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]