Exploring Disenfranchised Grief (With Examples)

Published April 23, 2020
Frowning woman looking at picture frame

Disenfranchised grief occurs when your reaction to a loss or death is not widely accepted or allowed on a societal or cultural level based on norms and values. Disenfranchised grief can be self-directed, relationally imposed, as well as culturally pressured based on specific norms and values surrounding grief and loss. This type of grief-related rejection, whether it comes from yourself or from an outside source, can feel incredibly painful and is often very confusing to navigate.

What Is Disenfranchised Grief?

Disenfranchised grief occurs when societal values and cultural norms don't acknowledge or reject your specific type of grief. You may feel as if your loss has been deemed inadequate or non-significant despite you feeling otherwise.

Examples of Disenfranchised Grief

Experiencing disenfranchised grief is completely unfair to those who have lost someone or something they hold dearly. Having this type of reaction to your feelings can make the mourning process feel even more painful and difficult to move through. This can result in unprocessed grief, which can lead to uncomfortable mental health symptoms. Examples of losses that may lead to disenfranchised grief include:

  • Experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Showing grief-related emotions that are not enough or too much based on norms
  • Having a false positive pregnancy test
  • An abortion
  • Loss of sense of self or others during wartime
  • Learning about the death of someone you knew from your childhood, but haven't spoken to in years
  • Learning about the death of someone who didn't treat you well or abused you
  • The loss of a beloved pet
  • The loss of your house and your treasured belongings
  • The loss of someone due to suicide
  • The loss of a client or coworker
  • The loss of your agency and independence because of a system or individual
  • The loss of a partner or spouse who identifies as LGBTQ+ and who was rejected by your family
  • Death due to alcohol/drug overdose
  • The loss of someone who engaged in dangerous crime
  • The passing of an ex
  • The death of an estranged family member
  • The loss of someone you only knew online
  • The loss of someone who experienced a drawn out and painful death
  • The passing of someone who you had an affair with
  • Giving up a child for adoption
  • Giving up a pet
  • The death of someone old
man covers his face with hands

The Psychology of Disenfranchised Grief

This type of grief works on both a personal and sociological level in that societal, cultural, and familial norms about grief and loss are internalized and influence your inward and outward reaction to the loss of an individual, pet, or notion.

Feelings of Shame

On a sociological level, you may experience feelings of shame if your grieving was rejected or invalidated by friends, family members, or an institution. Shame is a survival emotion that influences the perception of what is safe versus unsafe. Shame can lead to heightened bodily arousal and trigger your fight, flight, or freeze response, even if you aren't in physical danger, but were socially rejected. When not reconciled, this can leave your mind and body in a heightened state of awareness and can cause both mental and physical stress. This on top of grieving can leave you feeling completely exhausted and isolated.

Internal Conflicts Arise

On a psychological level, rejecting or suppressing your true feelings about your loss can lead to unhealthy behaviors and thoughts that trickle out and at times may explode in your brain's attempt of finding a way to process and resolve this internal conflict. You may obsess over why you are unable to feel how you or others believe you should feel regarding this specific loss. This internal tension can lead to painful mental health symptoms and slow your process of healing. Because the grief you've experienced has been disenfranchised, you may not even be aware that you are actually in the grieving process.

Self-Directed Disenfranchised Grief

Self-directed disenfranchised grief occurs when you feel guilty about feeling the weight of a loss that others may deem unimportant, or less relevant than a different type of loss. Although disenfranchised grief can be self-directed, society and cultural norms still have a hand in your reaction to the loss you've experienced.

Sad Woman Standing

Because people aren't isolated in a vacuum, outside influences will impact perceptions, interpretations, and therefore feelings about a loss, and especially about a loss that may be unpopular or unexpected by some. This can manifest in you trying to think your way out of feeling a certain way, having thoughts such as, "I shouldn't feel this way", or "Why do I feel so badly, when no one else does?" These delegitimizing thoughts are often internalized notions from society, culture, as well as friends and family members. You may also make the choice to not share feelings or thoughts about your loss even with your closest family members and friends, despite them recognizing that you aren't your usual self.

Society's Influence on Disenfranchised Grief

Society's dictation of who is allowed to grieve and for what amount of time is completely inappropriate considering that every person is unique and every grieving process will look differently depending on many factors. Examples of grief rejection and invalidation can look like:

  • Not allowing time off to grieve from your workplace because the loss doesn't fall under "typical".
  • Having family and close friends not understand, minimize, and/or reject your thoughts and feelings because they haven't experienced this type of loss and are unable to grasp your reaction.
  • Experiencing online rejection or shaming if you share a bit about your loss or grief process.
  • Having someone in a professional capacity reject your feelings such as a counselor, doctor, psychiatrist, or other medical professional.

Signs and Symptoms of Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief, like other types of grief, will differ from person to person. Because the commonality of disenfranchised grief is that your particular loss is invalidated, rejected, or minimized, many people will often experience feelings of guilt and shame about their reaction to this loss, on top of whatever feelings are coming up for them that solely have to do with the loss. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Grief-related symptoms such as feelings of sadness, numbness, and denial
  • Difficulty sleeping and possible change in appetite
  • Increased anxiety
  • Symptoms of depression such as isolating behavior, feelings of worthlessness, mood swings, and intense sadness
  • Experiencing obsessive thoughts about having to hide your true feelings
  • Feeling guilty and confused about how you are reacting to a certain loss
  • Experiencing physical pain and tension that is not due to another ailment, illness, or injury
  • Experiencing childhood flashbacks of similar losses and subsequent rejection
  • Feeling overwhelmed
Woman is packing things of her dead husband

Disenfranchised Grief Interventions

For some, a main component of disenfranchised grief may be feeling guilt, an internal reaction, and ashamed, an external reaction to others' perceptions of your grief. With disenfranchised grief, the rejection and lack of validation that you may experience can feel excruciating and add an entirely new layer of pain to your grieving process. Finding ways to validate yourself, as well as connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can be immensely helpful for this particular type of grieving experience. You can consider:

  • Find a support group either online or in person that focuses on your specific loss. Doing so can help you become surrounded with others who can validate your experience, provide support, and share helpful resources.
  • Speak with a therapist who you feel completely supports you on your journey to heal and doesn't discredit your grieving process. If you are working with a professional counselor who you feel doesn't understand your type of grief, it's okay to give yourself permission to look for a more supportive individual who can better support you.
  • Give yourself space from those who bring you down or have invalidated your feelings. It's important to go through the grieving process fully and allow yourself to explore your emotional reactions to this loss without having to save face.
  • Find a private way to express your emotions through journaling, writing music, playing music, and creating art. This way, you can give yourself the space you need to fully express how you feel without having to share your work with anyone.
  • Write a letter to the person, pet, or notion that you lost. Doing so can help release some thoughts and emotions that have been stored during this intense process.

Keep in mind that for some, it can feel comforting to have a support network in place and to distance from invalidating individuals before delving into more intense and self-reflecting exercises as these tend to bring up stronger emotional reactions and may be challenging to go through if you feel isolated.

Grieving for Yourself

Wholeheartedly work towards giving yourself permission to grieve in whatever way you need to in order to fully process your experience. It's not easy to reject cultural and/or familial norms, so keep in mind that dismissing the acceptable grief notion of those around you may feel challenging at first. Know that you are entitled and deserve to grieve a loss however you'd like regardless of what is seen as appropriate, because there is not right or wrong way to process the loss of someone important to you. Focus on grieving for yourself and not for what others believe is acceptable.

Let Trusted Friends Know if They Hurt You

If you have a healthy and trusting relationship with someone who offhandedly invalidated your grieving process, it's okay to consider letting them know that they hurt you and that you are in the process of working through an intense feeling of loss. You may note that it's okay if they don't understand, but you'd appreciate if they either provided support, or refrained from commenting in a minimizing way. Although it can feel nerve wracking to stick up for yourself, especially when it comes to an emotionally vulnerable situation, doing so with someone you trust and who you know cares about you may alleviate a bit of stress.

Understanding Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is a complex experience influenced by societal norms, cultural values, and your own internalization of acceptable loss. While going through this type of grief can feel incredibly painful, there are support networks, and helpful resources available. If you are having intrusive thoughts about harming yourself or others, it's important to reach out for help immediately by calling a crisis line or the police. Connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can be invaluable as this type of grieving process has many difficult layers to work through.

Exploring Disenfranchised Grief (With Examples)