Guide To Disenfranchised Grief – The Grief With Little Support

by | Aug 3, 2019

There is a certain type of grief that some people experience but find it hard to find support and validation. It may be that people feel stigmatize or don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Such grief phenomenon may also happen to people who may appear to have fairly decent social support among family and friends in their network.

The bizarre question is therefore: why are people not being able to find support for a genuine loss?

If this is what you are experiencing, chances are, you might be suffering from Disenfranchised Grief.

What is Disenfranchised Grief?

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Simply put, a grief is disenfranchised when you don’t really get the kind of support and validation you need when you experienced a loss. Very often, it is about people not being able to understand about the nature of that loss or grief that are not acknowledged by society. Due to ignorance (or lack of perceived rights), people are unsure on how to approach the subject matter and may ignorantly undermine the impact of the loss experienced.

I remembered a sharing when I attended a Grief Master Class by Kenneth J Doka, who is the leading expert on Disenfranchised Grief. Dr Doka shared about how liberating it was for one past workshop participant knowing the term Disenfranchised Grief. She shared that he gave her the name to describe her experience. Realising that the root of her suffering was actually disenfranchised grief, she was finally able to name the demon that tormented her for years.

The identification was crucial because it provided fresh perspective on how she could approach the issue differently. Identification also provide additional perspective beyond just blaming the lack of support provision from people around her.

If people do not know enough on the kind of loss you are experiencing, chances are, you may not receive the kind of support you need.

In a nutshell: you don’t know what you don’t know. 

Through this guide, I will share about the 3 types of disenfranchised grief from a clinical perspective.

Grief is Disenfranchised When the Relationship Is Not Recognised

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When relationship is not recognised, the perceived rights to grief is somehow taken away. Some examples would include complex relationships patterns such as death of a mistress or a miscarriage/stillborn. But as you can imagine, such grief automatically becomes silent and disappear from the public sphere. Not able to attend the deceased funeral for the former or wondering how can one form a relationship with an unborn foetus intensify the fact that their relationship is not recognised.

Actually this scenario is more pervasive than what most people would think. Using social workers as another example, ethically, we actively avoid forming dual relationship with clients we served. Professionally, that sort of relationship often brings out many problems because the truth is that we are neither friends nor family members. Yet, we are trained to provide empathy, listening ear and counselling support, which are key ingredient commonly found among family members with positive relationship. The external input naturally provides the needed connection for people who are emotionally broken or in great distress. Guess what happens after the relationship is stable? Social worker would often resigned or get redeployed to another place. This creates another disequilibrium for the client, having to experience the loss of another quality relationship.  

I remember breaking news of my redeployment to one of my male elderly client. He placed his hands over mine across the metal gate. Then, silent tears just stream down his freckled face in an uncontrolled fashion. He did not say anything much. He just thanked me for all the support I have provided him.

Deep inside, I was sad because it was crystal clear to me that our relationship has always been professional. This isn’t something I can change from day one.   

Down the road, I got to know about a conversation which he had with a friend. He shared about feeling sad because his social worker is transferring his case. His friends wondered if it was because I was someone ‘easier’ with successful application of financial assistance.

His friends saw our relationship as transactional.  

But for him, it was personal.

And with that comes a form of disenfranchised grief. 

Grief is Disenfranchised When the Loss Is Not Recognised

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People experienced many types of losses. Every loss involves change. And in every change involves at least one type of loss. Loss can be physical, like loss of cognition, body parts, or even pets. One common example is a caregiver taking care of a family member with dementia. This is especially poignant for someone who knew the person before the disease strikes. And when dementia starts to take shape, the person may not be who the person used to be.

Caregiver may find it hard to articulate the grief experience for the before-after personality change, especially if the ‘then-verses-now’ vastly different. And for the common man of the street, many people understand dementia as a ‘natural process of aging’ instead of a disease type. Hence, the lack of understanding may unintentionally cause grief to be disenfranchised.

For dementia, caregiver will often experience the ‘person-is-around-and-the-person-is-not-around’ paradox. Hence, the loss is often not recognised by those unfamiliar with the disease.  

Pet loss is another common loss not easily understood by those without pets. For some pet owner, pet loss is akin to a loss of a family member. The relationship, the attachment and the interaction is a daily affair integrated with one’s life. Hence, physical absence can be a significant loss experience.

Losses that are not recognised can be intangible, which make identification challenging. I remembered a case where my client shared about how different members of her family started adopting different religion. There was a ‘hard-to-explain-you-won’t-understand’ type of grief in her voice. You see, religion is not just about worship or practicing certain rituals. It comes with a set of values, customs and even celebratory dates that are sacred to specific religion. Sometimes, culture and religion can be heavily intertwined. Like between Malay and Islam or Indian and Hinduism. Cultural affinity promotes connection, support and sameness. Hence, changes in religious may also mean erosion to support system and treasured values.

Such intangible loss are hard to express. People around may also find it hard to understand.  

Grief is Disenfranchised When the Griever Is Not Recognised

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Grievers that are not recognised as grievers are commonly being disenfranchised by loved ones unintentionally. This is largely due to a dual composition of trying to protect them from direct impact of grief and not knowing how to involve them appropriately. Children, elderly people and those with mental health issues are common example of this type.

In a general population, people are usually uncomfortable with the topic of death. So talking about death to a child makes the discomfort more intense because we really don’t know what to say. Sometimes, children or elderly people are not found in presence among dying member of the family because we want to spare them from the morbid experience. Adults assume that children are too young to understand or that our elderly parents are already too old. This may result in grief being disenfranchised, caused by combination of uninvolved processes, unspoken words or unfinished deeds.

I remembered an old case where someone with mental health was intentionally asked to be excluded in the process of care for her dying mother. The justification is that patient will not be able to deal with the impact of her imminent death.

In a case like this, two conflicting values arise. Should the need for safety supersede one’s right to grief? Frankly, putting the caregiver to ‘safety’ and only reporting to him after his mother passed away is probably one of the most absurd thing I have ever heard. I profess that there are some risk in managing otherwise. But when caregiver isn’t involved in the decision making, the paternalistic act of deciding on behalf by healthcare professionals would instantly disenfranchised his grief. That he, being a mental health patient, has no right to the care of his dying mother. He is not recognised as someone who is also imbued with universal human feelings like sadness and grief.

What Is Helpful?  

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Intuitively, finding a support from individual/s or a community that understand the type of loss you are experiencing is always helpful. That may also provide a space for people with similar experience to provide support for one another or advocate on the awareness of such issues. For example, in Singapore, WiCare Support Group supports widows and children without fathers.   

Expressing those hard to describe feeling through arts can be extremely helpful. Journaling, drawing and other arts expression can project those deeper feelings into something safe and external. This often helps with creating new perspectives and transforming our pain through the creative processes. If you are interested to write, you can always drop me a message at Facebook 

Finally, if you find yourself struggling emotionally alone and realising that it has impacted other aspects of your life (after 6-months since loss), you could consider professional help through a competent grief counsellor or psychologist to aid you. Lossophy recommends In Focus Counselling and Therapy Service, our friend and preferred partner. 

Most people are resilient, despite losses. It is just that sometimes, disenfranchised grief complicates other existing social relationships or unconscious psychological issues we are battling. When we don’t get the kind of support we need as people don’t really understand the kind of loss we are going through, it may fracture some relationships. This reduces support previously played by those within the fractured relationships and becomes a vicious cycle.   


Featured photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash