Recognizing Disenfranchised Grief

Leah Moroge, LCSW-R (she/her)
October 2023

Although grief is a highly individualized experience that comes in many forms, mainstream models of grief theory, support systems and even policies around bereavement leave often take on a uniform approach. Oftentimes, these frameworks are not inclusive of non-death losses or losses that are met with stigma. Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka sought to broaden societal understandings of loss through his theory of disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief refers to losses that are seldom openly named, validated or mourned.

Disenfranchised grief refers to losses that are seldom openly named, validated or mourned.

These include pet loss (such as a service-animal), the death of an ex-partner, reproductive grief, incarceration, forced disappearance by a regime, job loss, or mourning the loss of one’s prior level of independence after the onset of a major medical illness. Grievers may find that their losses are not recognized, or in the case of an ex-spouse for instance, they may even be excluded from mourning rituals. In addition to losses that go unacknowledged or may be stigmatized, disenfranchised grief encompasses relational losses beyond the nuclear biological family structure of many Western societies. For example, losses amongst chosen family, fictive kin, and God-parents.

When we recognize these losses as important we not only validate people’s experiences but also support their individual process towards integrated grief. When grief becomes integrated, people are able to adapt by envisioning a future of new possibilities, even though that future may involve a life without the loss. Research on complicated grief highlights the importance of  adaptation and healing, and examines the roadblocks to achieving them, such as systemic barriers to accessing support, isolation, and of course disenfranchised grief, wherein losses are minimized or shamed. The longer these roadblocks persist, the stronger the likelihood that the grieving person’s emotional distress remains, or even worsens.

In my first job as a newly graduated clinician, I provided supportive counseling on an end-of-life unit. Grief was something I experienced often, as did many other staff members. I didn’t label it as grief at the time, but it was. I simply didn’t have the language then. Even though I did not come to know these patients outside the bounds of the job, I did have the privilege of knowing and supporting them through extremely vulnerable periods, often over the course of lengthy inpatient admissions. Through the emerging field of compassion fatigue, we know that frequent exposure to trauma, including death, can contribute to a heightened awareness of threats and our own mortality. My experience on the unit inspired me to incorporate disenfranchised grief into my teaching and mentorship of new clinicians. It also informed my belief that above all health care agencies should have systems in place to support their staff through these losses too.

As mental health clinicians, we know firsthand the power that comes with bearing witness and holding space for another’s pain. For folks whose grief is disenfranchised, they are often holding this space all on their own. They may even feel that they don’t have ‘the right’ to mourn. Because society at large has a hard time naming and normalizing disenfranchised losses, it is only natural for us as clinicians to internalize the taboos around bereavement, grief, and loss; leaving us at a deficit in supporting our clients through their own losses.

Our society is ever evolving, so too should our understanding of grief. Rightfully, many communities continue to collectively mourn the many losses sustained through the COVID-19 pandemic, police violence, school shootings, natural disasters, climate change, the carceral system, diaspora, exile, and more. There has to be an evolution of theory, which has the potential to inform clinical interventions. It also has the potential to impact policy and the systems needed to prevent losses, as well as support grieving individuals and communities. The work of experts like Kenneth Doka, and his concept of disenfranchised grief can provide us with the needed framework.

Broadening our understanding of the spectrum of grief and loss can give us the tools to explore a person’s individualized grief experience. By taking the time to learn how others make sense of grief, their styles of expression, and their personal philosophies around the loss itself, we can finally provide them the individualized support and recognition to support their healing.

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