Disenfranchised Grief: What It Means and How to Cope With It

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We grieve when we lose something important to us that we cared about. Grief can be difficult and painful to experience.

Social support can play a major role in helping people cope with their grief and accept their loss. According to a 2020 study, having social support in a time of grief can improve well-being and help prevent depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

But, what happens if a person’s friends, family members, employers, colleagues, or community members don’t acknowledge their grief or consider it to be legitimate? For instance, if someone loses their dog, people might not understand why they’re grieving as though they’ve lost a child.

Disenfranchised grief is when a person loses something or someone in their life that is important to them, but either their loss is not valued or recognized by others, or the way they’re grieving is not considered to be a socially acceptable way to process grief, says Angeleena May, LMHC, Executive Director at AMFM Healthcare.

This article explores some of the causes of disenfranchised grief, its impact, and some treatment and coping strategies that may be helpful.

Instances of Disenfranchised Grief

Grief is extremely subjective and everyone’s experience of grief differs, says May. For instance, she says someone may experience grief from the loss of a relationship or the death of a loved one, whereas another may experience grief at the loss of an idea, job, or hobby that was tied to their identity.

These are some scenarios where someone’s grief may be disenfranchised:

  • Loss of a pet
  • Loss of an abusive partner or family member
  • Loss of an estranged, absent, or unknown family member
  • Loss of a non-immediate family member, such as a cousin or aunt
  • Loss of a miscarried, stillborn, or aborted child, or a child given up for adoption
  • Loss of a loved one who committed suicide
  • Loss of a loved one who was in prison
  • Loss of a loved one due to substance abuse or overdose
  • Loss of a loved one due to a stigmatized condition such as AIDS
  • Loss of an ex-partner
  • Loss of a casual partner, such as a friend with benefits
  • Loss of a person someone was in a private relationship with, that others don’t know about
  • Loss of an LGBTQ+ partner that can’t be discussed because one or both partners weren’t out yet
  • Loss of a community member who may not have been known directly (i.e., BIPOC folks grieving the harm or loss of community members, including those targeted by hate crimes and police brutality)
  • Loss of a teacher, coach, or mentor
  • Loss of a student, peer, or colleague
  • Loss of a client or patient
  • Loss of a social media friend or influencer
  • Loss of ones's health, mobility, or cognitive ability, or that of a loved one
  • Loss of one's possessions or valuables
  • Loss of one's citizenship
  • Loss of one’s home or home country
  • Loss of one's rights, independence, or sense of safety

Unresolved past grief may also be triggered when someone experiences another form of loss, causing their grief response to get reactivated, says May.

What Causes Disenfranchised Grief?

These are some reasons why someone’s grief may be disenfranchised, according to May:

  • The relationship is not recognized as significant, so the person’s grief seems disproportionate
  • There is a lack of social understanding regarding the relationship, making it hard for people to recognize and validate the person’s grief
  • The relationship is not public knowledge, so people are unaware that the person is grieving and cannot offer support
  • The person expresses their grief in a manner that is inconsistent with expected grieving behaviors, or others’ experience of the grief process

Disenfranchised grief is often experienced by disenfranchised people or populations, including members of different racial, ethnic, religious, ability, and sexual minority groups. It can result from patriarchal and white supremacist values rooted in society and reinforced by media.

For instance, when a young Black person is killed as a result of police violence, the grief of the family, friends, and community members is not always legitimized by society due to racial bias, stereotyping, victim-blaming, and more.

Grief that BIPOC communities feel as a result of losing someone (even if they didn't know the person), is often unacknowledged by society.

For instance, when someone in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is attacked, the grief isn't limited to the friends and family of the person who was attacked, but also resounds within the community. However, grief on the community level is not always acknowledged or accepted as "legitimate" by society at large and may be ignored or minimized through gaslighting, minimization, and denial.

There was also a lack of social understanding at play for the grief experienced by Muslim people who lost loved ones and were unable to participate in proper death care rituals as a result of COVID-19. Because the rituals are not part of mainstream society, people who aren't in the Muslim community may be unaware of or invalidate this experience of grief.

Mental Health Impact of Disenfranchised Grief

Grief can cause feelings of sadness, despair, anger, and guilt, as well as physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. These symptoms can be exacerbated when a person’s grief is not recognized by others and they don’t receive social support.

Angeleena May, LMHC

When grief is not recognized as valid by others, people may start to question their own feelings and feel anger, shame, or guilt for experiencing grief.

— Angeleena May, LMHC

Validation of the grief process allows a person to experience the cycle of grief and process their feelings; when grief is not validated by others, the grieving process is interrupted and people may be unable to process their emotions, says May. “People may also internalize a lack of validation as an internal conflict and minimize their own feelings.”

Treating and Coping With Disenfranchised Grief

Below, May outlines treatment options and coping strategies that can be helpful if you’re experiencing disenfranchised grief.

Perform a Ritual

Rituals, such as a funeral, wake, or retirement party are part of social norms. If your grief is not recognized, attending, hosting, or performing a public ritual may not feel appropriate.

However, it can be helpful to conduct a ritual with people in your life that you can trust and confide in, whether it is an individual, a therapist, or supportive friends.

Rituals performed during the grieving process give you an opportunity to experience and express your grief. Depending on the circumstances, you can opt for a ritual such as writing a letter, holding a small ceremony, planting a tree of remembrance, or performing any other act that is meaningful to you.

It may also be helpful and healing to perform a ritual from your religious, cultural, or spiritual practice in order to honor and process your disenfranchised grief.

Acknowledge and Process Your Anger

Anger is a natural part of the grieving process, and you may be more prone to feeling angry if you're experiencing disenfranchised grief. You may push others away or disregard your memories of your loss because of your anger. 

However, your anger will shift and transform if you allow yourself to experience it, instead of avoiding or minimizing it. Acknowledging and processing your anger in honoring ways can help you move through your grief and loss without bypassing or getting stuck in it.

Seek Therapy

In addition to struggling with your grief, you may also have difficulty coping with the invalidation of your grief on your own. Therapy can be a useful tool that can help provide the validation and recognition of your grief that you need. It can also help you explore and process your feelings toward the object of your grief.

Therapy can offer a safe emotional space to process feelings of invalidation, loss, and sadness, allowing you to become empowered through your own grieving process.

These are some forms of therapy that can help you cope with disenfranchised grief:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) targets negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, mourning, and regret. 
  • Acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) is another type of therapy that focuses on tools for acceptance of negative feelings and increased cognitive flexibility. 
  • Narrative therapy encourages people to develop a story that can help them make sense of the complexity of emotions they are experiencing. 
  • Support groups can help you connect with others with similar experiences. They can offer validation and healing in a community setting.
  • Art therapy is a technique that has participants create visual art and utilize psychotherapy tools to express and process emotions.
  • Group therapy is a form of psychotherapy. You can attend a grief group with others who are experiencing the same type of disenfranchised grief, share your experiences, and feel supported by others.
  • Brainspotting is a technique in which a therapist guides you as you locate and process feelings of discomfort or tension in the body (where emotional pain or trauma is stored).
8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.