When Grief Is Hard to Detect and Harder to Feel
Rather than healthy grieving, some losses lead to feelings of guilt or entitlement.
Between my teenage years and early 20s, a series of bereavements hit me hard. My girlfriend’s mum, two uncles, two grandparents, and a friend, all died within the space of a few years. Without the emotional skills to support myself, I fell into a deep depression, entering a liminal space where I wasn’t feeling my pain, and wasn’t moving on, instead numb and dull to life’s experiences.
Each loss affected me in a different way. I started to notice that each circumstance, each person, had a different effect on me. Some were easier to deal with than others. Years later, as I opened myself to the immensity of grief as part of a healing process, I discovered layer after layer of heartache that was never felt, because I didn’t allow it.
I didn’t allow it because I judged the experience as invalid. The clearest example was my girlfriend’s mum; I denied any pain because nothing compared to what my girlfriend was going through. I wasn’t entitled to feel. Yet the loss I felt, for a woman who I’d come to know well, was true and valid. Instead, I pushed it away, refused to feel it, until suppression resulted in a depression that wouldn’t shift.
Many of us experience loss that we fail to validate or acknowledge. You might feel guilty or unentitled to feel the way you do. If you’re struggling to acknowledge pain following a loss, no matter how seemingly insignificant, you could be experiencing what psychologists call disenfranchised grief. Here, we’ll explore the finer details of this form of grief, before sharing a few pointers on how to heal.
What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
The term disenfranchised grief was coined by bereavement expert Kenneth Doka in 1989, to describe “losses that people have that aren’t always acknowledged or validated or recognized by others. You can’t publicly mourn, receive social support or openly acknowledge these losses.” When someone close to you dies, such as a parent, sibling, or close friend, people generally recognize the loss and offer support. But what happens when the grief you feel doesn’t match the societal expectation of how it should feel?
Doka developed the theory by researching people who lost an ex-partner. He noticed the repercussions of the loss not being validated in the same way as a current partner, despite a strong emotional connection or bond. When grief isn’t fully acknowledged, it can prolong the process, cause suppression, or create inner conflict or frustration.
In an interview with Psychotherapy.net, Doka notes that most people misinterpret grief. “We often confuse it as a reaction to death,” he says. “It’s really just a very natural reaction to loss and so we can experience grief obviously when someone we’re attached to dies, but we can also experience it when we lose any significant form of attachment.” That includes the loss of relationships, objects, job status, or anything we become attached to.
Eventually, Doka expanded the theory of disenfranchised grief to cover a wide range of losses that aren’t widely recognized. The main categories include:
- Deaths of relationships not fully legitimized: this includes teachers, clients, therapists, coaches, work colleagues, acquaintances, distant friends, and even the death of “parasocial” relationships, such as celebrities.
- Deaths under stigmatized circumstances: includes death from suicide, murder, or other socially challenging causes.
- Deaths not seen as “worthy”: the death or loss of a pet, a miscarriage or abortion, infertility, or the loss of birth parents through adoption.
- Non-death losses: this includes the loss of things of significance, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a home, the loss of status. Even the loss of an imagined future falls into this category.
Doka’s work highlights the issues caused by a narrow definition of acceptable grief and the fallout for people experiencing heartbreak in ways that aren’t socially recognized. Without the usual rituals or closure, or support that validates the pain, people can feel isolated and alone. In my experience, my pain caused mistrust in my emotional landscape, and confusion as to why I didn’t feel “normal.”
Ultimately, we humans have big hearts and feel loss in a million different ways. None of these should be invalidated. Doka believes that “the pandemic of COVID-19 will be followed by a pandemic of complicated grief, because so many losses are disenfranchised,” meaning it is more important than ever to normalize and validate all forms of loss.
Handling Disenfranchised Grief
Grief is a complex process, and if you’re struggling to handle the rollercoaster of emotions, the best option is always to reach out for support. Grief is unique to each individual, and each form of loss. Disenfranchised grief is a reminder that the grief people feel doesn’t match pre-existing templates of what is acceptable. We don’t get to choose this response; our hearts have their own ways of expressing pain.
When the mind starts to ridicule, minimize, or invalidate the deeper expression of heartache, more suffering is caused. Above all else, the first significant step is being able to validate grief from within. Validation is an ongoing process. Doka notes that each of us tends to respond to grief on an emotional level, or a cognitive level, with everyone having their own unique blend. For some, the experience can be purely emotional, such as feeling waves of sadness, fear, or anger. All of this is welcome.
An extension of validation is creating a personal form of closure. When grief is recognized, you’re able to go through a full grieving process (symbolized by a funeral when it comes to death). Without rituals, it’s hard to find closure. If your loss isn’t recognised by wider society, consider ways to create your own ritual. Recently, when I heard of the death of an old school friend I hadn’t spoken to in years, I was surprised by how sad I felt. I connected to the grief by looking at old photos on Facebook, and journaling about experiences we shared.
Other rituals might include visiting a place where you had a shared memory, doing something to honor the relationship, writing a letter of gratitude, or dedicating a cause to the person. You can do this with non-death losses, too. Really feel into what this meant to you, what it offered, and what you’ll miss. Be with any emotions that surface through the process.
Opening to the Fullness of Heartache
When reflecting on my early experiences of loss, I saw how much I judged my emotional responses. This wasn’t deliberate, but an unconscious process. Practicing mindfulness was a game-changer, as I developed the skill of non-judgment towards experience. I became present to the whole host of emotions, thoughts, and images that surfaced, without shaming them, wishing for them to be different.
Trying to put a timeframe on grief is impossible. The more you’re able to witness it as a process that has its own intelligence and timing, the less resistance there will be, and the higher the capacity will become to be present to the fullness of heartache. Grief is incredibly painful, and when this pain isn’t recognized, it’s incredibly isolating. But know that only you can open yourself to the fullness of the experience, of the heartache.
And within the pain, there lies an element of light, some transcendent quality of resilience, of healing, a reminder the pain you feel reflects the love you had for the things you’ve lost. As Rumi said:
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”