Disenfranchised Grief

*Trigger warning – topics of grief, loss, and suicide are discussed*

The Flathead Valley has recently experienced a great deal of loss – amidst an on-going pandemic, the greater community has withstood a fatal civilian shooting and the loss of two high school students to suicide. All of this in under one month’s time.

(Avalanche Lake, Glacier Park, MT, Megan Goudie)

What are you currently feeling? How have these losses affected you and your families?

Researchers have established a name for when there is a loss that is not openly acknowledged, socially mourned, or publicly supported. For example, a loss of someone who is not a blood relative though feelings of grief are still present (deep sorrow, difficulties concentrating, disrupted sleep patterns, symptoms of depression and/or anxiety). This term is disenfranchised grief

To be disenfranchised means one is deprived of something, in this case, one is deprived of the acceptance to adequately grieve. This can be for a multitude of reasons, including but not limited to, when your grieving doesn’t fit in with the larger society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss, when the loss is seen as “too small” or the relationship “too distant” to justify grieving, or when there is stigma around the grief or loss (such as mental health issues or suicide). 

We are living in a time of collective grief because of the COVID-19 pandemic – loss of normalcy in employment and social lives as well as the very real loss of life. No one has gone unaffected by this. To then add on the loss of community members in such tragic ways can make us feel lost, helpless, hopeless and confused. 

Often if one does not display grief in ways that are “socially acceptable” such as crying or visually appearing sad, withdrawing from social events, loss of appetite and increase in sleep peers may assume that this person is not grieving. It is important to remember that we all express emotions and grief in different ways which may include anger, lack of emotion, increased busy-ness or using substances. 

So how can we cope with disenfranchised grief? 

  • Seek support from those who understand.
    • Who validates your emotions and helps you feel heard? Who knew of your relationship with those you lost? Has anyone you know experienced a similar loss? Connect with these people.
    • Anonymous support can also be helpful in forms of therapy or support groups.
      • National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255)
      • The Trevor Project for LGBTQ+ (1-866-488-7386)
      • Text “MT” to 741-741
      • Spot to Talk (hello@spottotalk.com)

  • Create a mourning ritual – if your grief isn’t widely known or accepted there may not be a funeral or celebration of life to attend, this can increase feelings of loneliness and confusion.
    • Write a goodbye letter.
    • Plant a tree in honor of your loved one.
    • Make a collage of photographs.
    • Hold your own memorial, either individually in a place of significance or with a small group of people who understand and support you.

(Sapling Tree, Jean-Baptiste Charrat)

  • Ask for what you need – even if others do not fully understand your grief, they may want to offer support or help.
    • It’s okay if you don’t know what you want/need – practice communicating that
    • “I don’t want to be alone, can you keep me company for a while?”
    • “Can we go for a walk to distract myself? I don’t want to talk about it right now though.”
    • “I think I need to talk about this, are you open to listening?”

Processing grief is difficult, if it is disenfranchised it can be even more so as it can be even more difficult to ask for help. Please consider seeking professional support if:

  • Ability to cope with the grief doesn’t improve over time
  • You notice frequent mood changes and difficulties regulating your emotions
  • Your physical symptoms don’t improve
  • You have thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Spot to Talk is also offering FREE 30-minute crisis support appointments with mental health providers until the end of October, these can be held in person at our office in Bigfork or virtually via video conference. 

Please reach out if you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment. 

We are here to support you, because you matter, you are enough, and you are worth it. 

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