More Thoughts on Disenfranchised Grief

Written by Julie Ruchniewicz, FPCE Parish Nurse

Recently Jim Teague interviewed me on the topic of disenfranchised grief and I have received numerous inquiries to know more. I understand the term sounds very clinical, but we are all experiencing this loss in one way or another. A couple of weeks ago I listened to a continuing education program on this subject and was amazed at how much I learned. Disenfranchised grief is a term that was coined by a grief researcher named Ken Doka, about twenty years ago. He defines it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Some examples of disenfranchised grief are loss of someone thru suicide, a miscarriage/stillbirth, or loss of a pet. However, amidst the chaos of the pandemic, any death can feel somehow unimportant.

My husband Mark and I lost his sister Christine a few weeks ago. She did not die from the virus, but her death, at this time, brings about many painful realities. Mark, along with her husband and children, were able to say goodbye, the rest of us were not. That privilege has been taken away from many who have suffered a death in the family.

We, like many others, had to forgo our traditional grief rituals for a graveside burial for 9 people, the priest made 10. There were no picture boards, stories from co-workers, reminiscing, readings in church, hymns sung or the line of family and friends giving hugs. Masks absorbed our tears as Mark played her favorite song on his phone. It is hard to lose a loved one when the whole world is grieving something else. Thus, the grief feels disenfranchised during the pandemic.

Death is not the only heartache that some are feeling. Loss of independence, freedom, socialization, job security, financial well-being, graduating with their class, cradling a new grandchild or even worshipping as a congregation. Since these sorrows are not necessarily acknowledged, they are also disenfranchised grief. That being said, you may experience some of these losses and not experience disenfranchisement. That’s great! You may have a support system, like my family/friends did, that acknowledges the depth of the loss and give you the permission to grieve. On the other hand, you may have a loss that we haven’t discussed and your community is making you feel you don’t have the right to grieve. Or just understanding what disenfranchised grief is may make you a better friend or supporter to someone.

I spoke to a friend recently who said she could not articulate what she was feeling around these last couple of months. She said that she felt “flat”, but could provide no further insight. What is she feeling? She’s feeling grief. Grief that the world has changed and realizing things will be different. We are collectively grieving the loss of normalcy. Grief in anticipation, we are uncertain as to what the future holds. We don’t feel safe.

We have now named it, grief, perhaps that will help us manage it. Most of us have heard of Elisabeth Kubler Ross and the stages of grief. Whenever we talk about the stages of grief, I must remind you that the phases are not linear and may not happen in order. However, it may help us create a framework for this uncertain time. There’s denial: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and give up my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. Finally, there’s acceptance: This is happening, I have to figure it out. We all know that the power lies in the acceptance because that is where we feel more in control.

So, how does one manage these feelings?

Find balance in the things you’re thinking. Our mind goes to the worst-case scenario and while that can be hard to ignore, leave room for the best-case scenario. Neither picture should be ignored, but neither should dominate either.

Come into the present. If you practice meditation or mindfulness, that’s great. If not, just try being in the moment. In this moment, you’re not sick. In this moment, you have food. In this moment, you’re safe. It really does help to calm yourself and ease some of your angst.

Let go of what you can’t control. What others are doing is out of your control. What is in your control is social distancing and washing your hands. Concentrate on that.

Gather up compassion. Everyone will have a different level of grief or fear and it will show up in a variety of ways. Recognize irritability or anger as grief or fear. Be patient and kind with yourself and others.

Seek to find some meaning amongst the chaos. The open-endedness of this pandemic produces pain. We are taking the right precautions and we will survive. However, can we push ourselves further to find some significance? The light in the darkness may be new or renewed relationships, time for yourself, learning modern technology or appreciating a long walk in nature. These realizations can be comforting.

So, what do I say to those of you who have read all of this and still feel overwhelmed with grief? My advice is to keep trying. There is power in the fact that we have named having a hard time, crying at night or snapping at family members. It is called grief. You might tell yourself that others have it worse or I feel sad, but I shouldn’t. The little voice that says that you shouldn’t grieve the loss of your job when your family is still healthy. Fighting it is not good for your body or your mind. Instead try feeling sad and giving yourself permission to feel that way for a bit. It is absurd to believe that we would not be grieving during this time of insecurity. Of course, if you ever feel that you are unable to work thru the grief alone, you should seek out some of our pastoral care ministries or professional help. This is a place for help to acknowledge and accept your loss, while validating your pain.

Mourning can become even more difficult when others diminish your grief or ignore it completely. All grief is valid. No one can tell you whether you should or should not feel sad. However, like all grief there is no quick fix for disenfranchised grief, no normal and it will look different for everyone. Please reach out to your loved ones or to us, let us help you lighten your burden. This is how we learn from each other, support each other and remember that we are not alone!

“The reality is that you grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Julie can be reached at jruchniewicz@firstpresevanston.org