You Are Not Alone: Disenfranchised Grief Affects Us All

by Amy L. Silva Rigtrup

Disenfranchised grief is simply defined as "grief that is not acknowledged by society".

Any type of grief is difficult, generally because we all perceive things differently and have unique ways of processing our emotions. Everyone grieves in their own way, on their own timetable and can become flooded with many emotions simultaneously. Add to those multitudes of feelings the experience of being ostracized by those around you and ambiguously treated as if you don't have a right to grieve - that is disenfranchised grief.

Disenfranchised grief is commonly associated with instances of death such as:

  • Suicide
  • Miscarriage
  • Death of an ex spouse or significant other 
  • Death of a significant other in an "unaccepted" relationship (secret relationships, extra-marital affairs, same-sex marriage/relationships, open relationships
  • Death of a pet
  • Death of a distant family member, friend or acquaintance 

Feeling like your grief is not understood or accepted can make you feel:

  • Isolated - no support, no one you feel you can talk to
  • ashamed - being treated as if you shouldn't be grieving can make you second-guess yourself and even lead you to believe there is something wrong with you for even feeling your grief

All of these factors can result in depression, avoidance, social withdrawal, self esteem issues and abuse of drugs/alcohol.

It is important that we reach out to people that may be suffering from disenfranchised grief - they need your support as much as anyone else. Awkwardness from not knowing what to say in these situations is an element that can make the bereaved feel isolated simply because we avoid talking to them. The opposite can also happen; out of that same feeling of awkwardness, we may feel that we need to give advice or say something and lean on the first cliche that comes to mind. Both factors evolve from a place that is well intentioned. To help combat and over come this awkwardness, my advice to support networks is honesty. If you don't know what to say, but simply want someone to know you are thinking of them and would love to help, then there is nothing wrong with saying just that.

For the bereaved, there is nothing better equipped to destroy isolation than connecting with somebody who has been through what you are experiencing. Whether a person you already know or a stranger in a support group, the support and strength you can gain is limitless. Honesty goes a long way for the bereaved as well. Most people that try to help you are usually well intentioned, but may be trying to make you take part in something you might not feel comfortable with, give advice that you aren't asking for, or telling you how they think you should feel. Allow yourself honesty - explain yourself when you feel offended or uncomfortable while acknowledging that they are trying to help. You could even allow yourself to let people know what you need, like a long walk, help with a task, company on an outing, etc.

Today on The Silva Lining, my guests were Kathleen Dube - a close friend of mine who's older sister committed suicide as a teen and has bravely offered to share her experiences and insights with my listeners; and Deanna Upchurch, Grief Support & Volunteer Programs Specialist at Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island and Adjunct Professor at Bristol Community College, teaching Coping w/ Life and Death.

For more information about the support mentioned by Deanna Upchurch:

SS (Suicide Survivors) Hope Group - meets from 6 to 7:30pm on alternating Wednesdays in the Ray Conference Center, Room 2 (second floor). Meetings will be held on March 4th and 18th, April 1st, 15th and 29th.

SS Hope is a peer led support group for people who have lost someone to suicide. This survivor's support group has provided comfort and encouragement to its members for the past five years and includes participants in various stages of suicide grief recovery. It is open to anyone who has experienced a loss due to suicide.  For further information, please contact Neil Kiely at 401-523-7051 or Laurie Kiely at 401-451-6789.

CLICK HERE for the Center For Grief & Healing Main Page

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