Understanding disenfranchised grief: Coping strategies and support for those who are struggling

Imagine suffering a terrible loss and not having it be understood by hardly anyone. Sounds pretty awful, no? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what disenfranchised grief is—a profound and often overlooked emotional pain experienced by individuals following a significant loss that society does not fully acknowledge or validate. 

Disenfranchised grief can have a profound impact on individuals, underscoring the need for greater understanding and compassion for the grieving process. Learn more about how disenfranchised grief affects individuals and how they can cope.

Understanding the Complexity of Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief refers to the type of grief experienced by individuals when their loss is not recognized or validated by society, social norms, or others around them. It is a concept introduced by psychologist Kenneth Doka in the 1980s and has since become an essential aspect of grief research and counseling.

The complexity of disenfranchised grief stems from several factors:

  • Hidden nature of the loss: Disenfranchised grief often occurs when the loss is not socially acknowledged as significant or worthy of mourning. Examples of hidden losses include the death of a pet, the end of a non-traditional relationship, or the loss of a job. Because these losses are not openly recognized, the bereaved individual may feel isolated and unable to express their emotions openly.
  • Lack of social support: Due to the lack of societal recognition, individuals experiencing disenfranchised grief may find it difficult to seek support from others. Friends, family, or colleagues may not understand the depth of their grief, leading to feelings of abandonment and loneliness.
  • Stigmatization: In some cases, individuals facing disenfranchised grief may face stigmatization or judgment from others, which adds an extra layer of complexity to their grieving process. This can create a sense of shame and make it even harder for them to cope with their emotions.
  • Internal conflict: People experiencing disenfranchised grief might struggle with conflicting emotions. They may feel guilty for grieving a loss that society doesn’t deem significant or feel like their emotions are not valid, which can lead to internal struggles and emotional distress.
  • Ambiguous loss: Disenfranchised grief often overlaps with ambiguous loss, which refers to situations where the loss is not clearly defined or easily identified. This can occur in cases of missing persons, those with dementia or severe mental illness, or situations where there is no physical evidence of a loss, like in cases of stillbirth.
  • Complicated mourning process: The inability to openly mourn and process the grief can lead to complications in the grieving process. Unresolved grief may persist, leading to prolonged emotional distress and potential long-term negative effects on mental health.
  • Difficulty in finding closure: Closure is essential in the grieving process. However, individuals facing disenfranchised grief may struggle to find closure due to the lack of validation and recognition of their loss.

Addressing disenfranchised grief requires increased awareness and sensitivity from society and support networks. Recognizing and validating all forms of grief, regardless of societal norms, can help individuals process their emotions, find closure, and move forward in a healthier way. 

Professional counseling and support groups specializing in grief and loss can also play a crucial role in helping individuals cope with disenfranchised grief.

Exploring Different Types of Disenfranchised Grief

Below is a list of some of the various types of disenfranchised grief:

  • Loss of a pet: People who experience the death of a beloved pet often face disenfranchised grief, as some individuals may not understand the depth of the bond between a pet and their owner.
  • Grief after an extramarital affair: When a relationship is affected by infidelity, the grief experienced by the betrayed partner might be minimized or overlooked by others.
  • Death of an ex-spouse or former partner: The loss of an ex-spouse or former partner can lead to disenfranchised grief, as societal norms may not always recognize the significance of the relationship after separation or divorce.
  • Abortion or miscarriage: Those who experience pregnancy loss, either through abortion or miscarriage, might face disenfranchised grief due to societal taboos or misunderstanding surrounding these experiences.
  • Grief following a stillbirth or neonatal death: The loss of a baby through stillbirth or shortly after birth can lead to disenfranchised grief, as others may not fully grasp the depth of the parent’s loss.
  • Loss of a friend: The death of a close friend can lead to disenfranchised grief, as the intensity of the bond may not be fully acknowledged or understood by others.
  • Anticipatory grief: This type of grief occurs when a person mourns the impending loss of a loved one who is still alive but terminally ill. Others may not recognize the validity of this grief, as the person is not grieving an actual death yet.
  • Grief after a suicide: Survivors of suicide loss might experience disenfranchised grief due to the stigma and misconceptions surrounding suicide.
  • Grief related to addiction: When a loved one dies due to addiction, their family and friends might face disenfranchised grief, as society may judge the deceased or blame the family for the addiction.
  • Loss of a celebrity or public figure: People can form strong emotional connections with celebrities or public figures, and when they pass away, the grief experienced by fans may not always be understood or validated by others.

It is essential to recognize and validate all forms of grief, offering support and understanding to those who may be experiencing disenfranchised grief. Creating an environment where people can openly mourn their losses, regardless of societal norms or expectations, can be immensely helpful for the healing process. 

The Emotional Impact of Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief can be multifaceted — with many different effects on one’s well-being. Below are some of the key emotional aspects of disenfranchised grief:

  • Isolation: Those experiencing disenfranchised grief may feel isolated and alienated from others who might not understand or validate their loss. They may feel like they have nowhere to turn for support or that their grief is not “legitimate.”
  • Unresolved emotions: Grieving without validation can lead to unresolved emotions and prolonged grief. The lack of acknowledgment and support can make it difficult for individuals to process their feelings effectively.
  • Guilt and shame: Due to societal attitudes or expectations, individuals might feel guilty or ashamed about their grief, further complicating their emotional state.
  • Invisibility: Disenfranchised grief can make individuals feel invisible, as if their loss doesn’t matter or isn’t worthy of recognition. This can intensify feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration.
  • Suppressed mourning: People may try to suppress their grief to avoid judgment or rejection, leading to emotional suppression and potential long-term negative consequences on mental health.
  • Impact on self-esteem: The lack of validation may lead individuals to question their feelings and worthiness, contributing to a negative impact on self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Long-term effects: If disenfranchised grief is not acknowledged and processed, it can have long-term effects on mental and emotional well-being, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues.

The emotional impact of disenfranchised grief can be profound and unique, as individuals may feel isolated and unable to express their grief openly.

It is essential for individuals experiencing disenfranchised grief to find support and understanding in safe spaces, such as support groups or group therapy, where their feelings can be acknowledged and validated. Additionally, educating others about disenfranchised grief can help promote greater empathy and compassion in society.

Cultural Perspectives on Disenfranchised Grief

Mental health professionals and support groups should be aware of cultural nuances and tailor their interventions accordingly. Here are some key factors that contribute to disenfranchised grief:

  • Cultural norms and practices: Different cultures have varying beliefs, rituals, and customs related to death and grieving. What may be considered disenfranchised grief in one culture could be openly acknowledged and supported in another. For example, the loss of a pet may not be recognized as significant grief in some societies, whereas it may be deeply mourned in others.
  • Social stigma: Some cultures may stigmatize certain types of loss, such as death by suicide, deaths related to addiction or mental illness, or deaths resulting from socially marginalized lifestyles. These losses can be disenfranchised, making it challenging for individuals to openly grieve and find support.
  • Gender roles: In some cultures, specific gender roles dictate how individuals should express grief. Men, for instance, may be expected to display stoicism and suppress their emotions, leading to disenfranchised grief when they are unable to openly mourn.
  • Religious beliefs: Religious beliefs can significantly influence how grief is perceived and processed. In some cultures, certain deaths may be attributed to divine will, making it difficult for the bereaved to express their emotions freely.
  • Family and community support: The level of family and community support available to grieving individuals can vary across cultures. Some cultures emphasize collective mourning and support, while others may encourage a more private grieving process.
  • Migration and acculturation: Cultural perspectives on grief may evolve when individuals from one culture move to another. Migrants may face challenges if their grief expressions clash with the norms of their adopted culture.
  • Technology and globalization: In the age of globalization and technology, cultural perspectives on grief may be influenced by exposure to different worldviews through media and online interactions.
  • Historical and political context: Historical events, such as wars, genocides, and colonialism, can shape how certain losses are perceived and acknowledged within a society.

Specific cultural examples of situations that can lead to disenfranchised grief include the death of a partner in a same-sex relationship in a society where LGBTQ+ relationships are not widely accepted, the grief experienced after the death of a pet (which may be dismissed by some as less significant), or grieving the loss of a relationship with a former spouse or partner.

It is essential to recognize and respect cultural differences in grieving processes to provide appropriate support to those experiencing disenfranchised grief. Encouraging open conversations, education, and cultural sensitivity can help create a more compassionate and inclusive approach to grief support.

Supporting Others Through Disenfranchised Grief

Supporting others through disenfranchised grief requires sensitivity, empathy, and a non-judgmental attitude. This type of grief can arise from various situations, such as the loss of a pet, a relationship breakup, the death of an ex-spouse, or the death of someone with a stigmatized identity. 

Here are some ways to support someone experiencing disenfranchised grief:

  • Listen with empathy: Be a compassionate and non-judgmental listener. Allow the person to express their feelings and thoughts without trying to fix or minimize their grief. Acknowledge their pain and validate their emotions.
  • Educate yourself: Learn about disenfranchised grief and the specific circumstances the person is facing. Understanding the unique challenges they may encounter will help you provide better support.
  • Respect their feelings: Avoid comparing their grief to other experiences or downplaying its significance. Everyone’s grief is valid, regardless of the cause or the relationship with the deceased.
  • Create a safe space: Make sure the person feels safe and comfortable sharing their emotions with you. Offer your support without judgment or criticism.
  • Be patient: Disenfranchised grief can be complex and may take longer to process. Be patient and allow the person to grieve at their own pace.
  • Encourage expression: Encourage the grieving person to express their feelings in whatever way feels right for them. This might involve talking, writing, creating art, or finding other forms of self-expression.
  • Offer practical support: Help with practical tasks or offer assistance with daily activities, especially if the person is finding it challenging to cope with day-to-day responsibilities.
  • Be mindful of triggers: Recognize that certain situations or events may trigger their grief. Be sensitive to these triggers and provide support when needed.
  • Connect with support groups: Suggest the person join a support group or an online community where they can connect with others who have experienced similar types of grief. This can help reduce feelings of isolation.
  • Check in regularly: Continue to offer your support and check in on them regularly, even after some time has passed. Grief doesn’t have a fixed timeline, and your ongoing presence can be meaningful.
  • Avoid offering unsolicited advice: Refrain from giving advice unless asked for. Instead, focus on active listening and showing empathy.
  • Respect their privacy: Be mindful of the person’s privacy and confidentiality. Grieving is a personal experience, and they may not want to share everything with others.

Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise during this journey. Seek help when needed, and remember that it’s okay to reach out to others for support.

Resilience and Growth: Finding Strength in the Face of Disenfranchised Grief

 Here are some strategies to help you find strength in the face of disenfranchised grief:

  • Recognize and validate your feelings: The first step is to acknowledge that your grief is valid, even if others may not understand or acknowledge it. Allow yourself to experience and express your emotions without judgment.
  • Seek support from understanding individuals: Connect with people who can empathize with your experience. This might include friends, family members, support groups, or online communities where you can share your feelings without fear of judgment.
  • Counseling or therapy: Seeking professional support from a counselor or therapist who specializes in grief and loss can be extremely beneficial. They can provide a safe space for you to express your feelings and offer guidance for coping with disenfranchised grief.
  • Journaling: Writing in a journal can help you process your emotions and thoughts. It’s a private space where you can be completely honest with yourself.
  • Engage in self-care: Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
  • Create rituals: Establishing personal rituals or ceremonies to remember and honor the loss can be a meaningful way to find solace and closure.
  • Advocate for change: If you feel comfortable doing so, consider advocating for more recognition and support for disenfranchised grief in your community or society. By raising awareness, you can help others going through similar experiences.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help you stay present and cope with difficult emotions during your grieving process.
  • Accept the uniqueness of your grief: Each person’s grief is different, and it’s essential to recognize that there is no “right” way to grieve. Embrace your unique experience and allow yourself the time and space to heal in your way.

Remember that the process of healing from disenfranchised grief is individual and may take time. Each person’s experience of grief is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting someone through disenfranchised grief. 

By being compassionate, patient, and understanding of your own process and emotions, you can provide valuable support during their healing process.

Healing Strategies for Disenfranchised Grief

Here are some healing strategies to help cope with disenfranchised grief:

  • Seek supportive spaces: Look for support groups or communities where individuals can share their experiences without judgment. Online forums or local support groups focused on specific types of loss can provide a safe space to talk openly about their grief.
  • Express disenfranchised grief creatively: Encourage creative outlets for expressing grief, such as writing, painting, music, or other artistic forms. Creative expression can be therapeutic and help individuals process their emotions.
  • Connect with empathetic individuals: Seek out friends, family members, or professionals who are empathetic and understanding. Having a supportive network can be crucial in the healing process.
  • Self-compassion: Encourage self-compassion and self-care. Grieving individuals may blame themselves for their feelings or believe they should “get over it.” Remind them that grief is a natural response to loss, and it takes time to heal.
  • Seek professional help: If disenfranchised grief becomes overwhelming and significantly impacts a person’s life, seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can be beneficial.
  • Rituals and memorials: Create personal rituals or memorials to honor the loss. These can help provide closure and offer a sense of connection to the person or thing that was lost.
  • Engage in meaningful activities: Encourage individuals to participate in activities that bring them joy and meaning. Engaging in hobbies or activities that they love can be a way to cope with grief and create positive experiences.
  • Cultivate resilience: Building resilience is important in dealing with disenfranchised grief. Encourage individuals to focus on their strengths and find ways to adapt to their new reality while still honoring their loss.

Healing strategies for disenfranchised grief are essential to support individuals who experience grief that is not acknowledged or validated by society. Healing from disenfranchised grief is a unique and personal journey and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Encouraging an open and compassionate environment can significantly aid individuals in their healing process.

Breaking the Silence: Overcoming Stigma and Coping with Disenfranchised Grief

Here are some steps to help overcome and cope with stigma and promote a more compassionate approach to disenfranchised grief:

  • Recognize and acknowledge the grief: People experiencing disenfranchised grief may feel invalidated or dismissed by others, leading to additional emotional pain. Acknowledge that their grief is real and valid, regardless of societal norms or beliefs about the significance of the loss.
  • Educate yourself and others: Learn about disenfranchised grief, its various forms, and the impact it can have on individuals. Share this knowledge with others to raise awareness and reduce misconceptions about different types of losses.
  • Foster open communication: Encourage open conversations about grief and loss, providing a safe space for people to share their experiences without fear of judgment. Active listening and validating their emotions can be incredibly healing.
  • Avoid judgment and assumptions: Be mindful of not judging or making assumptions about someone’s grief. Avoid phrases like “you should be over it by now” or “at least it wasn’t a close relationship” as these can be hurtful and dismissive.
  • Be supportive: Offer empathy, understanding, and support to those experiencing disenfranchised grief. Sometimes just being there for someone and letting them know you care can make a significant difference.
  • Respect cultural and individual differences: Recognize that grief is expressed differently across cultures and individuals. What may seem unconventional to you could be a meaningful and essential aspect of someone else’s grief process.
  • Challenge stereotypes: Challenge societal norms and stereotypes about grief and loss. Encourage others to do the same and promote a more inclusive and compassionate understanding of grieving experiences.
  • Seek professional help if needed: If someone is struggling with disenfranchised grief, encourage them to seek professional support, such as counseling or therapy. A trained professional can provide guidance and validation during their healing journey.
  • Advocate for change: Participate in community discussions or support groups to raise awareness of disenfranchised grief and advocate for changes in how society perceives and supports different types of losses.
  • Lead by example: Show empathy and understanding in your own interactions with grieving individuals, setting an example for others to follow.

Overcoming stigma surrounding disenfranchised grief requires a combination of understanding, empathy, and education. Remember, grief is a natural response to loss, and everyone deserves compassion and support during their healing process, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their grief.

Table of contents

Understanding the Complexity of Disenfranchised Grief

Exploring Different Types of Disenfranchised Grief

The Emotional Impact of Disenfranchised Grief

Cultural Perspectives on Disenfranchised Grief

Supporting Others Through Disenfranchised Grief

Resilience and Growth: Finding Strength in the Face of Disenfranchised Grief

Healing Strategies for Disenfranchised Grief

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  • Doka, K. (2009, January 7). Disenfranchised grief. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02682629908657467?journalCode=rber20

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