Would you know if someone close to you had a significant loss? Most people would confidently reply “Yes!” We generally expect to recognise the grief of family and friends. However, many major losses and the grief that follows can remain hidden from others or unacknowledged. There is a name to describe this situation – disenfranchised grief.
How does this happen?
Disenfranchised grief can happen in many ways:
When a relationship is not recognised
Unrecognised relationships can include those with friends, neighbours, foster parents, work colleagues, step-relations, counsellors and helpers, ex-spouses, unmarried partners, gay or lesbian partners, or a secret love.
The grief experienced due to the death of a person in one of these relationships may be not seen as significant or be completely overlooked by other people.
Even the death of a public figure with whom there is no personal relationship can result in a strong grief reaction.
When a death or loss is not regarded as significant
Certain types of deaths – such as the death of an estranged child, or family member miscarriage, stillbirth, termination of a pregnancy – either elective, or medical. The death or loss of a pet – may be seen as less significant than other losses that may be seen as more “important” and the grief that is felt may not be acknowledged or supported by others.
When the loss happens over a long period of time
When grief occurs over a long period of time, such as for people who have a chronic illness, are addicted to drugs, or who have a disability or dementia, it may be assumed that grief will be less when death actually occurs. This is not so – the grief people experience can be just as intense.
When a death is difficult to publicly accept
The potential shame and embarrassment associated with some deaths may cause grieving people to avoid support or may cause them to be shunned by others. These might include deaths due to suicide, homicide, violent and accidental deaths, AIDS-related deaths, or the loss of someone who is missing but presumed dead.
When the grieving person is not recognised
Some people may be considered “not capable” of grieving, and therefore are not recognised as grieving people. These may include children, old people, and those who have an intellectual disability.
When grief arises from other life events
It may be thought that grief only follows a loss through death, but many other life events are associated with loss and may result in grief. Things like unemployment, migration, moving house, separation and divorce, illness or disability, and other significant changes can lead to feelings of loss and grief.
Some apparently positive life stages, such as marriage, a child’s beginning of school, graduation, adult children leaving home and retirement, may not be recognised as causes of loss and grief because we view these events as “normal”, however as individuals we each have different experiences of loss.
Coping and supporting
Any unrecognised losses may result in a grief process which is more complicated. Professional counselling, therapy, or more active support group involvement may be required. Close family and friends can help in assessing the need for and accessing such assistance.
For those who are able to help, counsel or support, here are some useful points to remember:
- identify and openly recognise the loss and grief which have remained hidden or which others have ignored – those grieving are likely to feel very much alone and unsupported
- the usual rituals and activities which help the grief process, such as the funeral in the case of a death, may not be accessible or relevant – there may be other ways to help a person to express and act on their grief
If grief is unable to be shared with family or friends, remember confidential counselling is available through a GP or counsellor.
If you are on your own, be gentle with yourself.
The following GriefLink pages may be helpful as further reading:
Page last updated: 12 November, 2019
Doka, K. J. (1989) Disenfranchised grief: recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington books