Grief is a natural response to loss, from the death of a loved one to the dissolution of a marriage, sudden financial stability, or the end of a friendship. While grieving, people tend to feel a range of emotions — everything from anger to guilt to sadness — all of which are normal, and can take time to work through.
No matter the cause, grief is hard to process. But a particular type of grief, known as disenfranchised grief, can prove to be a particular challenge to overcome. Also called hidden grief, disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that is minimized, unacknowledged, or misunderstood by others, which can cause people to feel isolated and alone during a time when they need support the most.
“Believing that someone else can understand the basic emotions you’re feeling makes grieving less complicated, and leaves you feeling less isolated,” said Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks.
Examples of disenfranchised grief include the loss of a private relationship that others didn’t know existed, such as an LGBTQIA+ person who lost a partner but doesn’t feel safe being out; a loss that is considered ‘lesser’ by others, such as the death of a pet or a health issue; a loss that is surrounded by stigma, such as infertility or death by suicide; an exclusion from mourning, such as the death of an ex-partner; or grief that doesn’t follow societal norms, such as displaying anger or throwing yourself into work.
If people either don’t understand or actively minimise a person’s grief, then processing these emotions becomes that much harder, and can even cause a person to doubt the validity of their feelings.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing this type of grief, these are a few strategies that can help:
Know that your emotions are valid
Even if your loss isn’t well understood by others, that doesn’t make your emotions any less valid. If you are grieving, the first step is recognise that what you are feeling is valid and normal. This is the first step to healing.
Find others who understand
Even if most people don’t quite understand your grief, there will still be people who do. This can include family and friends who may have an idea of your loss and are willing to listen, or it can be found in the form of local and online support groups, with people who may be experiencing a similar loss.
“Having the emotional support of another person works to help you feel heard, validated, understood, and maybe even distracted, which can be a necessary coping tool to give yourself a break,” Simonian said.
Get to the root of your grief
Until you address your grief, it won’t go away. Whatever loss you are grieving, try and find a way to identify your feelings, so that you can process them. This can be especially hard if others don’t understand, or if society doesn’t acknowledge your grief as valid, but it’s important to do so anyway. Unresolved feelings have a way of coming back later.
Create your own ritual to mourn your loss
Rituals help people find closure. That’s why we have funerals — so that we can honour a person’s life, as well as providing some closure for their loved ones. However, rituals need not be big or public. If you are having trouble processing your grief, it can help to create your own private ritual, one with personal significance.
The right ritual will vary according to your personal preferences and the nature of your loss, and finding the right one may take a little trial-and-error. Pick a time and place that will give the alone time you need in order to feel the full extent of your loss. For example, you can visit a place that either has emotional significance to your loss or that offers the calm you need. The important part is to spend that time honouring your loss in whatever way you need.
Ask for the help you need
Even if your loved ones don’t quite understand, they should still want to support you. To help them do so, it’s important to think about what you need from them, and ask for it.
“Try to focus on figuring out what you want from others during this time,” Simonian said. “Consider allowing others to support you in their own way and let them know what you specifically need.”