If you are experiencing disenfranchised grief, it is first important to recognize and repeatedly reinforce to yourself that your loss is real, that your grief is uniquely yours and no one else’s, and that you deserve recognition and support in moving forward with your loss.
Practice Emotional Self-care
We often think of self-care after a loss as bodily and physical – working to find a routine, eating healthily, getting exercise, and sleeping enough. Emotional self-care may be less discussed publicly but is no less important in alleviating the effects of disenfranchised grief. Affirming your grief, journaling your feelings, identifying and responding to negative thoughts that may arise, and validating your role as a griever can assist you in claiming your central role in your grief experience. Remind yourself that your bond to your loved one was unlike anyone else’s and that you have the opportunity to continue a bond with them after death.
If your loved one died by a means that is disenfranchised, consider learning more about the cause of death from experts who have specialization in it. The primary reasons that some causes of death, like suicide, homicide, and substance use disorder-related deaths, are stigmatized and others aren’t are the cultural assumptions and ignorance surrounding the causes and effects of these deaths. Regardless of how your loved one died, acquiring knowledge from others’ grief experiences – whether through literature, film, or the work of experts in death, dying, and bereavement – can lead to empowerment in your grieving.
Find Your People
If your grief has already been disenfranchised, unrecognized, or invalidated by people in your life, seek out others who show compassion, empathy, and interest in listening to and supporting you in your grief. In my university courses on death, dying, and bereavement, I commonly tell my grieving students that it’s important to “find your people”: individuals who can listen without instructing, who validate without directing, and who offer their presence and their attention without agenda. Often, your people won’t be the people you might assume them to be. We would like to believe that all of our family members and friends will respond helpfully to our grieving, but they may not be capable of doing so. Identify those who are – they will become your people in grief.
Advocate for Your Grief
We all grieve uniquely, and we all engage individual pathways in our mourning practices. However, we all deserve that our grief be recognized. While challenging, advocating for your grief when experiencing disenfranchisement can be an important step in alleviating feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. Doing so may be as simple as correcting someone when they use stigmatizing language in regard to your loved one’s death or when they make assumptions about your feelings instead of asking how you feel. On a more public scale, you may consider advocating for the prevention, research, or aftercare of the cause of death from which your loved one died. Involvement in non-profit organizations dedicated to a cause of death can be a way to make meaning of your loss, lessen feelings of helplessness, and becoming part of a community of survivors.
Seek Professional Support
If you are experiencing disenfranchised grief, you may benefit from working with a grief therapist or other health care professional. If you self-identify your disenfranchised grief as severe, or if you are experiencing heightened anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide, then it is crucial that you receive the help that you deserve. When seeking out this support, ask your potential helping professional about their training and experience in working with clients experiencing disenfranchised grief. Because disenfranchised grief stems from and is perpetuated by others’ responses to your loss, it is important to identify a helping professional who can assist you in navigating your grief experience while simultaneously working to alleviate the effects of having been disenfranchised.
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She teaches at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups.