009) Western society has created. The number one rule in Western culture is similar to Fight Club: You do not talk about death. Discussing feelings of death can lead to isolation and shame (Harris, 2009). Another grieving rule in Western society is that grief must have a timeline.


For example, in corporate settings, we see bereavement that may look similar to one week off for the death of a parent and two weeks off for the death of a partner. Not only do policies like these perpetuate unrealistic expectations in relation to grief but they may also contribute to worse mental health outcomes. A 1998 study by Eyetsemitan concluded that policies like this may increase mental health consequences and decrease workplace productivity, a byproduct of the Industrial Growth Society that’s known as stifled grief. Policies like this also highlight Western society’s hierarchical viewpoint on grief, implying one type of loss is “worse” than the other (see comparative grief). If only the grieving process was as simple as our grieving rules suggest. Do you sense a disconnect here between societal norms versus the reality of how we experience grief? I do!


According to Lenhardt (2011), social recognition and support have been identified as key factors in processing a loss. In a hyper-individualized culture, we have to actively seek out these forms of sustenance. It may take the form of an individual, couple, or family seeking out services with a grief counselor or creating a ritual to name the loss and sit with the feelings associated with it. It may look like a post on social media to honor a loss or a friend listening and validating their loved one’s experience. And perhaps if we’re willing, we start questioning the West’s grieving rules and consider there may be other, more nurturing ways to move through our grief. Maybe we even partner with our courageous selves and instead of saying, “At least...” we ask, “How are you really doing?”




Comfort for grieving person


Recommended Readings






Resources

Comparative grief. Be Curious Not Furious. (2020, April 29). https://becuriousnotfurious.net/2020/04/29/comparative-grief/


Doka, K. J. (1999). Disenfranchised grief. Bereavement Care, 18(3), 37–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/02682629908657467


Doka, K. J. (2008). Disenfranchised grief in historical and cultural perspective. Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice: Advances in Theory and Intervention., 223–240. https://doi.org/10.1037/14498-011


Eyetsemitan, F. (1998). Stifled grief in the Workplace. Death Studies, 22(5), 469–479. https://doi.org/10.1080/074811898201461


Haley, E. (2023, March 17). Comparing grief and why we shouldn’t do it - what’s your grief. Whats your Grief. https://whatsyourgrief.com/an-argument-against-comparing-grief/


Harris, D. (2010). Oppression of the bereaved: A critical analysis of grief in western society. OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying, 60(3), 241–253. https://doi.org/10.2190/om.60.3.c


Steinke-Baumgard, M. (2017, June 4). Stifled grief: How the west has it wrong. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/stifled-grief-how-the-wes_b_10243026


Unrecognised or disenfranchised grief. GriefLink. (2022, November 7). https://grieflink.org.au/factsheets/unrecognised-or-hidden-grief/

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