What are you allowed to grieve about? The pain of disenfranchised grief

The question I pose in the title is one that most people have probably never even considered. It’s understandable that the average person avoids thinking about grief or the things that may happen in their life that would elicit it. After all, life’s too short to spend time thinking about sad things all the time. You may want to, at least this one time, take the time to think about it. It could be very important to your mental wellbeing in the future.

What is grief?

Grief is an emotion. It is a feeling of intense sadness and loss. It comes about when we lose something in our life that feels irreplaceable or was very valuable to us. Grief is a natural and necessary reaction to loss. It’s our way of dealing with loss and usually after a relatively brief period of it we start to feel better and can get on with living our life.

When it comes to the big stuff like losing your spouse, parents or child, societies have a lot to say about how long and in what way you should grieve. Labour laws may specify that you can have paid time off when a child, parent or spouse dies, but make no such allowance for a cousin or other more distant relative.

Public, socially acceptable grief is something very different from the personal experience of grief. What if the cousin who died was someone very close to you? What if your relationship with your parents was distant and their deaths don’t affect you too much? What if, what society has to say about your grief, is very different from your own experience of it?

Disenfranchised grief

There is a lot of grief out there that doesn’t fit the narratives that society has shaped over time. Grief that is socially unacceptable has a name: disenfranchised grief. I think it’s very important to raise awareness about disenfranchised grief because it is very common and, by its nature, goes largely unreported.

A very frequent example comes with the death of a pet. Society may not recognise the deep sense of loss and sadness that you may have when your pet passes away. Yet all pet owners can understand that losing a long term companion hurts, whether it is a human being or a dog. We may feel grief at the loss of our health or of a limb. We may feel grief at the loss of a job or of a prized possession. We can even grieve for people that we have never met. When recently beloved UK author Terry Pratchett passed away, many people felt a genuine sense of shock and grief.

I’ve had my own experience of deep grief and feeling like I couldn’t share it with anyone, with any real validity. Some twenty plus years ago, when I attended university for the first time, I was forced to leave due to financial restraints. Basically, my grant (along with that of many other students), had been culled because of cutbacks and even working alongside studying, I couldn’t afford to continue. This hit me harder than I could have ever imagined. Firstly, it was out of the blue. Everything I had planned and worked so hard for, had been pulled from underneath me. Secondly, it was totally out of my control, and it felt like a higher power was deciding my fate, and in a sense this was true. The reality for me was that for a period of time, I felt as though I had been stripped of my identity. I didn’t have a contingency plan because I had never needed one. I had everything planned out, right down to my placements for the next few years.

Apart from shock, I felt deep, deep sadness and when I shared what had happened with friends, their response didn’t fit with the measure of how bad I felt. The most weighty reaction, was one of “Oh that’s a shame”, or something along those lines. This made me feel angry. Why couldn’t anyone understand that what I was experiencing felt as though someone close to me had died. I was bereft. My world had been shaken up and the foundations, I would need to rebuild. Something I didn’t want to do. Along with anger, I felt resentment and a sense of hopelessness that was all made worse by the fact that I felt somehow silly or that I wasn’t entitled to feel bereft.

Of course, with the natural cycle of grief, time heals and we’re able to move on, but when I think of personal bereavements, for me, this was very real and affected me greatly.

My advice as a Psychologist

Never let societal opinion about what can and cannot be grieved for influence your decision to seek treatment or to simply treat yourself well. Of all people, a grief counsellor will never judge the cause of your grief, but will treat it the same, because the pain of grief is the same regardless of the cause.

My advice is to treat your grief with the same seriousness regardless of why you feel it. The important thing to recognise is that when you are experiencing grief, it doesn’t matter WHY you are feeling it. It only matters that you deal with it constructively and in a way that will lead to maximum mental well being. Take time off work if you need to, find something constructive to help you deal with it. Talk to friends and family that you trust and don’t hesitate to seek out professional counselling.

While grief is a natural and normal human experience, if it is left unprocessed and unattended it has the potential to fuel more serious issues such as major depression. So respect your own grief and pay no mind to what others say you can or cannot grieve for. Living an authentic life is far more important than fitting into preconceived notions and norms.