Bereavement doesn't need a death

When people say they’ve suffered a loss or bereavement, our brain kicks into gear generally assuming they’re talking about a person, or perhaps, a pet.


Probably, possibly, they are feeling very sad and our brain kicks into gear in trying to find the sorts of consoling words we think are expected of us, the words they may find comforting. Alternatively, we may have deliberately avoided them, feeling embarrassed and awkward about grieving ‘etiquette’ and uncertain as to what to say at all…

For most people, most of the time, it is fairly safe to assume that they will be talking about a person. But, in reality, the bereavement of parents, family members or friends only represent one type of loss.

The different types of bereavement

Loss and bereavement come in many shapes and forms. Some grief websites talk of over 20 different types of loss and reasons for grief. What’s your grief, an organisation in the US, lists 64 different types of grief encompassing the expected (your elderly parent, for example) and the less expected (such as loss of home, divorce, feeling abandoned by friends, family, or community). This takes us into a whole different territory of disenfranchised loss, or disenfranchised grief, which can be interpreted in many different ways according to, for example, where you live, your community and your social situation. It can be dangerous to jump to conclusions.

‘Disenfranchised grief’ was a term developed by an American grief researcher, Kenneth Doka in the 1980s. He described 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”.

It is a term has been used in relation to the death of a lover, for example, where the relationship has been kept secret, or in relation to suicide, HIV, abortion, a pet, or where the individual may have contributed to their death by way of drugs or alcohol. At other times, however, the death of another person isn’t necessarily involved at all.

How about mourning a parent who has abandoned their family to start a new life elsewhere, or the loss of the family home, or job that had provided for the family over many years? How about the loss of your country, culture and language? How about the loss of physical abilities, apart from those expected as part of the natural ageing process? What if someone loses their sight, their mobility, their cognitive abilities? What if they lose their mind, maybe over a period of years?

There are so many things that can go wrong with our lives, and all demand response in some form or other, even if that is just to ignore it and keep going. But, what can we do if we find ourselves buffeted by different bereavements, causing both traditional and disenfranchised grief, over a period of time?

Tips for managing loss and bereavement

Advice from a person who has survived many forms of loss.

  • Take solace from the fact that you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
  • Aim to live in the present. Don’t dwell on what has already happened, don’t dredge up unhappy memories, and don’t fantasise about the future.
  • Remember that nothing is permanent, and I’m sorry, but more sh*t could be around the corner. This is where building resilience and methods of coping can really pay off.
  • Be proud of what you’ve achieved so far. Maybe you’ve already been through a number of bereavements: be kind to yourself – you got through them and you will again.

For myself, the practice of mindfulness meditation is hugely beneficial. It calms me when needed, challenges me, and provides me with the strength to keep going. I’ve adopted a mindfulness guru in my head, Jon Kabatt-Zinn, author of ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’. He has an invaluable idea, in my point of view, of creating a parachute to hold us when the going gets tough.

In this particular book he writes, "Mindfulness has been compared to weaving a parachute but there’s no point in doing this when we’re falling headlong towards destruction. We have to weave our parachute every day so that it’s always there to hold us in an emergency".

Family standing at the beach at sunset

A useful characteristic of parachutes is that you can always stitch them up if you leave them for a while. Re-visiting yours and picking it up again if you’ve neglected it for a while, is a soothing, calming experience of its own. Carefully, slowly mending it, caressing it, and taking care of it really pays off in the long-term.

It has certainly supported me through significant bereavements, house moves, bankruptcy, redundancy and abandonment by my husband; highly traumatic experiences for myself and each of my three children. It’s been a tough 10 years, but my parachute holds me and with its support, prevents me from harming myself whatever is tempting me at the time. Hopefully, it will support me through these coming years too.

Finally, I recently came across a ‘prayer’ of disputed origins, often used in the AA 12 step programme, of which my secularised version is as follows, “Serenity to accept the things you can’t change, courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hereford, HR2
Written by Claire Kerby, MBACP
Hereford, HR2

Claire is a survivor of numerous bereavements and has past experience of working as a bereavement counsellor. What really interests her is how we can best cope with both 'traditional' bereavements and those described as 'disenfranchised', encompassing life events such as job and income loss, separation, loss of self identity for whatever reason.

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