Disenfranchised grief during COVID-19
Of all the losses which accompany COVID-19, bereavement is probably the most challenging. Current social distancing rules and registrations around funerals have left many grieving in isolation, alone and unable to seek much-needed comfort from friends and family. Many have been unable to say goodbye or attend the funeral.
With such restrictions, disenfranchised grief seems truly relevant. This kind of grief is when the griever experiences a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned, such as death by suicide, drug overdose, loss of a job, estrangement from family, loss of identity or sense of self, loss of a pet. It can leave us feeling abandoned by friends, family and community. Such experiences of loss might not be recognised either by the griever or by others. Whilst recognised bereavement is normally accompanied by disbelief and shock, the disenfranchised grief process is more difficult because unrecognised losses tend not to attract increased social support/rituals. With COVID-19 so prominent in the news, death and loss from other causes can seem less important - and leave those grieving feeling disenfranchised.
Often this kind of grief is minimised. Such grievers can feel judged as if they do not have the right to grieve. They want and need acknowledgement of their loss; yet they may worry about what people will think. When someone says you have 'no right to grieve' or you are grieving 'wrong', it is hard not to believe it on some level. And if you don't have support from those closest to you it can become even more difficult to adjust to life after death or loss. You may feel no one understands you. That's a lonely place to be.
If a relationship is not regarded as being important, then grief is not acknowledged.
When a person experiences disenfranchised grief they often become fully aware of others' attitudes and expectations (perhaps for the first time). This can feel unsettling.
Disenfranchised grief takes 'grief rules' to a whole new level by appearing to 'decide' who is entitled to grieve and receive support, acknowledgement and validation in their grief. There can be a lot of pressure to get over it, stop talking about it, and just move on; 'Get another dog', 'try for another baby', 'get another job', 'he was so old'. Unintentional comments maybe; insensitive all the same.
If the griever feels disenfranchised, grief does not 'count'. This can lead to a belief that they are unable to live up to their own and other's unwritten rules about grief. This can result in isolation, shame and guilt. Left unattended, this can develop into depression, anxiety and mental health issues. Disenfranchised grief can reappear following another loss, making an already difficult situation (such as social distancing) worse. I know several people who have experienced 'disenfranchised grief' during COVID-19. I suspect the last thing they want is to be judged or shamed for not getting over their losses quickly so we can all move on.
With disenfranchised grief, there is a feeling the loss is not 'worthy' of honouring - death by suicide, by drink, by driving - that sort of thing. The griever may feel obliged to hide the relationship - for example, death of a partner from an extramarital affair, death of a gang member, death of a same-sex partner, death of an abuser. There are also losses to be grieved, but not necessarily a death. Dementia, mental illness, infertility, substance misuse, religion, friendships, co-workers - to name a few. These often go unacknowledged. The current restrictions can further add to the feelings of entrapment and powerlessness experienced by the isolation which COVID-19 brings.
We can't do much about COVID-19 and it's multi-layered impact on loss. But we can have a say in how we can deal with things which affect us internally.
So, what to do?
- Acknowledge your love for your loss was true and significant and your pain is no less valid.
- Remind yourself of what you feel today because of the loss and what you need to do to move forward, and to do so without judgement.
- Remind yourself you are worthy of that space to grieve.
- Write down what this relationship meant to you and keep it by you. This may help when someone says something hurtful.
- Create your own ritual - due to the measures in place you may not be able to go to the funeral so a small memorial may help.
- Access your support - identify which of your friends or associates is best placed to support you just now (or seek professional help).
Supporting those who are experiencing disenfranchised grief
If we want to support someone who is experiencing disenfranchised grief then we need to affirm the person's loss, along with the memory of the relationship and the importance of the loss. The needs of the griever do not simply go away. On the contrary, feeling disenfranchise can lead to those bereaved individuals to cut off their support forcing them to suppress their grief and magnify their problems. So if we want to support people who are experiencing this type of grief, then we need to accept the fact others may grieve and have intense emotional reactions to things or people which may seem unimportant. In accepting this reaction we can better prepare ourselves for the role of supporter.
Which, at times like these, such a role is needed more than ever.