What is Disenfranchised Grief?

Written By Jessica Lamar, Psy.D, LMHC

“Why do I feel this way? It wasn’t even that big of a deal…it isn’t even about me?”


As human beings, we naturally protect our attachments to each other, animals, places, memories, and objects. With great attachment comes great loss.


Some meaningful losses may be minimized or even ignored by our support system, because of social rules, or one’s personal discomfort with the grief process. Thus, we ourselves may not even acknowledge the loss which can create greater internal suffering; The natural emotional pain from the loss can become suppressed, and internally develops within us. When a loss is recognized and acknowledged by others, we begin to feel safe and empowered in our grief.


Dr. Kenneth Doka defined the term disenfranchised grief as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” A Disenfranchised griever may feel their experience is unimportant or even wrong. The griever made hide their true reactions and emotions, feel isolated and/or ashamed, which can interrupt grieving and healing process.


According to Dr. Doka Disenfranchised grief may occur in many ways:

  • The type of relationship– Relationships that are considered “less important” by society may be dismissed by others may include (but not limited to) a co-worker, a pet, an ex-spouse, a grandparent, a step-child, a partner, a stillborn child, or a neighbor.
  • The loss is not socially defined as significant– Some death-related losses such as perinatal loss or other non-death related losses such as divorce, incarceration, and retirement may be considered as not significant. Other great intangible losses may not be recognized or validated; a loss of a dream or goal, the loss of reputation. This is just a short list of many losses that may deserve recognition and space for healing.


  • When the cause of the loss is seen as a socially unacceptable- Deaths as a result of suicide, drunk driving, violence, or addiction are classified as “taboo,” and a person may hide their grief from others. Feelings of guilt, shame and blame can create difficulty with discussing the loss and seeking out support due to fear of judgement.


  • The person is not socially defined as capable of grief– Young children, the elderly, and those suffering from serious mental illness are perceived to be incapable of grief, thus the right is taken from them. There is little or no social recognition of the loss or their grieving needs.


There is no prescription for grief. What we can do is acknowledge that our losses are legitimate, real, and are worthy of our attention, validation, and healing. My hope is that we all honor our experiences in this life by giving grief a voice, express ourselves, create meaningful rituals. Our heart, mind, and body are there to guide us.


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