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Disenfranchised Grief

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

We live in a world where we’ve all heard the term grief, and we know these terms are associated with the death of a loved one.

Disenfranchised grief or hidden grief happens when the person feels like they should not be grieving or maybe their grief is inappropriate because of stigma related to the manner of death.

It’s a universal understanding that grief and bereavement follow the loss of someone special. However, some forms of loss and specific causes of death that lead to loss may not be as well recognized or understood.

The passing of a loved one is not the limit on loss and grief, although it can certainly feel that way; the loss of a career, relationship, good health, independent functioning, financial stability, or identity may lead to a grief response in some individuals. Sometimes when we experience the death of a loved one under certain circumstances or losses that aren’t as well recognized, discussed, or stigmatized, we or others may not receive appropriate attention, support, or care.

What Is Disenfranchised Grief?

Commonly known as hidden grief, disenfranchised grief occurs when a loss is unacknowledged or invalidated by social norms.

This sort of grief is typically minimized or misunderstood by others, making it challenging to process and work through. Individuals dealing with disenfranchised grief often feel guilty or ashamed of their emotional response to their loss due to social norms and expectations. For example, someone who lost a pet they deeply loved may hide their grief due to societal norms that invalidate this type of loss. Disenfranchised grief is likely to occur in specific situations or surrounding certain losses.

Loss Surrounded By Stigma

Loss surrounded by stigma may lead others to judge, which can force individuals to feel like they’re supposed to grieve in private and alone. Stigmatized loss and grief can come with more stigma than compassion; these reactions are likely to lead the grieving person to feel ashamed or embarrassed rather than supported.

Frequently others want to offer support and sympathy to individuals experiencing a stigmatized loss but do not know how to do so or how to respond to a loss that isn’t discussed as freely or openly in society.

Stigmatized loss results from a situation where a person feels that they should not grieve for their loved one because of the lifestyle they participated in or the manner of their death. In the case of suicides or loved ones who were convicted of a crime.

Some examples of loss surrounded by stigma include:

  • Suicide

  • Overdose

  • Miscarried or stillborn child.

  • Loss of a loved one convicted of a crime or imprisoned.

  • Infertility.

  • Estrangement of a loved one experiencing addiction, cognitive impairment, or severe mental health concerns.

Exclusion from Grief or Mourning

Sometimes losing a loved one or meaningful relationship with someone who wasn’t a romantic partner, or an immediate family member can lead to perceived or implicated feelings that you have less of a right to grieve. There’s an unspoken expectation in society that you must have close ties with a person to justify grief, which is incorrect and unrealistic given that humans are wired to grieve the loss of anything they love or find meaningful.

Individuals who may experience this sort of disenfranchised grief include:

  • A friend

  • A co-worker

  • A classmate

  • Extended family member

  • Childhood friend

  • An ex-lover

In addition, some groups of people are often thought not to experience grief or mourn the loss. Including:

  • Children

  • People with cognitive impairment.

  • People with severe mental illness.

  • People who are developmentally disabled.

Loss That’s Thought Of As “Less Significant.”

Some people may not think of breakups, divorce, or estrangements as significant losses. However, losing someone permanently despite being alive can cause extreme distress and grief. Losses, including divorce, separation, career, or health, are known as non-death losses. Although they aren’t considered as “huge or impactful” as death, they most certainly can be for some individuals.

Losses that may be viewed as less significant include:

  • Adoption that falls through.

  • Loss of possessions.

  • Loss of safety (abusive relationship).

  • Loss of health, mobility, and independence.

  • Loss of professional or personal identity (retirement, career loss, divorce, being widowed).

  • Loss of financial stability (homelessness).

In the case of disenfranchised grief, counseling can help you reconcile with your emotions and find a way to move forward.

In addition to minimizing non-death losses, society also tends to invalidate the significant impact that the death of a pet, co-worker, patient/client, student, teacher, or mentor may have on individuals. It’s also important to note that the death of a loved one in unrecognized relationships, particularly complex ones such as affairs or online connections, can leave a person extremely disenfranchised with their grief.

Getting Help with Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief can result in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and/or invalidated emotions. If left untreated, disenfranchised grief can lead to substance use, relationship/marital conflict, low self-esteem, or chronic stress. Working through grief alone is not always possible; disenfranchised grief will be particularly hard to overcome without professional support.

Grief counselors and other mental health professionals can assist you with acknowledging and accepting your loss while validating your pain and grief experience. Processing grief is challenging but allowing it to go unaddressed can lead to severe mental health symptoms such as insomnia, suicidal ideation, depression, and impairment in functioning.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any following symptoms, professional help is recommended:

  • Grief that isn’t improving with time.

  • Frequent mood changes or difficulty managing emotions.

  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

  • Physical symptoms that do not improve and cannot be explained medically.

  • Lack of interest in things you once found enjoyable.

  • Difficulty meeting personal or professional responsibilities.

  • Difficulty in relationships.

To begin receiving professional support for your grief, you may contact Mindsight Behavioral Group to schedule with one of our caring counselors with immediate openings. There IS hope and healing in mental health treatment for grief.

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