What Is Disenfranchised Grief? Definition and Examples

Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

Grief is a complicated process to experience. You must feel the loss, express it, accept it, and build a life without something or someone that meant so much to you. But sometimes, others don't recognize your loss in the way you wish they would. Or perhaps you don't allow yourself to properly grieve. If so, you may be experiencing disenfranchised grief. Here's what it is and what you can do about it. 

Disenfranchised Grief Definition

So, what is disenfranchised grief? A renowned professor of gerontology, Kenneth J. Doka, offers a concise definition. Doka defines it as a loss that can't be openly acknowledged. He went on to explain that it's a loss that you can't mourn in public, and/or others don't support you through the grief process.

Disenfranchised grief is also known as hidden grief or hidden sorrow. For it to be disenfranchised grief, the act of grieving isn't allowed or is otherwise discouraged, meaning that one cannot show one’s true feelings about the loss. Other people may not expect you to grieve at all, they may disapprove of the way you're grieving, or they don't even know you've experienced a loss. Disenfranchised grief usually involves the failure of a group or society as a whole to understand and accept someone's pain.

Disenfranchised grief is a type of complicated grief, that is, a process of grief that is interrupted or sidetracked or otherwise blocked. In the case of disenfranchised grief, the thing disrupting the process is others' failure to recognize, accept, or validate your pain. A quick online test may help you recognize signs of complicated grief.

When Does Disenfranchised Grief Happen?

Disenfranchised grief can occur in many different scenarios. It can involve the type of loss, your relationship with the deceased, or even the way you grieve. Each situation is unique, of course. Like other types of grief, disenfranchised grief can happen after someone passes away, after a pet dies, or after different kinds of losses that are significant to you. The most common situations that bring on this kind of grief are listed below, along with disenfranchised grief examples for each category.

When You're In A Private Relationship

When you're in a relationship that you haven't told anyone about, others don't know when you've lost that loved one. They may not try to help and support you because they simply don't know you're grieving. Others may notice differences in your behavior, but they don't know what caused the change. Therefore, if they try to help you, they usually can't offer the kind of support you need.

Examples

The following are some examples of grief in intimate relationships that others may not know about.

  • You were in an LGBTQ+ relationship, but you haven't come out to others
  • You were in a secret sexual relationship that you didn't divulge to others, such as a casual sex partner or an ex-spouse
  • You had an ongoing relationship with someone but only knew them online or otherwise at a distance
  • You had a sibling, parent, or another close relation that you never met

When Others Don't Consider Your Loss Significant

People might know that you've lost someone or something from your life. Yet, sometimesthey don't realize just how significant the loss was for you. They may expect you to go on as usual, not showing any effects of the loss, à la Meursault in Albert Camus’ classic novel The Stranger.

They may also become impatient or discourage you from talking about your feelings rather than offering their support through your grieving process.

Examples

Here are a few examples of loss that others might not consider significant, even though they might matter so much to the individual who is grieving. 

  • You tried to adopt a child, but the adoption didn't go through
  • Your treasured possession was stolen, lost, or damaged
  • You move away from your hometown or home country
  • You experience loss of health
  • You lose mobility
  • You lose your eyesight or hearing
  • Someone you love has dementia or Alzheimer's, causing a drastic change in your relationship with them
  • You lose someone who others don't recognize as important in your life, such as a coworker, a patient, a teacher, a student, or a pet

When Stigma Is Surrounding The Loss

Stigma surrounding grief can prevent others from interacting with you in helpful ways. They may not know what to say in certain commonly stigmatized situations. They may even criticize, judge, or blame you for the loss.

Examples

Stigma about losses usually involves subjects that aren't commonly discussed in public. Here are some situations in which you might experience disapproval or judgment about your loss.

  • You just discovered you have an infertility problem
  • The person you lost died by suicide or drug overdose
  • You had an abortion
  • You miscarried or had a stillborn child
  • You lost a loved one who was in prison
  • You lost a relationship with someone who had an addiction or had a severe mental illness

If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, reach out to 911 or call a suicide hotline. In the U.S., you can dial 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or, use the webchat atsuicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

When You're Excluded From Mourning

Sometimes people recognize that a disenfranchised loss is significant, but they may not recognize you as a part of the group experiencing the loss. Others, especially close relatives, may indicate that you have no right or reason to mourn as they do. Or they might think that you don't have the capacity to mourn.

Examples

When someone close to you dies, you have the right to grieve them. A blood relationship or romantic connection isn't always necessary to prompt feelings of loss. It's normal to mourn if:

  • You lose your best friend
  • You lose an extended family member, like a cousin or uncle
  • A classmate dies
  • An ex-partner dies
  • You are a child or teenager
  • You have developmental disabilities
  • You have a severe mental illness

When You Grieve In Ways That Seem Inappropriate To Others

Suppose people do understand that you have every right to grieve. Does that mean they'll always accept the way you express your grief? Sometimes they don't. If you exhibit your grief in ways they expect, such as crying, withdrawing, or losing your appetite, they might not question your grief process at all. But if you react to your loss in other ways, they might show disapproval and fail to validate your feelings.

Examples

People react to grief in many ways. Some of the unexpected forms of grieving include: 

  • Anger
  • Throwing yourself into your work
  • Substance use disorder
  • Showing little or no emotion

Problems Related To Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief sometimes brings other problems. Since you can't mourn openly and don't receive support from others, you may begin experiencing issues like:

  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Unexplained pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • Intense feelings of guilt
  • Problems in your remaining relationships
  • Overwhelming emotions
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating

Ways To Cope With Disenfranchised Grief

What can you do if others don't recognize or support your mourning? Although it's a difficult process for anyone, grief for the disenfranchised can be especially hard to cope with alone. But there are a few things you can do to ease your passage through the stages of grief.

Get Support from Others

While most people may not support you, you may be able to find people who will. Look for people who have been through a similar loss. Talk to others who knew about your relationship. Seek out people who are good listeners and who don't judge or minimize your feelings. Spend time with people who understand and recognize your loss. You may find an online community that can relate better than people you know personally.

Create A Grieving Ritual

Throughout history, humans have relied on grieving rituals to help them deal with a significant loss. In one experiment, researchers studied how people reacted to the news that they'd lost the lottery. You might think that's a very minor loss. Yet, the participants did experience grief. One group was then asked to perform a ritual by drawing what they felt, sprinkling salt over it, ripping up the paper, and counting to ten. Those who did this small ritual felt better afterward than those who didn't do it.

Everyone has their own rituals, and they're often most helpful if you create your own unique ritual. Some rituals you might do include: 

  • Spending an hour each week working on a memorial scrapbook
  • Make your loved one's favorite dinner to commemorate a pleasant memory with them
  • Visit the graveside and leave something, like a photo or their favorite snack
  • Make a time capsule of the time you spent with them and plan to open it up sometime in the future
  • Write a letter to them

As you're creating your ritual, think about what the ceremony will mean to you. Consider where and when you will do the ritual. Then, plan the ritual's specifics, including how you will prepare for it, what you will need, and how you will do it. These special times to remember your loved one will help you give recognition and meaning to your mourning.

Ask Others To Help You With Specific Issues

While other people might not understand or accept your grief, they can still often be a source of help as you're going through the grieving process. For example, if you're experiencing intense loneliness, ask a friend to come over and hang out with you for a few hours. These little bits of help can make a big difference in your ability to cope with your loss, even if you never talk about it directly with that person.

Use Art To Express Your Feelings

Art can be a powerful way to express your feelings of loss. You can draw, paint, sculpt, make a collage, or create any kind of artwork you like. Use it to show how you feel about the person you lost and the situation that caused the loss. You can also experience and express your feelings using other forms of art, such as music or dance.

Benefits of Therapy For Disenfranchised Grief

People who experience disenfranchised grief often feel so alone in their mourning that they have trouble coping independently. That's when a therapist can prove incredibly valuable. Some of the benefits of therapy for people with this type of grief include:

  • Having someone listen empathetically and nonjudgmentally
  • Being able to express your feelings openly with at least one person
  • Gaining insights into the process you're going through
  • Having someone to validate your feelings of loss
  • Getting help with reassessing and reorganizing your life
  • Changing negative thoughts to develop a healthier outlook

Conclusion

Disenfranchised grief is an experience that others often don't understand or recognize. Yet, if you're grieving something or someone significant to you, you need to face it regardless of what others say or do. You can learn coping skills to help yourself. And if you need help facing and dealing with this loss on your own, you can talk to a therapist who will support and guide you through the process.