Disenfranchised Grief and the Returning Cross-Cultural Worker

Disenfranchised grief, also called “hidden sorrow,” is caused by “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.”  This definition comes from an article I recently came across from Australian Family Physician, discussing the response of general practitioners (family physicians) to repatriated cross-cultural workers affected by grief.

What makes their grief disenfranchised is that their losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for a person when you don’t recognize why he is grieving. Others with disenfranchised grief include “ex-spouses, caregivers, nursing home staff, pet owners, children, adoptees, individuals with developmental disabilities, . . . those who may be grieving suicide or AIDs victims or other forms of stigmatised death, . . . victims of sexual abuse, indigenous people and prisoners re-entering their original subcultures.” While this seems to be a list made up of disparate groups, their commonality is that the losses they suffer are often easy to ignore or downplay.

The part of the article that most helped me understand the concept was the authors’ explanation of six types of disenfranchised grief. I am presenting the list here, but I’ve taken the liberty of providing my own examples of how they might apply to repatriated cross-cultural workers:

  • The griever’s relationships are unacknowledged
    [“You can enjoy yourself now that you’re back with your own people.”]
  • Lack of acknowledgment of the griever’s loss
    [“People move all the time. It’s not like somebody died.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever as not being capable of grieving
    [“She’s just a child. She’ll make new friends.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to the circumstances of the loss
    [“You knew what you were getting into when you decided to go overseas.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to their way of grieving which is not deemed appropriate by the community
    [“The Bible says ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.'”]
  • Self initiated disenfranchised grief where shame plays a significant role
    [“Why don’t I trust God more?”]

The authors go on to stress how important it is that general practitioners understand disenfranchised grief and take steps to deal with it. Not only may family doctors be asked to treat physical symptoms that are a result of grief, but they may also be the only affordable and “safe” help that is available to the re-entering worker.

I wish that we could all understand and acknowledge others’ grief, whatever the source, so that we could “mourn with those who mourn,” giving them the community they need so they don’t have to grieve alone.

(Susan Selby, et al, “Disenfranchised Grievers: The GP’s Role in Management,” Australian Family Physician, Vol. 36, No. 9, September 2007)

[photo: “grief,” by Tomek.pl, used under a Creative Commons license]


18 thoughts on “Disenfranchised Grief and the Returning Cross-Cultural Worker

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for this! That’s me as a kid to a T! And no one realized anything or even thought of it. I’m not blaming them, but it’s so good to know there’s a term for it. And for the first time in my life I actually realized why I was always drawn to and accepted by the so-called fringe groups. I know now that we recognized each other.


    1. Grief may not be the first topic that comes up when we think about repatriation, but it sure is a theme that repatriated workers are familiar with. I’m glad that people (like you and the author of the AFP article) are writing about it.


  2. thanks for this. I think this applies not only to repatriating workers, but also to people suffering loss in another culture. If the other culture doesn’t understand the reasons for grief, defines another way that the grief should be expressed, or prescribes a different way of coping with the trauma it all leads to the same sort of isolation.


  3. Do you mind if I re-blog this? Very interesting. I’ve heard some of our friends talk about how hard it is to leave after living overseas for a long time. This is a great list of reasons why.


  4. Grief is a large theme of living overseas. I really identified with the ways you stated that it doesn’t get acknowledged. I’ve experienced almost all of them personally in some way at some point.
    A book I’ve found very helpful is Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss. She talks about losses that don’t get a funeral and living with loss, both of which seem to fit the bill of disenfranchised grief. It’s a worthy read for this topic.


  5. Hi, I wound up here when my friend and former director sent me your blog post from January 31, 2018 and I followed the links. I’ve just returned to the US after nearly 15 years in Mozambique. These articles are so helpful for understanding much of what I’m experiencing and why it feels isolating at times. Thanks for exploring this.


    1. So glad you stopped by, Laura. Your comment encourages me. Thanks for all the years you spent in Mozambique. I pray that you are surrounded by God’s grace during your transition.


    2. Hi Laura and others who are dealing with re-entry sorrow and adjustment. You recommended me to serve in Mozambique in 2004-2005. I currently serve with Heartstream Resources which is a ministry that helps missionaries who return from the field and need help re-adjusting to life here in the States. http://www.heartstreamresources.org. Please contact me for more information.


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