Disenfranchised grief is a term describing grief that is not acknowledged as legitimate by society. For example, a loss may be seen as too small or the relationship too distant to justify grieving. Traditional forms of grief are more widely recognized and supported. There are few support systems, rituals, traditions, or institutions such as bereavement leave available to those experiencing disenfranchised 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 American scholar Edward Linenthal. Grieving for deceased children was redefined as post-traumatic stress disorder if parents were not "over it" within two weeks.
Examples of events that may lead to disenfranchised grief include:
- deaths among distant, disapproved, or unrecognized relationships
- deaths under socially difficult circumstances
- losses that society deems less worthy of grief than the death of a child or adult
- other non-death losses
- the loss of a relationship with a person who has become severely disabled (e.g., comatose, advanced stages of dementia)
- a trauma in the family a generation prior
- the loss of a home or place of residence
- the diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection
- the loss of a job
- the loss of heirlooms or other objects of sentimental or personal significance.
Sometimes, people believe that a particular person is not capable of grieving. This commonly happens with very young children and with disabled people.
Additionally, grieving people may be disenfranchised because of their circumstances.
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 it 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 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 does not exist. Many birth mothers experience regret and have thoughts of what might have been or of reuniting with the child.
Many types of relationships are not legitimized by society; therefore when one person in the relationship dies, the other may not have their grief legitimized and it can become disenfranchised. For example, following the death of a partner in a homosexual relationship, societal supports can tend to prioritize the immediate family, invalidating the significance of the romantic relationship and loss for the grieving partner (McNutt & Yakushko, 2013).
Another example 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 close personal relationship. This relationship may include coworkers, doctor and nurse relationships with patients, or even people that the griever does not know personally at all, such as celebrities. Relationships formed online are often not recognized or validated by society, for example where friendships are made through online games and social media. However, when one person dies, the griever or person that did not die in the relationship will often experience disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989).
There are many models for dealing with grief. The Kübler-Ross model describes grieving in five steps or stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1969). In other words, in order to begin grieving one must first endorse the loss, and then express emotion. The griever must then accept the loss and adjust to the change the death or loss caused in his or her life (Cordaro, 2012). Over the years, however, how grief is conceptualised has moved away from predictable stages that lead to 'recovery' or 'closure', towards an understanding of grief that addresses the complexity and diversity of the grieving experience (Australian Psychological Society, 2016). Models such as Worden's tasks of grief (2008) and the dual-process model (Stroebe and Schutt, 1999) offer frameworks for dealing with grief in a way that enhances the self awareness of the grieving person (Australian Psychological Society, 2016).
Disenfranchised grief presents 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. Secondly, disenfranchised grief means society does not recognize the death or loss; therefore, the griever does not receive strong social support and may be isolated. As disenfranchised grief is not legitimized by others, the bereaved person may be denied access to rituals, ceremonies, or the right to express their thoughts and emotions (McKissock & McKissock, 1998). When supporting someone through disenfranchised grief it is important to acknowledge and validate their loss and grief (McKissock & McKissock, 1998).
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