Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.
What is Disenfranchised Grief and how do I Recover?
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Disenfranchised grief is a term that has particular relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also applies in many other situations. Disenfranchised grief occurs when a person or pet has died and there is some type of invalidation of the loss. I’ll give you a few examples:
A death occurs and there is social stigma around it (such as a suicide or an overdose death, or the death of person who had perhaps been violent or involved in criminality) leading to people being less comfortable discussing their grief and processing the loss. There can be a heavy burden of shame that makes the grief somehow unspeakable.
Pet loss. There is a crushing universality to the grief that accompanies the loss of a partner or friend; however, for pet owners there is additional stress which can arise from the death itself (often euthanasia) and from the difficult grieving process. In many cases, this grief feels equal to losing a family member or friend and yet for some people (particularly non-pet owners) there can be diminished sympathy and understanding about the devastating impact of losing a pet.
A loss where there is an emotional or physical separation, so perhaps a divorced partner or a family member with whom there was severe conflict. Or perhaps a family member that had moved abroad and closeness had diminished.
A loss where the person grieving is excluded from the rituals associated with the death. This can happen when a person was having an unknown relationship such as an affair, or when a person’s true identity was kept secret (such as with an LGBTQ2 person), or right now when due to physical distancing the usual gatherings to mourn together and celebrate a person’s life aren't possible or have moved online.
Disenfranchised grief, when unsupported, can lead to a block of the normative grief process and lack of ability to find meaning in the person's death, so in effect the grief is left suspended. Disenfranchised grief contributes to a complex mourning experience and can lead to what is known as complicated grief, when the severity of the grief continues and there is little or no recovery from it.
So how can grief counselling help?
Most importantly, it provides a space to talk about the difficult or challenging aspects of the loss and to share the love you had for the animal or person. I welcome clients to bring in photographs or personal items as this can be healing and an important step in that processing that has to take place. For some people letter writing can be helpful, especially if there were unsaid or unresolved issues in the relationship. You and your therapist can also brainstorm ways that you can be involved in a ritual of some kind, a personal and beautiful goodbye. It is also really helpful to have conversations around ways you can stay connected to the person you have lost. This approach, known as continuing bonds, allows the griever to become fully adjusted to life without the person or animal that has died, but at the same time find enduring ways of remaining connected to them. It can also be helpful to talk to your counsellor about your own beliefs around death and dying, as loss can often trigger unresolved fears around this unavoidable aspect of life.
Grief is universal, there is no avoiding it; however, with grief there is no such thing as normal. The grief you encounter will be every bit as unique as the person or animal you have lost and profound grief is a reflection of profound love.
Please contact me if you would like to book a session to discuss a loss that you are facing or have faced in the past: firstname.lastname@example.org Here is a link to my grief counselling services page: https://www.helenwhitehead.ca/grief-counselling
Registered Clinical Counsellor
I am including some resources in the Lower Mainland for anyone affected by grief who may not be able to access counselling:
BC Bereavement HelpLine: 604-738-9950
Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society: 604-696-1060