What to Know About Disenfranchised Grief

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021
4 min read

Grief is the emotional process you experience after losing something or someone important to you. Many people think of grief as a period of intense sadness after a loved one dies, but it can look different for everyone. Disenfranchised grief is when society doesn't validate your own grief.

Disenfranchised grief is when your grieving doesn’t fit in with your larger society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss. The lack of support you get during your grieving process can prolong emotional pain.

Our society holds standards and expectations of the grieving process. Film, magazines, other mass media, and person-to-person interactions build and maintain these expectations. For example, one popular psychological theory categorizes grief into 5 stages:

  • Denial: Refusing to believe and accept a loss
  • Anger: Feeling intense frustration and looking for somewhere to place blame
  • Bargaining: Thinking of “deals” to make that could reverse the loss
  • Depression: Intense sadness and lack of motivation
  • Acceptance: Recognizing the loss and moving forward in your life 

Other social norms establish expectations on grief. For example, some people might expect you to move on from a breakup within a few months. Your employer might expect you to still be productive even if you’ve just experienced a loss.

‌Disenfranchised grief refers to grieving scenarios that don’t align with these expectations. Finding social support and sympathy for disenfranchised grief can be difficult. Even if you don’t receive direct criticism from others, you can internalize the way in which you grieve.

Many widespread attitudes and beliefs contribute to disenfranchised grief.

Workplace culture. Some jobs involve experiencing intense loss. Emergency medical workers, doctors, therapists, and other professions can expose you to death and loss as part of the job. This can create a sense that these losses shouldn’t bother you personally.

Not a legitimate relationship. Losing people or relationships besides spouses or immediate family members can still intensely impact you. Others might not understand why those other relationships are so important to you, which can make your grieving experience more isolating.

Not showing the right emotions. People have different emotional reactions to loss. Common images of grief might include crying, sadness, and depression. Some people react differently. They may show no emotion at all, feel relief, or another emotion others may not expect.

Taboo cause of death. Murders, suicides, drug overdoses, miscarriages, and other causes of premature death can be hard to talk about. Many people don’t want to discuss and revisit a traumatic event that led to a death.

Grieving a loss that isn’t death. Death isn’t the only major loss you can experience, but the larger culture may frame it as the most important type of loss. You may also lose someone who is still alive because you’ve cut off contact or their personality changes drastically. Some people may not understand why a loss affects you deeply if it’s not a death. 

Social interactions. Others’ reactions to your loss and grief can make you feel like you don’t have a right to grieve or your grieving isn’t valid. You might hear:

  • “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
  • “You have to stay strong and keep moving forward.”
  • “If you don’t cry, that means the loss doesn’t affect you.”
  • “It takes half as long as a relationship’s timespan to get over it” ‌

Examples of disenfranchised grief include:

  • Dementia of a loved one
  • Addiction of a loved one
  • Death of ex-partner
  • Death of abuser
  • Death of a patient
  • Death of a pet
  • Breakup or divorce
  • Infertility
  • Abortion
  • Moving to a new community
  • Losing a job 

Disenfranchised and complicated grief can have particular details:

  • The loss happened at least 6 months ago
  • Intense, distracting feelings of longing and loneliness
  • Feeling that life isn’t worth living after the loss
  • Constantly feeling in shock or numb
  • Excessively avoiding or seeking places, objects, or other things that remind you of the loss
  • Obsession with the cause or circumstances of a death‌

Healing from disenfranchised grief can involve both personal and professional treatment.

Therapy. One-on-one talk therapy and support groups can help you understand and accept a loss. Therapists can provide a helpful outside perspective to your internal feelings.

Personal work. On your own, you can work to build thought patterns and coping methods that help you heal from grief. Let yourself feel your feelings without judgment. You can express your feelings through journaling, talking to trusted friends, art, or other outlets.

You can also create your own rituals or traditions to recognize a loss. Observing an anniversary or birthday, visiting a grave, or keeping a deceased person’s items can help you process a loss.