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When you feel as though your grief isn’t socially acceptable


Are you having trouble grieving and talking about your grief because you don’t feel as though it’s socially acceptable?

This question may seem perplexing to people who have not experienced this situation. However, there are times when people feel that they can’t grieve publicly, not even to people close to them. This affects their ability to receive support and acknowledgement, reconcile their grief and heal.

This experience is called “disenfranchised” grief, and it occurs more often than you may think.

How could grief be socially unacceptable?

Disenfranchised grief occurs when grief breaks society’s ‘rules’ about grieving. We may not notice these rules at first, but each society has ideas about the losses that are suitable to grieve, how we grieve the loss, who is able to grieve, and what support should be provided.

There are so many examples. How would your society respond to

  • Children under the age of four attending the funeral of their great grandparent
  • Providing support to someone who’s child has died of a drug overdose
  • The death of an abusive spouse or parent
  • Giving a person time off work to grieve the death of their cat
  • A person whose partner has died, and the relationship was an extramarital affair
  •  A doctor grieving the death of a patient
  • A teenager who has had a miscarriage
  • A colleague crying about the loss of their loved one at work, three years after the death?

This article describes some of the circumstances where disenfranchised grief may happen. The aim is to provide an insight into disenfranchised grief with the hope that if you’re feeling this way, you seek and find the acknowledgement and support that you need; or if you know someone who may be feeling disenfranchised grief, you find a way to be sympathetic and provide them with acknowledgement and support.

When the relationship is not recognised or socially accepted

In most societies, the family unit is considered to hold the deepest and most enduring bonds. When someone dies, people understand that the family will grieve. However, we are capable of many deep and enduring relationships, including with partners, friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, extended family, roommates in nursing homes, clients and patients. Often, when we are in these relationships, our grief is not recognised as equally important as that of the family members and we may be expected to take a supportive role, rather than be supported.

Then there are relationships that may not be socially sanctioned including extramarital affairs, unmarried couples, homosexual couples, divorced couples and ex-partners. All of these people may not receive acknowledgement of their grief, social support and the feeling that they are able to grieve.

When the death is not recognised or socially accepted

Sometimes the person hasn’t died, the grief is not about a person, and some deaths are hidden or occur in complex circumstances.

We can form strong attachments to many things and these things can give us feelings of love and fulfilment that we grieve if they are no longer with us. People grieve over the loss of a pet at all ages. We grieve the end of relationships even if the person is still alive, such as when a person survives an accident but will never be physically and mentally be the same again. We can grieve the loss of a child during pregnancy, even though we may not feel comfortable talking about our grief, and in situations where we’ve made difficult decisions, such as terminating a pregnancy or stopping life support when there’s no more hope. Then there are deaths that occur in complex circumstances such as suicide, recklessness and disease, which our society may not be accustomed to acknowledging and supporting, so we feel that we can’t express our grief.

When the person grieving is not considered to be capable of grieving

According to society’s “rules” about grieving, some people should be capable of grieving; some should not. Often children, elderly people, and people who are mentally disabled or experiencing a state of mental illness are not considered capable of understanding death or grieving. As a result, these people may be excluded from discussions about death, visiting someone who is dying to say goodbye and attending the funeral, the final shared social ritual of the reality of death. However, studies and experience show that they are often capable of understanding death and grief and also require acknowledgement and support.

When the expression of grief and its duration, don’t fit with society’s ideas about how and when we should grieve

Grieving is an individual process. It reflects our culture, upbringing, character and capabilities. It may differ across genders, ages, cultures and organisations. We may express grief through emotions of sadness, anger, separation and denial or even our actions in seeking support, distracting ourselves, being destructive or separating ourselves from people. We may cry  or not express anything at all, and all of these states are likely to change over time. Society often has a notion of how grieving should look, how long it should take, and when we should “get over it” and isn’t always receptive to different styles, the way they change and the time that it takes to grieve.

It’s important to find a way to express your grief and get help

It’s a great concern when people feel that their grief isn’t socially acceptable. It is isolating. It prevents them from grieving both publicly and privately and from receiving acknowledgement and support. This affects their ability to resolve their grief  and is likely to affect their behaviour and relationships into the future.

If you are feeling disenfranchised grief or believe that you know someone who is, it’s important to acknowledge the grief, to seek and offer support and if you feel the need, to get professional help.

More information

The reference for this piece is: Kenneth J. Doka, 2002, Disenfranchised Grief. New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice. Research Press, Illinois, USA

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