When we lose something we love, we mourn. That’s part of our nature.
But what if guilt tinges the edges of your grief? Maybe that little voice inside whispers you shouldn’t grieve the loss of your job when you and your family still enjoy good health.
Maybe you wonder if you’re “too sad” over the loss of your pet, perhaps when someone offhandedly says, “It’s not as if you lost a child.”
No matter what type of loss you’ve experienced, your grief is valid.
Still, society often fails to acknowledge some types of grief, making it challenging to express your sadness or begin to navigate the healing process.
Disenfranchised grief, also known as hidden grief or sorrow, refers to any grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. This kind of grief is often minimized or not understood by others, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through.
Here’s a primer on how disenfranchised grief shows up and some tips for processing a difficult loss.
Disenfranchised grief tends to show up in five main ways (though it’s not necessarily limited to these examples).
If you felt a need to keep your relationship private for any reason, you may not know how to express your sorrow when your partner dies. People may also struggle to understand when you mourn someone you never knew.
This might include:
- LGBTQ+ people who aren’t out and feel unsafe grieving the loss of a partner
- polyamorous people who lose a non-primary partner, particularly when no one knew about their involvement
- the death of a casual partner, friend with benefits, or ex-partner, especially when you remained close
- the death of an online friend or pen pal
- the death of someone you never knew, like an unknown sibling or absent parent
Loss that’s considered ‘less significant’
Some types of non-death loss include:
- adoption that doesn’t go through
- dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
- loss of possessions
- loss of your home country
- loss of safety, independence, or years of your life to abuse or neglect
- loss of mobility or health
Society also tends to minimize grief associated with certain losses, such as the death of:
- a mentor, teacher, or student
- a patient or therapy client
- a pet
- a co-worker
- an “honorary relative,” like a friend’s child
Loss surrounded by stigma
If the circumstances of your loss lead others to judge or criticize you, you might get the message that you’re supposed to grieve alone.
Unfortunately, some losses draw more stigma than compassion. The reactions of others might make you feel ashamed or embarrassed instead of comforted.
Some people who want to offer sympathy and support may not know how to respond to grief related to something not often discussed, such as:
- death by suicide or overdose
- miscarried or stillborn child
- estrangement with a loved one experiencing addiction, loss of cognitive function, or severe mental health issues
- loss of a loved one convicted of a crime and imprisoned
Grief after an abortion can be a particularly complex example of disenfranchised grief. While society might disregard this grief, the person experiencing it might also invalidate their own grief because it resulted from a decision they made.
Exclusion from mourning
If you lose a loved one who wasn’t a romantic partner or part of your immediate family, you may face implications that you have less of a right to mourn them.
In reality, it’s absolutely normal to grieve the loss of anyone you had a meaningful relationship with, including:
- a best friend
- extended family
- a classmate
- an ex
People also sometimes assume certain groups lack the capacity to mourn, including:
- people with cognitive impairment or loss of function
- people with developmental disabilities
- people with serious mental health conditions
Grief that doesn’t align with social norms
Most societies have unofficial “rules” about grief that include expectations around how people mourn their losses.
If you’ve recently experience a loss, people may expect you to:
- cry and visually show sadness in other ways
- withdraw from social events
- lose your appetite
- sleep a lot
If you express your grief in other ways, people may seem confused or accuse you of not mourning your loss. Some common but less validated ways of showing grief include:
- lack of emotion
- increased busyness, such as throwing yourself into work
- using substances or alcohol to cope
People express emotions in a range of ways, so assuming everyone will react to loss in the same way only serves to invalidate the experiences of many.
Grief typically progresses through several stages. If you can’t openly mourn, though, it’s hard to proceed through these stages in a productive way.
Along with typical feelings associated with grief, such as sadness, anger, guilt, and emotional numbness, disenfranchised grief can contribute to:
- substance misuse
- physical symptoms, like muscle tension, unexplained pain, or stomach distress
- diminished self-esteem
Other experiences associated with disenfranchised grief include:
- relationship problems
- trouble focusing
- emotional overwhelm
- mood swings
It goes without saying that people who don’t expect you to grieve probably won’t understand your need for support as you process the loss. This can make it hard to take needed time away from work or school.
When others dismiss your grief or suggest you shouldn’t feel “that sad,” you might even begin to wonder if they’re right. By internalizing these messages, you effectively disenfranchise your own grief, which can lead to:
- doubt and guilt around your “inappropriate” reaction
- increased difficulty working through distress
- difficulty coping with future losses
Grieving is a messy, complex process. There’s no single right way to navigate it.
If you’re having a hard time, consider the following.
Seek support from those who understand
Some of the people in your life may not validate your feelings or offer much support. This may cause you some distress, but try to take heart in the fact that others in your life will understand and want to help however they can.
Reach out to friends and family who:
- knew about your relationship with the person or pet you lost
- experienced a similar, significant loss
- listen empathically without minimizing or denying your feelings
- validate your experience
Anonymous support also helps many people working through loss. Local support groups in your area, or even online communities, can connect you to people also trying to navigate the complicated feelings of disenfranchised grief.
Create your own mourning ritual
Rituals can often provide some closure and help people come to terms with a loss.
If your grief isn’t widely known or accepted, you may not have any official ritual (like a funeral or other memorial) to follow. This can leave you feeling lost and yearning for closure.
Creating your own ritual can help you reach a point of acceptance that enables you to move forward.
Some example rituals include:
- boxing up an ex’s possessions after a breakup
- writing a letter to say goodbye
- planting a tree in your loved one’s honor
- making a collage of photographs and mementos
- holding a memorial on your own in a place that holds significance
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need
It’s possible your loved ones want to offer support, even if they don’t understand your grief, but feel unsure of what you need. This often happens when it comes to losses by suicide, miscarriage, and other circumstances people find difficult to discuss.
You may not know exactly what will help, either. That’s completely normal. But if you need something specific, let your loved ones know. This can give them a concrete way to be there for you.
You might say, for example:
- “I don’t want to be alone. Could you keep me company for a while?”
- “Can you help me find a distracting activity?”
- “I’d like to talk about it. Do you mind listening?”
It’s not always possible to work through grief alone. Disenfranchised grief, in particular, may be particularly hard to overcome without professional support.
Grief counselors and other mental health professionals can help you acknowledge and accept your loss while validating your pain.
If you’ve buried your distress and struggle with self-disenfranchisement, a therapist can:
- normalize your feelings
- help you realize it’s OK to mourn
- offer a safe, judgment-free space to express grief
- provide resources on peer support or self-help groups
Processing grief isn’t exactly fun, but it’s important. Unaddressed grief, also called complicated grief, can contribute to mental health symptoms, including depression. Support from a professional is recommended if:
- grief doesn’t improve in time
- you notice frequent mood changes or difficulty managing emotions
- physical symptoms don’t improve
- you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm
It’s also wise to reach out for help if your grief begins to affect your responsibilities or personal relationships, or you continue to lack interest in the activities you usually enjoy.
Mourning can become even more difficult when others diminish your grief or ignore it entirely. All grief is valid. No one else gets to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t feel sad.
Draw strength by reaching out to loved ones who try to lighten your burden, not make you feel worse.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.