“Disenfranchised grief” is a term coined by Kenneth Doka in the 1980s. It refers to a loss that the griever feels unable to fully mourn because of societal views about the circumstances of the death or the person themselves who died. Some common reasons* that people may experience disenfranchised grief include:

Loss of someone society does not deem as a significant relationship

Society often sends the message that we have the right to mourn immediate blood-related family members, but other relationships are not as worthy of grieving. Some examples include:

  • Loss of an ex-spouse/ex-partner
  • Loss of a step-child or foster child
  • Loss of a co-worker
  • Loss of a friend
  • Loss of a pet
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth

Loss of someone known through a stigmatized relationship

Society often sends the message that some relationships are not as legitimate as others and therefore not as worthy of grieving. Some examples include:

  • Loss of a same-sex partner
  • Loss of a partner from an affair
  • Loss of an unmarried romantic partner

Loss of someone through stigmatized means

Society often sends the message that some causes of death are shameful or deserved by the person who died, sending the implicit message that these losses are not as worthy of grieving. Some examples include:

  • Loss by suicide
  • Loss by drug overdose
  • Loss by gang involvement
  • Loss by abortion
  • Loss by HIV/AIDS

Experiencing one of these losses may (but does not necessarily) mean you feel less able to access support and validation around the significance of your loss. It may feel like you are getting explicit messages that you are not entitled to your feelings about a loss. It may also be more subtle and difficult to pinpoint from where you have internalized the message that your grief was not real or valid. It can be difficult to move through the grief process when you feel like you do not have the right to grieve. If you feel that you may be experiencing disenfranchised grief, there are some things that may help:

  • Finding others with similar losses. There are several groups in the area for people who have experienced potentially stigmatizing losses (e.g., groups for parents of murdered children, groups for people who lost a loved one to suicide, etc.). There are also strong online communities and forums for people with potentially disenfranchised losses (discussion forums for people who have lost a same-sex partner, online support groups for people who have lost a child to miscarriage, etc.). Hearing others’ experiences may help you to feel less alone in your grief and normalize the reactions to grief that you are experiencing.
  • Seeking counseling. You may not be ready for a group or to seek social supports. Speaking to an individual counselor may assist you to sort through your complex feelings around your loss and legitimize that what you are feeling is real.
  • Creating a ritual. Perhaps due to the nature of your relationship with a deceased loved one you were not welcome at a funeral/memorial service or there simply was not one (e.g., pet loss, miscarriage). Identifying a way for you to remember your loved one could be helpful. It could be as elaborate as creating your own remembrance service or as simple as identifying an object to display to symbolize your bond.
  • Read more about disenfranchised grief. There are several books, articles, and blog posts available about this topic. Learning more about this kind of grief may help you to separate societal messages about your loss from how you actually feel.

Please know that no matter who you lost or how you lost them, your grief is valid and your feelings are legitimate. If you are having trouble with a potentially stigmatizing loss, we hope this post gave you some language for your experience and helped you feel a little less alone.

by Sarah M., grief counselor

*Examples of disenfranchised grief borrowed heavily from https://whatsyourgrief.com/disenfranchised-grief/