What You Need to Know About Disenfranchised Grief
Grief is a response to loss. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depression, numbness, anger, and guilt. The goal of successful grief resolution is to reestablish emotional balance. Not everyone grieves the same things or expresses their grief in the same way. And then there’s what we call “disenfranchised grief.” (You probably know what it is, and you may have even felt it, but you might not know what to call it.)
Recognizing that loss comes in many forms has been one positive thing we’ve taken away from the pandemic. For example, loss of:
- A prom or graduation
- A dream wedding
- Funeral attendance
- Family reunions
- Other gatherings
People are more aware of “disenfranchised grief” now. Still, it’s helpful for us to think beyond the pandemic to other commonly overlooked losses. That way, we can support those suffering from them.
Understanding Disenfranchised Grief:
- Grief that isn’t typically recognized by societal norms and/or lacks cultural expression.
- Grief that is often minimized, invalidated, stigmatized, marginalized, or misunderstood.
★ Disenfranchised grief (DG) leaves individuals to process their loss on their own or in secret. They lack the supportive benefits available to people whose losses are more socially accepted, expected, acknowledged, or understood. Often, people tell those in distress, “You didn’t even know them that well,” or “Move on,” or “Get over it.”
Even if we don’t understand it or agree with it, it doesn’t make the pain any less. The pain is REAL.
Examples of losses that are frequently disenfranchised include:
- death of an “ex,” an absent sibling or parent
- loss of someone who was not a “blood relative”
- loss of a co-worker or pet
- an adoption that fell through
- loss of possessions, loss of location due to a relocation or move
- loss of mobility or health, loss of a body part
- infertility, miscarriage, stillborn child
- incarceration of a friend or family member
- deaths due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, suicide*, or overdose
- loss of personality due to dementia, etc.
Frequently, the loss itself may not be disenfranchised, but the manner in which an individual grieves may be.
Those around them may criticize the length of their grieving process or the form their grief takes. Societies and cultures can have “unwritten rules” when it comes to grief. People often question, criticize, or invalidate expressions outside those “rules.” These things can complicate the grieving process.
For many circumstances that individuals experience, there is no “race for the cure,” support group, lapel ribbon, hotline, celebrity fundraiser, foundation, or “public awareness” campaign. There may not even be a Hallmark card for it. This doesn’t mean that feelings of grief are invalid or illegitimate.
Often, people don’t even know they are experiencing DG, let alone know how to work through it.
Instead, people have a tendency to minimize or invalidate their loss by comparing it to what a person (or society) believes is a “legitimate” loss.
Disenfranchised Grief. They say if you can name it, you can tame it. It might begin by being honest with yourself, admitting you’re grieving, and not feeling guilty about it.
Stop faking smiles. Then find some support. The people around you are probably more than willing to help you. They just might not recognize your “outside the box” loss.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help or to utilize resources like The Grief Recovery Method.
For those of us who may know someone experiencing DG, support might begin by expanding our definitions of “loss” and “grief.” We can follow up by making ourselves available to those who are hurting and grieving. We can listen and empathetically validate their sense of loss.
About 2.5 million people die in the United States each year. They all leave an average of five grieving people behind. Not all those grieving people grieve the same.
If we can expand our perspective on grief, we can expand our support to those who are grieving. People are hurting, and we can help.
*If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of websites and organizations with excellent resources for you. HelpGuide is a great place to start, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
OTHER HELPFUL BLOGS:
How to Help Your Child Deal With Grief
6 Things You Can Do to Help a Child Who Is Grieving the Death of a Parent
4 Ways You Can Help Someone Who Is Grieving the Death of a Loved One
How do you typically deal with the unexpected things life hands you? How you handle these situations – whether it’s a sick family member, a traffic jam on the morning of your big meeting or a last-minute, expensive repair – can determine whether the problem is minor or becomes huge and affects the rest of your day, week, month and beyond.
When unexpected things collide with the best-laid plans, some people have a tendency to react to the emotions of the moment. Their anxiety goes through the roof, they begin to panic, thinking about being late and all of the things they are supposed to get done. This often leads to frustration and feelings of helplessness and in some cases, even feeling hopeless.
How can you effectively prepare for these situations in a way that will help you remain calm, cool and collected? The key is to learn how to respond versus react, so the first item on the agenda is to have a plan and utilize the resources available to you.
The first key: Have a backup plan just in case something goes wrong.
This is like having an emergency generator so your life can keep going regardless of the crisis at hand. Be intentional about creating a support network of people who are willing to assist you when you are in a bind. It doesn’t have to be family. It could be teachers, neighbors, the parents of your child’s friends, co-workers, etc.
The second key: Step back and assess the situation before doing anything.
People often move to action before actually assessing the situation to determine all their options. This includes getting the facts. We are much less likely to do something ridiculous when we think before we respond.
Once you have your plans in place, remember to follow your plan when the unexpected happens. Having steps to follow helps to make these situations more manageable.
- Keep your emotions in check. Don’t let the situation control you.
- Be prepared. Keep basic medication on hand, have a spare set of keys for your car, take a lesson on how to change a flat tire, give your neighbor keys to your house, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. It is hard to be helpful when people don’t know there is a need.
- Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes talking with an objective third party can be helpful.
All kinds of things will pop up in your life that have the potential to wreck your schedule, cause irritation or create stress, but how you handle it can be a game-changer. The next time you are dealt an unexpected surprise, be ready to respond by staying calm, assessing the situation and working your plan. You will probably be amazed at how quickly you can manage the crisis and get on with your day.
Looking for relationship resources? Click here!
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It’s been 10 years since Ron and Nan Deal unexpectedly said goodbye to their middle son, Connor.
“You never expect to outlive your children,” says Ron Deal. “We actually joked about the fact that Connor, who was 12 at the time, was the healthiest of our three boys. The other two could come down with the flu and Connor kept on trucking. One day, he got a headache. We gave him ibuprofen and sent him to bed early. Ten days later he was gone.”
The Deals have no idea how Connor contracted MRSA, an infection that is very difficult to treat.
“I love talking about Connor. And at the same time, I hate talking about him because it is so incredibly painful,” Deal says. “I now talk about life before Connor died and life after Connor left us, and I long for the innocence of before. I am keenly aware now that life can turn on a dime and you will never be the same.”
When talking about the grieving process, Deal shares that early on, it felt as if they were buried up to their necks in mud.
“You can’t walk and can’t move,” Deal says. “In the beginning, I think my wife and I grieved similarly, but as time moved on, we have grieved differently, which has meant we have to pay really close attention. After Connor’s death, I went for years literally not able to experience joy of any kind. My wife didn’t smile or laugh for a year. The grief just consumes you and you feel like a shell of a person.
“My sister saved us,” Deal says. “We really went numb for a couple of years. She would show up once a month for an entire year just to be with us. The kids seemed thrilled because she would cook for them.
“Once we got to the 3-year, 5-year marks, I found that I could compartmentalize my grief to some degree, but then out of nowhere a song or a smell would take me right back to that place,” Deal shares. “Nan has carried it with her 24/7 like a parka you never take off.”
The Deals learned they had to be intentional about talking and engaging with each other. Through the grieving process, Deal says they learned many other lessons, too.
“Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss is a must-read for anyone entering into a hard space with someone who is grieving. If you haven’t walked this road, just show up. Step into the living room and be present. You can’t fix it.”
When you lose somebody, studies show that about a third of people in your life are helpful. Deal learned it was his job to seek out the therapeutic third and hang around them.
He found that sometimes even extended family members part of their third when their grief was big. During the early years, the Deals were never at home for the holidays or on Connor’s birthday, but they made it a point to go be with safe people or get involved with an activity where the day passes quickly.
Deal maintains that in any loss in our lives, we need to find an expression of that loss equal to the magnitude of the loss. You have to find some radical way of blessing other people.
“Give expression to your grief and sadness, especially those you share it with,” encourages Deal. “You will be tempted to isolate yourself. Don’t do that. You have to get outside yourself.
“Through a crazy series of events, we ended up going to Ghana, West Africa, working with a ministry that rescues trafficked children,” Deal says. “They raise and educate them. We decided to build an art center in Connor’s name that provides therapeutic, emotional and psychological support for them in the healing process. We get to go once a year and be with the children. Connor would love it! He was artsy and musical. There is a lot there that is him. My grief is alive when I am there. I can’t get Connor back, but I can bless others. These are children who have been sold into slavery. To be a small part of rescuing them and helping them heal is such a joy.
“Serving others is not denying your own sadness; if anything, it’s saying I know what I am going through and I need to do something with this energy. You do that with tears and you do that with action.
“We had a counselor to help guide us through this,” Deal says. “The seasons change and with it comes a new little hurdle. It’s helpful to have a professional to walk with you over the course of time.
“The grieving process is not a sprint or even a half-marathon. It’s a full-on marathon and you have to stay after it. There are lots of ripples from the grieving. Some are beautiful and some are painful. It is a long road. Over the last 10 years we have seen beauty out of the ashes, but it doesn’t get rid of the ashes.”
This article originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 17, 2019.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
See an interview with Ron Deal on this topic on this episode of JulieB TV.
Joseph Hernandez and his wife of 47 years were preparing for retirement and discussing how they would celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. At 67, Joseph was full of life and had just received a clean bill of health from his doctor.
Joseph loved people, and he devoted his life’s work to helping others build strong families. While attending a conference this past July where he was teaching on how to help families thrive, Hernandez became ill and passed away. In the blink of an eye, an undetected aneurysm took him from his bride, his family, friends and colleagues.
In the midst of tragedy, meaningful moments can offer powerful takeaways about living life.
When Mrs. Hernandez realized something was wrong and called the ambulance, team members and colleagues who had become friends immediately surrounded her. Some put their dinner plans on hold when they realized what was happening. Friends rushed to the hospital, orchestrated phone calls and tried to thoughtfully anticipate potential needs. Although they had no idea what to expect, they wanted to be there and offer support.
Joseph left this earth doing what he loved, surrounded by the people he loved. While remembering him, many felt it was amazing that he died doing what he was most passionate about. They discussed the importance of doing what you love and making the most of every day. “Life is short,” they said. “Make what you are doing count.”
While it is hard to believe that Joseph is gone, it reminds those left behind to focus on what really matters in life – relationships.
At the end of the day, the relationships we cultivate make life rich. Life’s pace seems to move faster and faster. Relationships are often neglected while people pursue career aspirations, take care of children and fulfill community commitments.
Have you told your loved ones how you feel lately or taken time to catch up with a longtime friend? Have you forgiven those who have offended you? It is easy to assume there will always be tomorrow, but there is no guarantee.
Have you ever felt the nudge to visit a sick friend or provide child care for a busy parent? Have you thought about calling someone just to check in? If so, did you talk yourself out of it because it would throw your entire schedule out of whack? Or maybe you thought you weren’t the right person, wouldn’t know what to say or that it might have been awkward somehow. Perhaps you look back and wish you had taken the time because everything else wasn’t that important. You might even understand that whether you had the words or not, your presence would have been comforting.
During the ordeal and its aftermath, Mrs. Hernandez said it meant a lot that people came to be with her, knowing they had stepped away from important work.
Simply being willing to show up says you care. Life is short, so make your moments count and live your life with meaning.
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Overcoming the Loss of a Child
Christi and Matt Broom married in 2005, got pregnant on their honeymoon and welcomed their son Bryan into the world in 2006.
“Bryan was perfect,” says Christi. “I had a great maternity leave over Thanksgiving and Christmas. I planned to return to work in January. It was Sunday morning. I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to feed Bryan and then I went back to sleep until 6 a.m. When I woke up at 6, something was clearly wrong. Bryan looked like he was struggling to breathe, so we called 911. When the ambulance arrived, they checked his vital signs and said everything appeared to be normal. We asked to be taken to the hospital anyway.”
What followed were days of many questions with few answers. Everything the doctors thought it might be, it wasn’t. But one thing was for certain, Bryan was a very sick baby.
“On Monday a CT scan showed that his brain was swelling which took them in a totally different direction trying to figure out what was wrong with our son,” Christi says. “Although he seemed so sick and fragile, the medical personnel reassured us that babies are resilient. I think everyone thought they would figure this out and we would be taking our baby home soon.”
Another CT scan showed Bryan’s brain continuing to swell, but no one could figure out why.
“They encouraged me to go home and get a good night of rest,” Christi says. “We got home at midnight and at 3 a.m. they called us back to the hospital. When we got there, they told us Bryan’s brain had swollen to the point of death. We both sat in the room totally confused. What had just happened? We honestly believed we would be taking our son home in a matter of days. Nobody had any answers. Everything was a blur.
“Somewhere along the way, we spoke with the organ donation people because every organ in Bryan’s body except his brain was perfect. We decided to donate his organs.”
Christi describes this moment in time as if it were an out-of-body experience. They were just going through the motions. As they walked to their car when leaving the hospital, she realized her husband was carrying a car seat.
“Those next days and weeks were complicated,” Christi remembers. “It was like walking into the unknown and having no idea how you are going to make it through the next minute because life as you knew it has been stolen from you. It was a fearful and confusing time. A handful of people shared that this had happened to them and wanted to offer support. I didn’t even know how to truly appreciate that at the time, but I remember seeing someone I knew who had lost a teenage son years ago. I went up to her, hugged her and said, ‘I remember praying for you, but I had no idea it hurt this bad.’ I felt like I was in a club nobody wants to be in.”
If you are experiencing this pain, Christi hopes what she learned from her journey can help you.
“If you are ever going to get to the other side you have to feel the pain – and that’s the worst part because nobody wants to hurt that bad. The emotional pain is so very real. You want to push it away, but the only way to heal is to allow yourself to feel your way through the pain. It is super scary because you have no idea how long it will take for it to go away. You think you will never be happy again. You can be happy, but you have to be willing to experience the raw emotion versus trying to stuff it and avoid it.
“Sometimes you just have to let yourself cry,” Christi says. “Things would catch me off guard and the tears would flow. I learned that was really okay and part of the healing process.”
Working with a bereavement counselor from Hospice of Chattanooga and someone from the organ donation agency helped the Brooms as well.
Christi also encourages accepting help from others. Let them clean your house, help you pick out what to wear or cook meals for you. Anything you don’t have to make a decision about can make it easier.
Through all of this, Matt and Christi grew closer.
“My husband lost his father at a very early age and his first wife died when their daughter was two,” Christi shares. “Experiencing this helped me understand the pain he had been living with for many years. We leaned on each other a lot. Sometimes we still struggle, but our bond is strong.”
Eleven years later, the Brooms have three beautiful daughters – ages 18, 9 and 5. While the pain never completely goes away, they do experience happiness.
“I remember someone putting a book right in front of my face, so close that I couldn’t see anything else. They said that in the beginning, you only see what is right in front of you. As you slowly move the book further away, you begin to see more. The pain is always there and you see it, but you experience other things too. Our life is rich. We enjoy our children and try to take it all in knowing that every day is a gift.”
Looking for more? Watch this episode of JulieB TV on this topic.