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When Grief is Disenfranchised, Unrecognized, and Long-Lasting

Updated: Jan 14

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

February 5, 2023



Grief is a profoundly painful natural part of living. If we love and we experience loss, we grieve. Though grief is a natural process that is universally experienced, there is nothing about it that feels natural. Indeed, each human experiences grief uniquely.


Sometimes grief knocks the wind out of us, and other times grief is like a hurricane, impacting everything in its wake. Occasionally grief exists in ways we don't necessarily realize within ourselves. Other times we may understand what we feel is grief, but our own family, community or society does not recognize the pain or need to mourn.


Types of Grief


Disenfranchised grief was first coined by Kenneth J. Doka describing grief that is not experienced openly or acknowledged, and can be a "hidden sorrow".


Originally Doka identified two contexts in which the nature of the loss might lead to a disenfranchisement of grief. "In the first, a death loss from an interpersonal relationship that transcended the boundary of the immediate family (e.g. friends), or not sanctioned by society" (Doka, 2002). In the second type of disenfranchised grief Doka described, "the loss itself may not be recognized by society as a loss meriting grief." Examples include death-related losses, like miscarriage, death of a pet, and other types of loss, like loss of a job, loss of health or mobility.


In both contexts, the loss is not necessarily acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.


Because of this lack of acknowledgement, the griever may think there is something wrong with them, or others might misjudge the person grieving. Disenfranchised grief can lead to silent agony.


Though most research has focused on grief as a reaction to bereavement, "grief can be a reaction to all kinds of loss, which can include the death of a loved one, as well as the loss of opportunities, dreams, health, or identity" (Thogersen & Glintborg, 2021). Grief can be multifaceted and complex.


"Disenfranchised grief is not limited to death-related losses; it encompasses other types of losses (and grievers) as well" (Doka, 2002). "One example is divorce, or the breakup of any romantic relationship." The pain and disappointment of a failed relationship encompasses so much more than the loss of the loved companion, and hopes and dreams with that person. When breakups are accompanied by affairs, the levels of grief and losses to self can bleed into one's entire identity and self worth.


For anyone who has experienced childhood trauma or neglect, grief can be life-long and unrecognized by even the person experiencing it. Many victims of trauma grieve the losses experienced within themselves, losses of the childhood or adulthood they didn't get to have, losses of hope and safety, and many times, loss of the parental relationships they had hoped for.


Opposite of disenfranchised grief is normal grief or what's referred to as uncomplicated grief (Wooden, 2009). "Uncomplicated grief encompasses a broad range of feelings and behaviors that are common after a loss." The most common feeling in the bereaved includes sadness, followed by anger. Anger is often precipitated by frustration that the loss couldn't be stopped, or anxiety of the helplessness "to feel unable to exist without the person."


Other common emotions described by Worden include "guilt and self reproach--over not being kind enough" or not able to intervene sooner. Anxiety is often experienced by grievers ranging from "a light sense of insecurity to a strong panic attack". Loneliness is an emotion experienced frequently following the loss of a loved one, as are fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, relief, numbness and uncomfortable physical sensations.


Tasks of Grief


Regardless of whether one's grief is recognized by society or disenfranchised, Worden (2009) prescribes several tasks of mourning which can be helpful in the grieving journey.


Task I: To accept the reality of the loss. This is often the hardest task of all and there is no time limit that it may take. Until this task is met, a person tends to be "stuck" in the process of grief. "Coming to an acceptance of the reality of the loss takes time since it involves not only an intellectual acceptance but also an emotional one" (Worden, 2009). Reality of the loss always hits when the griever is reminded through triggers or memories relived over and over again, which can be excruciating.


Task II: To process the pain of grief. "Not everyone experiences the same intensity of pain or feels it in the same way, but it is nearly impossible to lose someone to whom you have been deeply attached without experiencing some level of pain" (Worden, 2009). In the case of disenfranchised grief, regardless of whether society recognizes your pain, you need to recognize it, and provide yourself the compassion and validation you also deserve.


Task III: To adjust to a world without the deceased (or any loss). With any loss, it is important to learn how to adjust to a world without who or what had been lost. Worden (2009) speaks of three areas of adjustment that require addressing. External adjustments refer to how the loss effects everyday functioning; internal adjustments include how the loss impacts one's sense of self; and spiritual adjustments, or in what way the loss affects one's beliefs, values, and worldviews.


Task IV: To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. As we grieve any loss, it is important to find meaning from the pain and embark on a new normal. Grievers are encouraged to not let the relationship end, but to find ways to keep the love alive within. This can be a very difficult undertaking, but the result of not completing this tasks can lead to "not living" (Worden, 2009). "Some people find loss so painful that they make a pact with themselves never to love again." We could change love to trust, feel, hope, live, and it would encompass so many emotions that keep someone "stuck" in the grieving process, and in the midst of the hurricane of emotions.


The tasks described above are not linear or sequential, as one can go back and forth between tasks, or be in two tasks at the same time. Grieving cannot be rushed; it takes time to grieve, so it is important to grant yourself the time you need, and the space you need to grieve, as there is no "right way".


Some techniques that can help the grieving process, regardless of the type of loss, include:


Writing to and talking with the individual or situation one is grieving can be very helpful, including writing to ones' self,


Drawing and creating memory books can be very helpful to creatively honor the pain experienced, and the love the pain represents.


Practicing guided imageries or meditations can be useful to bring visualization in and help with relaxation.


Having some personal or professional support can also be very helpful.


A Small Price to Pay for Love


Grief is the price we pay for love. Sometimes we are not even aware of just how much loss has been experienced in our own lives. Acknowledging the grief you have experienced in your unique life is the first step toward your own healing journey, and sometimes the hardest.


Try to take a moment to place a hand on your heart and breathe deeply. Allow yourself the stillness of just focusing on breathing for 30 seconds as you compassionately honor your own pain.


You can learn to live again with hope and love as you work towards finding moments of serenity; but first give yourself grace to pace yourself, as it takes one small step at a time. Just don't stop stepping.


 


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org


 


References


Doka, K. (2002). Disenfranchised Grief: New directions, challenges, and strategies for practice.

Research Press, Champaign, IL.


Thogersen, C.M.S., and Glintborg, C. (2021). Ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief among spouses

of brain injury survivors. Nordic Psychology. Retrieved from


Worden, J.W. (2009). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY.





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