Disenfranchised grief is a term describing grief that is not acknowledged by society. Examples of events leading to disenfranchised grief are the loss of a pet, a trauma in the family a generation prior, the loss of a home or place of residence (particularly in the case of children, who generally have little or no control in such situations, and whose grief may not be noticed or understood by caregivers; American military children and teens in particular move a great deal while growing up), an aborted/miscarried pregnancy, a mother's loss or surrender of a child to adoption, the death of a loved one due to a socially unacceptable cause such as suicide, or even the death of a celebrity. Loss or severe disability of a parent during wartime (others around the child's family may not be able to relate or support properly) is compared to more traditional forms of grief, such as loss of a spouse, parent, or child. Certain events that are often circumscribed by social stigma can also cause disenfranchised grief, such as the breakup or loss of a secret relationship (e.g. an extramarital affair), botched cosmetic surgery procedures, the diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection as well as other events. Traditional forms of grief are more widely recognized even in nontraditional living situations. However, there are few support systems, traditions, or institutions such as bereavement leave available to those experiencing disenfrachised grief.
Even widely recognized forms of grief can become disenfranchised when well-meaning friends and family attempt to set a time limit on a bereaved person's right to grieve. For example, the need to regulate mourning and restore a state of normal work activity severely impacted the grieving process of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, according to Edward Linenthal. Grieving for lost children was redefined as post-traumatic stress disorder if parents were not "over it" within two weeks.
Loss is one of the most common experiences that brings about grieving, and although this is often viewed as normal, there are times when it is disqualified. Some examples of when grieving over a loss is disenfranchised include: the loss of a grandchild, of an ex-spouse, or of a child through adoption.
Loss of a grandchild can be extremely difficult for a grandparent, but the grandparent’s grief is often disenfranchised because they are not part of the immediate family. Attention and support is given to the child’s parents and siblings, but the grandparent’s grief is two-fold as they have not only grieving the loss of their grandchild, but are also grieving for their adult children who have lost the child. This phenomenon is termed “double-grief” by Davidson  and she explains that this makes bereavement even more difficult.
Loss of an ex-spouse is disenfranchised due to the lack of a current or ongoing personal relationship between the former couple. Although the marriage has ended, the relationship has not, and there are ties between the two people that will forever be there including: shared children, mutual friendships, and financial connections. Research has shown that those couples who never resolved conflicts and had closure after the relationship ended experienced much more grief than those who had. The grievers experience guilt and thoughts of “what might have been”, similar to those of widows.
Loss of a child by adoption is often disenfranchised because the decision to give a child up for adoption is voluntary, and therefore it is not acceptable by society to grieve. Birth mothers lack support, and are expected to just move on and pretend the child doesn't exist. Many birth mothers experience regret and have thoughts of what might have been or of reuniting with the child.
Relationships that are not recognized by society may include several different types of relationships. The first type of relationship that usually comes to mind is a romantic relationship, such as the death of a partner in homosexual relationships. Another type may be a former partner, such as the death of an ex-spouse (a person who the griever was previously married to, but eventually divorced). The death of an ex-spouse does not typically receive the same recognition as the death of a current spouse. Another type of relationship is one in which the griever and the person who died did not necessarily have a very personal relationship. This relationship may include coworkers, doctor and patient relationships, or even people that the griever does not know personally at all, such as celebrities. Another relationship that often goes unrecognized by society is online relationships, this includes friendships made on online games and social networks, but the people never actually meet in person. These relationships are often unrecognized by society. However, when a relationship is acknowledged by society when one person dies, the griever or person that did not die in the relationship will often experience disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989).
A specific example of a relationship that has not been accurately depicted by society is Lesbian and Gay individuals. Individuals often become invisible to society when simply in a homosexual relationship. Even when the individual’s romantic partner dies or decides to leave his or her life partner by choice (a break up), society does not acknowledge that the individual is grieving (McNutt & Yakushko, 2013).
Dealing with disenfranchised grief
There are many steps or stages to grief. Specifically Kubler-Ross described grieving in five steps or stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kulber-Ross, 1996). In other words in order to begin grieving one must first endorse the loss, and then express emotion. After realizing the loss, the griever must accept the loss and adjust to the change the death or loss caused in his or her life (Cordaro, 2012). For disenfranchised grieving there are some complications that are not always present in other grieving processes. First, there are usually intensified reactions to death or loss. For example, the griever may become more depressed or angry due to not being able to fully express his or her grief and are unable to openly talk about the loss recently experienced. Second, disenfranchised grief means society does not recognize the death or loss; therefore, the griever does not have strong support socially, again not being able to openly talk about what he or she is personally dealing with. These are just a few of the complications that come with disenfranchised grief.
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- Kenneth J. Doka, editor. Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow Lexington Books, 1989. ISBN 0-669-17081-X