Disenfranchised grief. What is that?
Someone I knew was placing flowers on the grave of his wife. He frequently visited the cemetery and became used to his wife's fellow residents, but on this day he noticed that someone new had moved in. Over the next few weeks he began to recognise the regular visitors to the new grave, and he guessed that one woman in particular was the widow. Again, he was there refreshing the flowers one day, when he noticed that a different woman, whom he recognised from a different context, was quietly weeping over the new graveside. At first he felt embarrassed, and then he decided to wander over and offer his condolences. She was too distressed to try to hide her feelings when he asked how she knew the dead man, and she told him that they had been lovers for many years. Only a very few close confidants knew of the relationship and although she had known he was ill, she had not been able to visit him as he spent the last few weeks of his life at home. She had not been able to attend his funeral - indeed, she had not even known that her lover had died, and had only recently learnt the devastating news. So she was here saying goodbye to the man she had been intimately close to for so long - secretly, since her grief could not be acknowledged because her relationship could not be acknowledged.
This is disenfranchised grief. Grief which must stay hidden because it shouldn't exist.
It isn't always grief at a bereavement through death which has to remain veiled, and is therefore disenfranchised. A divorce can be experienced as a bereavement, but unlike loss through the death of a partner, this pain and grief are often ignored, and indeed the individual can find that people expect them to rejoice at their new freedom, or at the very least, be relieved at the end of a flawed relationship. This does not necessarily reflect reality, and the grief stays hidden.
How often have you heard someone say 'it was only a dog / cat' when a beloved pet dies. This is disenfranchised grief - it is not acknowledged - it shouldn't exist.
There are recognised theories for grief work - models for the various stages and processes which can be experienced as an emotional roller-coaster, lasting sometimes for years. With recognised, 'legitimate' grief, there is open help on offer. Friends gather round, relatives support. When grief has to remain unacknowledged, this help and support might seem closed off. The crushing pain has somehow to stay under wraps and the mysteries of the process, which can be frightening and bewildering, are left with no explanation. To make matters worse, the grieving ex-partner might feel a sense of guilt at their grief, as can the secret lover. They may feel that they don't deserve that their grief should be recognised or 'allowed'.
The reality is that professional grief counselling is available to all, and no loss is regarded as illegitimate or inappropriate. Overwhelming feelings of loss and despair, isolation, guilt and more can find a place to be expressed, and an understanding of the response to loss can help to heal and re-balance.
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