What is legitimate grief? Who decides what losses we may rightly mourn, for what length of time and how? It is my belief that grief is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that as human beings we grieve in direct proportion to what the loss means to us. For one person, the death of a friend may be more painful than the death of a close family member. Or the loss of a job may be more difficult than a divorce, or vice versa. For another person, they may mourn the death of a beloved pet for years, but not feel as troubled by a long term health problem. People who have been scapegoated by family members or bullied at work also suffer from unrecognized grief.
Society has unrealistic expectations of grieving people to begin with, often pressuring people to move on from their loss before they have adequately mourned. People who experience socially unrecognized grief are further disenfranchised as the nature and meaning of their loss is rarely acknowledged to begin with. In this post I touch on the subject of socially unrecognized aka “disenfranchised” or secret grief, with the hopes of increasing tolerance and understanding of grief and loss in its multiple manifestations, above and beyond the death of an immediate family member.
Disenfranchised Grief – what a mouthful. What does this multi-syllable term mean? Disenfranchised grief is socially unrecognized loss, such as family scapegoating, death of a pet, early miscarriage, forced retirement, or chronic illness. It can also encompass socially ‘taboo’ or prejudiced grief, including abortion, being bullied out of a job or loss of a same sex partner, to name a few. Disenfranchised grief occurs in ‘secret’, because open expression tends to be met with awkward silence and distancing behavior. People experiencing socially unrecognized grief not only suffer alone due to self censorship, but feel invalidated and often judged by their family and peers, particularly if the grief is deemed to have gone on ‘too long’. And those undergoing socially taboo grief learn early that expressing their loss openly can not only subject them to a lack of understanding or tolerance, but also to the possibility of being treated with contempt or shunned.
Secret grief is a symbol of the broader social challenge to understand, accept and support the process of grief in general. Even people grieving the death of an immediate family member are under unspoken social timelines to ‘get over it’ quickly. Employer allotted bereavement leaves are typically a few days maximum. And a few weeks after their loss, the bereaved see support for their grief starting to evaporate. This dwindling of open support and acknowledgement of loss often occurs just when the ‘anesthetic’ of shock begins to wear off, and the full impact of painful emotions begins to set in. In other words, support can decline just when the griever needs it the most.
Because grief and loss are closeted in our society we miss out on the opportunity to care for each other in meaningful ways that can deepen our connections and strengthen the social fabric. For example, if it was generally known that the shock and pain of loss can last awhile, we could then ready ourselves to provide support to others weeks or months down the road. Or if it was commonly understood that the meaning of loss is deeply personal and sometimes life changing, we could make an effort be more empathic – and therefore more helpful – towards others. In this process of deepening empathy, we become better people too.
So what are some practical approaches to helping others to bring ‘secret’ grief out of the closet? If you are aware that someone you know has experienced a loss of any kind, ask them if they want to talk about it and, if so, what kind of support would be most beneficial to them. Expressing loss is a right of passage that helps the mourner let go of the past, and your interest will likely be appreciated as people going through loss often feel very alone with their grief. It will also be helpful to let go of any preconceptions you may have about what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ loss. Allowing the griever to take the lead in sharing and defining the meaning of the loss can go a long way to healing the pain and stigma of socially unrecognized grief.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in helping people recover from all kinds of Loss, Grief and Stuck Grief – aka ‘the pain that won’t go away. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the peace of mind you want and deserve.
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