Disenfranchised Grief: Stop Judging, Start Accepting

Disenfranchised GriefThere is a term called “Disenfranchised Grief” and it can be used to describe any time a person’s loss is not being validated or substantiated by those closest to them.

This creates a real problem for the griever. Not only do they have to struggle with the loss, but if they feel they have to defend the depths and complexities of their sadness to those around them, they may feel even more isolated, confused and alone.

Though largely unspoken, there are rules in grieving, and judgments being made about how sad we should be and for how long based on a number of factors. They can include the relationship we had with the person who died, their age when they passed, and in what way (sudden vs. expected) they died.

Sometimes these “rules” are obvious, like how many bereavement days a workplace will approve based on how we are related to the person that died (1 day for a friend, 3 days for a parent, 5 days for a spouse, etc.). Other times they are less defined, and can be found even within the walls of a bereavement group.

I witnessed this many years ago as I facilitated a group for those who had lost a spouse. As everyone went around introducing themselves and talking about their loss, there was a woman who asked them, “how long were you married?”.  As each member answered….23 years, 42 years, 19 years…I wondered why she continued to break in and ask this each and every time. When it was her turn, no one had to ask as she offered “I lost my husband and we were married for 53 years”. She said this, crossed her arms triumphantly, and made it clear throughout the rest of the meeting that her loss was more significant because she had been married the longest and therefore she was suffering the most.

The judgments came in a different form in a general grief group I worked with not long after. A woman described her struggle as she was trying to come to terms with the recent loss of a neighbor. As she described her suffering and the fact that she couldn’t sleep or eat, a member of the group asked her to clarify, “you’re saying you lost your neighbor?”. It was hard to miss the judgment in her questioning tone.

I’ve learned a lot since these early groups. Firstly, it’s to start every new meeting with my own set of “rules”. Each person’s grief is unique. Therefore the way we feel, process and express our grief is unique. What works for you may not work for anyone else and vice versa. There is no timeline for grieving, and no right or wrong way to do it. And finally, we cannot judge a person’s loss based on who they lost, what their relationship was, or how old the person was at the time of their passing.

I can’t pretend that I didn’t have my own surprises or judgments, especially in my earliest days of working with the bereaved. The 80 year old man who was inconsolable after the loss of his 102 year old mother. The woman who admitted to being more effected and saddened by the loss of her friend than the loss of her father. The woman, who I mentioned above, who couldn’t eat or sleep after her neighbor died.

This can be confusing even to the griever who is experiencing it.

It took time for me to realize what made it so that some losses seemed “harder” than others to cope with.

Instead of the relationship, age, or manner of passing, what seemed to have the greatest influence on how a person may cope was the “proximity” of the deceased in their life.

By proximity I don’t necessarily mean physical distance. Instead, I’m talking about the nearness in time and relationship. To say it another way, how much did this person who died impact the griever’s day to day life?

The more time spent together each day, and the more our routine, plan and perhaps even our purpose is tied to the person who died, the greater it seems we feel their loss.

If we spent every day with our neighbor – if that’s who we had coffee with every morning, took walks with after dinner each night, and who we went to the movies with every weekend – that is a significant loss. The absence of that person will create a substantial void that will be felt during every morning cup of coffee, every night after dinner and every weekend when sitting home without anyone to go to the movies with.

We need this information not just to find more compassion for the grievers around us but to help us understand why we are hurting maybe more than we feel we “should”. (See earlier blog on “should’s” if you need a refresher on this).

We can’t question another person’s feelings. We should spend even less time questioning our own. But perhaps if we can understand this idea of proximity and the influence it has on our ability to cope, we can gain more insight into our own loss and the losses faced by others.


Sometimes it may feel like the people in your life don’t understand your grief, what you are going through, or how much you hurt. But we at www.griefincommon.com do. Sign up, log in, create and search profiles, and share your story. There are  people who understand.

You are not alone…

9 thoughts on “Disenfranchised Grief: Stop Judging, Start Accepting”

  1. Really helpful article for anyone to read – everyone knows someone grieving…if not themselves. It’s so easy and normal for some to put things into a box, just where they think it goes…better to listen & learn that all are not alike (you) or anyone else. Everyone’s journey will be different. <3 D.

  2. Thank you for writing this. This brought me peace since I am currently experiencing judgement from close friends and family on how I am grieving the loss of a co-worker/friend. I being told me grieving is “weird, creepy, obsessive and unhealthy.” I feel more alone than sad about the loss.

  3. Thank you , this was just what I needed. My friends seemed to think because my father was 95 when he died that saying oh well he had a good life would be enough sympathy to give me but he was my dad , he’d always been older than everyone else’s fathers anyway but to me he was dad just because he made it to that age doesn’t mean it was easier to deal with .

  4. This really helped me understand I’m okay with my grieving and there’s nothing wrong with me doing so. Thank you

  5. I lost my best friend to pancreatic cancer, I saw her everyday, often all day, she was my ‘go to person’ and I hers. I was her carer. Her family are close to me, but I am not family, and the ‘grieving rights’ go to them – even her divorced husband. I arranged the funeral, with her eldest son. Our priest told me that the only grief that matters is the grief her grown children are feeling – mine was just friendship. And of course their grief is intense, and I try to support them.

    I am lonely, my everyday has gone, there is no everyday anymore, no normal. My future plans travelling the world together, gone. My loss goes largely unacknowledged, unvalidated and unnoticed.

    No one asks how I’m doing, 6 months on. I cry and grieve intensely everyday, sometimes getting up is hard to do.

  6. So sorry that priest didn’t know what he was talking about. Just because he is a priest, doesn’t give him knowledge. We know this for sure. I can certainly understand how you must feel. Being a care giver is the closest person to the patient. I see it everyday, I work in a nursing home and many folks have care givers that have been with them for years and years. They are the first person I reach out to. You meant everything to your person. Your grief is valued. I am so sorry for your loss.

  7. Thanks for this. My dog, Inigo, died in September, but though I have other dogs, and have had other pets die before, he was different, and special. He was like a son to me. He was my soulmate, and I loved him more than I loved anyone else in the whole world. He was my whole world. I wish I would have died with him. He died young, after finally being diagnosed with a very rare genetic disease that took us three years to get diagnosed. There are only three case studies of dogs having the disease he died of, and the oldest one died at 2, and my boy died a month shy of his 7th birthday, which is still very young for a small dog. When I rescued him as a puppy, I thought I’d have him until I was 50. We were together almost all day, every single day. He didn’t bark, ever, so I would take him with me everywhere, until he got too sick, and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, so I’d leave him home if I was running to the store, but I’d still bring him to my friends’ houses. But I feel like no one wants to hear about what I’m feeling or going through, most people think “it was just a dog, get over it” even though only a couple people have said that, most people say things like, “just don’t think about it” or “at least you have your other two” but the other two don’t and never have meant what he meant to me. He was my little source of stability and happiness. I love my other dogs, I do, but nothing at all like I love him. I can’t have children, and he really was like my son. I would sing to him every day, and we knew each other like no one else knew each other, and we trusted each other, and no one ever made me so happy or so proud. No matter how bad things were, he would make me smile or laugh every single day. He would sleep on my side every night. He was such a good, sweet boy. He loved all people, all animals. Never met a stranger. My therapist won’t talk to me about my grief, just brushes right past it any time I try to bring it up. Every day I try to distract myself during the day time hours, and in the night I just cry and cry because I miss my boy so much. Some days are less bad than others, but some days are brutal. I know my grief is looked down as on as less deserving from people I know who lost relatives that they hadn’t seen or talked to in years, and everyone is getting quite tired of seeing me being upset, so I don’t even try to talk to anyone about it anymore, but it’s so lonely and isolating, because I lost the most important being in my entire life, and moved away from all my friends the same time. My grief isn’t less just because people don’t understand it. Inigo was the most devastating loss I could have gone through. I would have rather lost everyone I knew than lose him.

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