What Is Disenfranchised Grief?
When society doesn't recognize or validate your loss it can be hard to properly grieve. These expert-recommended tips can help you cope.
“My grief feels like anger—specifically anger over missed opportunities,” says Beck Simon-Burton, a transgender man living in Minneapolis with his wife and two children. Starting hormone therapy and getting surgery in the summer of 2020 have been important steps in his journey to becoming his authentic self. But while the transition has been a positive experience, he’s also experiencing some surprising grief.
“I’m 38 years old and finally seeing myself for the first time, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if I’d had the ability to do this years or even decades ago,” he says. “I spent years feeling really angry because I didn’t have the space to explore and understand my truth. There’s a real sadness in realizing I missed so much happiness and life because it wasn’t safe to be myself.”
(Did you know transgender people are more likely to be victims of domestic violence?)
In addition to missed opportunities, there are many unacknowledged losses that transgender people face in our society, he says.
Losses can be life-altering—some relationships with loved ones were lost or became strained after he came out—or they can be smaller, like being unable to find gender-neutral clothing that fits or being misgendered by coworkers. Taken together, they can add up to a lot of grief.
Adding another layer of pain to these losses is the fact that society generally doesn’t recognize them as happening at all or, if they do, they see the losses as not being valid.
“When I was young, my feelings about my body were dismissed as a phase and I was told they were unacceptable, which lead to a lot of shame and fear,” he says. “Even though I feel much more comfortable with myself, there are still many people in society who believe my experience is invalid. Just look at all the anti-transgender bills being introduced. This is why I’m sharing my story now. If I’d seen other trans people when I was younger and had my feelings validated, my life would have been very different. I don’t want anyone else to go through that kind of pain.”
This type of grief has a name, and Simon-Burton isn’t the only one experiencing it.
What is disenfranchised grief?
Grief that is not accepted or recognized by society as legitimate is referred to as disenfranchised grief. So not only does the person experience a painful loss but they are denied support in grieving it.
“In disenfranchised grief, meaningful relationships may not be recognized, the importance of the loss to the survivor is minimized, and the need to grieve is discounted,” says Ashwini Lal, lead clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, California.
This type of grief is deeply rooted in your culture, as different cultures have different norms for what types of losses are seen as valid and worth grieving, says Abigail Nathanson, a doctor of social work and professor of grief and trauma at New York University in New York City.
“It forces the person suffering to ask themselves ‘Am I entitled to be sad about this?’ which is incredibly painful and invalidating,” she says.
Examples of disenfranchised grief
This type of grief doesn’t just encompass losses associated with being queer or transgender, like Simon-Burton experienced. Other common examples include:
- Pregnancy loss
- A suicide or substance abuse-related death
- The death of a beloved pet
- The breakup or loss of an extramarital affair
- Death of an ex-spouse
- Loss of a job
- An adoption that didn’t go through
- Loss of independence
- Death of someone who isn’t blood-related, like a neighbor, coworker, mentor, or client
- Loss of body parts
The Covid-19 pandemic brought its own losses, according to a study published this year in Frontiers in Psychiatry. There are the thousands of people who have died, of course. Many of these deaths occurred without mourning rituals like funerals, due to social distancing requirements.
But there are smaller losses, too. Kids who spent a year housebound may grieve a loss of formative experiences like graduation. College students may grieve goals lost—going away to a university, or finding a job after graduation. Countless others may be grieving a loss of health, relationships, freedom, and more. All of this slots into the category of disenfranchised grief.
Why this is such a big deal
No one can stop you from crying over the death of your beloved cat or mourning the loss of a miscarriage, so is it really an issue if other people don’t sympathize with you?
Being able to talk about the loss and receive support from others is an essential part of the grieving process. We’re hardwired as humans to seek connections with other people, and this can feel like a core rejection, says Nathanson.
“Ultimately, it’s saying if it doesn’t matter that [the beings or things that you loved] are gone, then it didn’t matter they were here,” she explains. “And if what you love doesn’t matter, then maybe you don’t either.”
In addition, there are some practical problems caused by not having a loss acknowledged by others. “Even though you are heartbroken and grieving, no one brings you casseroles or flowers,” Nathanson says. “You may not be able to have a funeral or get time off work, and are expected to carry on your responsibilities as if everything is normal.”
Malte Mueller/Getty Images
Symptoms of disenfranchised grief
The most common symptom of disenfranchised grief is isolation. When your feelings are invalidated by those around you, it’s natural to withdraw. “You feel like you can’t talk about it because if no one gets it, why bother,” says Gail Trauco, a certified oncology nurse and licensed grief mediator who’s helped hundreds of people navigate disenfranchised grief.
(Isolation and loneliness can have a huge effect on your health and quality of life.)
For several years, Simon-Burton withdrew from his wife, terrified that she would reject him when he came out as transgender, causing serious problems in his marriage.
Without recognition of your grief reality and an opportunity to be able to openly express and process your reactions, you are more likely to become emotionally volatile, sometimes suppressing emotions, other times having bursts of anger or rage, says Lal.
Note that while grief is normal, people can develop depression, anxiety, or other mental health health disorders with prolonged grief.
This was a particular issue for Simon-Burton, who says he suffered unexplained fits of anger towards his children. “I was so uncomfortable in my body that I wasn’t able to show up for anyone else, including those I loved the most,” he says.
(Here’s what science says about anger and how to control it.)
“Society likes to tell people to ‘just get a grip and move on,’ which is painful and can make the symptoms worse,” says Trauco. “In some cases, this can lead to the grieving person being bullied and/or becoming seriously depressed or suicidal.”
Other mental symptoms may include becoming withdrawn, “spacing out,” experiencing brain fog or difficulty concentrating, or developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
This type of grief can also exacerbate physical symptoms like exhaustion, headaches, stomachaches, chronic or diffuse pain, and autoimmune conditions, adds Trauco.
How to cope
“The goal of grief is not ‘How do I stop being sad?’ but ‘How do I carry this and still live my life in a meaningful way?” says Nathanson.
There is no one “right” way to grieve, nor is there a prescription for getting through it. However, there are some things that many people find helpful during the process, including taking the steps below.
The first step to processing your grief in a healthy way is to name the loss or losses you are experiencing and recognize your feelings. Remember that the grief is legitimate and your feelings are normal, even if society doesn’t recognize them as such, says Lal.
Perform a mourning ritual
Have a funeral. Plant a flower bush. Commission a painting. Light a candle. Write a poem.
Pick something meaningful to you to commemorate your loss and carry it out. Even if you’re the only one present, it can be an incredibly powerful and healing experience, says Nathanson.
(This is how happy memories of loved ones make you feel healthier.)
Find your tribe
The people immediately around you may not understand what you’re going through but chances are, there are plenty of other people in the world who do, and thanks to the Internet it’s easier than ever to find them.
Go on message boards or online forums dedicated to the type of loss you’ve experienced. Simon-Burton was able to connect with other transgender men in his area, and he says that made a huge difference in how he felt.
Several grief support groups are available online. Griefshare.org is one. There are also several LGBTQ+ support groups that are helpful to people as well.
Connect with others who love you
Combat the instinct to withdraw and isolate by reaching out to supportive loved ones. Even if they can’t understand or empathize directly with your experience, feeling their love and support can be very healing.
When Simon-Burton finally got the courage to talk to his wife about his feelings, she immediately reassured him that she loved him regardless of gender, which made all the difference to him.
Write your feelings out
Keeping a journal was a key way that Simon-Burton processed his feelings before, during, and after his transition. A journal is a great way to validate your own feelings and monitor your progress.
Avoid temporary fixes
People suffering from disenfranchised grief may be more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, eat their feelings, gamble, spend hours in online games, shop compulsively, or engage in other addictive behaviors.
Avoid the temptation to self-medicate in this way—it won’t help your grieving process and can make your problems worse, says Trauco.
Do something kind for yourself
Eat a nutritious meal, take a walk outside, get plenty of sleep, take a hot bath—all of these self-care acts that were nice before your loss become necessities when you’re grieving, says Trauco.
(You may also find comfort in reading quotes about pain and how to deal with it.)
See a grief counselor
Grieving is a normal and expected part of life, but you may find yourself getting stuck in the process. This is especially true when your grief isn’t recognized or validated by others around you. Grief counselors are trained to help you navigate these complicated feelings and support you through the process.
Be gentle and patient with yourself
Disenfranchised grief can be harder to work through than more typical grief because you’re dealing with several layers of loss, says Nathanson. However long it takes you to find healing is OK.
“Grief isn’t an illness. It’s not a sign something went wrong. It’s actually a sign something is going right,” she says. “It’s a sign that you loved them.”
Celebrate the victories
A lot of coping with disenfranchised grief is learning to validate your own feelings, and one way to do that is through celebrating your victories.
“I recently got my driver’s license and passport changed to my new name and gender,” says Simon-Burton. “I looked at it and was like, ‘Finally. That. Is. Me.’ And it was the best feeling.”
- Abigail Nathanson, DSW, doctor of social work, licensed social worker board-certified in palliative care, and professor of grief and trauma at New York University
- Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN, a certified oncology nurse, licensed grief mediator and author of Conquering Grief From Your Own Front Porch
- Ashwini Lal, PsyD, lead clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine
- Frontiers in Psychiatry: "COVID-19 and Disenfranchised Grief"