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How to cope with disenfranchised grief

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Woman sobbing on a bed; disenfranchised grief
It is so much more painful to grief all alone. Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy.

When you’re grieving the loss that someone important to you, you count on support from those around you to validate your immense sadness, anger, and all the other feelings that come with grief. Unfortunately, some types of death and relationships are not acknowledged or appreciated by the mainstream culture in the United States. This can make it harder to grieve the losses you experience (thus complicating your grief), and might contribute to developing Prolonged Grief Disorder. This post talks about what disenfranchised grief is and ways to cope with grief from a stigmatized loss.

For some reason, our culture places greater value on certain types of loss and devalues others. When you’re dealing with grief, the last thing you want to be concerned with is whether someone else approves of you, your relationship to the deceased, or the way the person died or was lost. Sometimes, the loss is not even considered important, such as with pet loss. However, if you ask any pet lover, you’ll hear about how difficult it is to face life without their fur baby at their side.

Unacknowledged loss can lead to disenfranchised grief.

Here is a list of possible stigmatized losses that might go unacknowledged by mainstream culture:

· Pet loss

· Friendship loss

· Losing one’s career

· Loss of a limb or physical ability

· Developing a chronic illness that severely limits what you can do physically and emotionally (like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or cancer)

· Ex-spouse or ex-partner loss

· Losing a loved one to prison

· Family separation due to legal or immigration events (like losing a child or sibling because they went into the foster care system or they were deported)

· Losing one’s home to foreclosure or bankruptcy

· Losing your friends, school, and community due to moving.

There are probably even more losses that this society does not see as a valid reason to feel emotionally upset, and yet the emotion still come, and they are still difficult. You might be able to think of still more losses that are not acknowledged by mainstream society.

Isolation and Invalidation Make Disenfranchised Grief Worse

The difficult thing about feeling upset about one of these types of losses is that people might invalidate or downplay your grief. They might minimize or deny the impact it’s having on you. Often they don't know the damage they're doing; very few people are intentionally mean at these times. It's just that they don't know what to say because of their own discomfort. Nonetheless, this can make it even more difficult to let go of the deceased or the thing you lost. You might also feel frustrated or angry that you must defend how you feel to other people.

Despite the lack of acknowledgment for these types of loss, there are sometimes communities online or in your community that are made just for your particular situation. It may take some research to find such a community, but if you can, it might be worth the investment of time and energy. Talking to an individual therapist who was well-versed in grief can also be helpful.

Stigmatized deaths can lead to disenfranchised grief.

Here’s another odd aspect of our society: that we play shame and blame on certain types of death. As if survivors of those types of death are not important or worthy of comfort and sympathy. As if you don’t need the same kind of care and compassion as someone who lost a loved one through a “acceptable” death.

This hierarchy of so-called morality for deaths is ridiculous, but it does exist. It leads people to feel shame and embarrassment if their loved one passed away from certain causes. Worst yet, stigmatized deaths can lead people to internalize the societal shame that others place on these types of death or loss.

Drug Overdoses and Suicide are Stigmatized Deaths

People who die from drug overdoses, whether intentional or accidental, can often be stigmatized and cause shame for their surviving loved ones. Along similar lines, suicide is still stigmatized in our country and elsewhere. The addition to feeling confused and angry about why your loved one committed suicide, you might have to contend with the societal shame and assumptions placed on you from others.

For example, people might assume that you didn’t do enough to prevent your loved one from killing themselves, or that you might somehow be to blame, especially if you were a parent. You probably already blame yourself enough, without having other people pile on your misplaced guilt.

Abortion is another stigmatized death that can isolate you from other people. Strong feelings about whether abortion is right or wrong can compound with your own feelings about having had to make this difficult decision.

Additionally, there are many religious prohibitions against abortion that can lead to increased guilt and shame. Even if an abortion was medically necessary to save your life, you might still blame yourself and feel lonely in your grief because the people around you don’t accept your decision.

Stigmatized illnesses

There is also a lot of judgment from society about dying from certain kinds of diseases. During the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis, many people were dying by themselves or without the support of their families because they were rejected due to their sexual preference. Even though the virus itself did not care whether someone was an IV drug user, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a woman, or baby, certain assumptions from society made that a stigmatized death.

Additionally, same-sex partners were often prohibited from seeing their dying loved ones in the hospital because their partnerships were not recognized as legitimate by the state or the country. Thankfully, fewer people are perishing from that illness, but it is still something that many people do not support or care about because of the assumptions made by ignorant people. There are also groups like this to help LGBTQ+ adults to cope with loss.

Coping with disenfranchised grief.

People linking arms in support; disenfranchised grief
Having people in your life who understand your pain can be a huge blessing.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot we can do about what other people think of us when we lose someone or something important to us. We can confront stereotypes and myths that are being spread about stigmatized deaths or losses in conversation and online.

There will always be someone, however, who has insensitive and small-minded opinions about certain types of death or loss. Frankly, when you’re grieving a loss, it can be exhausting to try to change people’s minds about what you’re going through. It’s probably easier to look for people who understand what you’re going through, either because they have walked in your shoes or because they are more open-minded.

Making a Space for Disenfranchised Grief

As mentioned before, finding spaces where you can talk openly about what you are going through, can be less isolating and more healing. It doesn’t guarantee that the people will understand everything about your experience, because everyone grieves in their own way. However, at least other people who have lost a family member to suicide or other female identified people who have had abortions can probably relate more compassionately to what you’re experiencing.

Another great tool for dealing with disenfranchised grief is mindful self-compassion. Acknowledging your own pain and suffering, giving yourself permission to experience the grief, and knowing that anyone walking in your shoes would be upset can feel much less burdensome than internalizing the shame and hurtful messages from others. I am knowledgeable about applying self-compassion to grief and other conditions, that I can help you cultivate that mindset for your loss.

If you want to know more about how to cope with disenfranchised grief, please give me a call at 661-233-6771.


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