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The Disenfranchised Grief of Being Childless Not by Choice

Anger can be a natural response to an unrecognized loss.

Key points

  • For mental health and well-being, it’s important that we acknowledge and grieve our losses.
  • Society does not allow certain types of loss to be acknowledged or grieved.
  • Grief from a loss that is not acknowledged is called “disenfranchised grief.”
  • There is a gendered nature to disenfranchised grief.
Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash
Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

I received enthusiastic responses to my recent article on natalism and most of them focused on a specific portion of the piece: Being childless not by choice.

Responses came in two very distinct trends:

  1. “Thank you so much! I’ve experienced this. It hurts. No one talks about it.”
  2. “Stop complaining! Boohoo.”

Those responses, though vastly different, share a common theme: Disenfranchised grief.

For those who were thankful, usually but not exclusively women, “someone was finally talking about” something that brought them great sorrow, but that they hadn’t heard talked about before and/or didn’t feel they could voice.

For those who were angry, usually men, “someone was complaining about” something that should stay quiet. Their goal was to silence and shame people experiencing pain and loss.

Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is grief that people experience but that isn’t generally recognized in society. Examples include pet loss, pregnancy loss, job loss—many types of loss other than traditional notions of death.

One man even emailed me, “I lost a child but I’m not whining about it.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man whose child died felt he not only couldn’t grieve, but also had to “suck it up” and act like it’s no big deal. Worse, he was pressuring others to do so and shaming those who even acknowledged the pain of loss.

Cue the grief specialist reminding us that no one should ever be pressured to “get over it.”

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash
Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Gender and Grief

Gender plays a big role here. Of those who were thankful for the post, the men I heard from shared particularly strong and unique pain. As men, many felt alone and voiceless. Even in searching for resources for them, I found very little for childless men.

Furthermore, expressing grief is to express emotion, so it’s no wonder men, who face pressure not to cry, for example, would experience disenfranchised grief. Men even face pressure not to grieve in cases in which society generally deems grieving acceptable, like the loss of a loved one.

This helps explain why men, but not women, read my article as “complaining” even when being childless not by choice was not its sole focus.

When acknowledging grief, pain, and loss is viewed as whining, that disenfranchises it. Grief becomes disenfranchised when simply talking about loss elicits anger and contempt.

Anger is, in fact, a component of the grief response.

Acknowledging Grief

I teach death and dying. We talk a lot about grief. Grief comes in many forms. But disenfranchised grief, hands down, is what students want to talk about the most. They give me countless examples of losses they’ve experienced and haven’t been “allowed” to grieve.

And that really is the crux: With disenfranchised grief, you experience a loss but you aren’t allowed to grieve or even acknowledge the loss. That’s why so many men wrote to silence me. In the context of a much larger issue, I simply, briefly, voiced and put value on a loss many experience, but few talk about.

Discomfort with Grief

Even when one is allowed to grieve, when it’s an acceptable type of loss, we put limits on that grief.

My sister, for instance, found herself crying at work a few months after our beloved brother died. A coworker asking what was wrong responded, “Still?”

This is why that grief specialist I referred to above reminds us not to pressure anyone to “get over it.” It’s widely acknowledged that grief is a lifelong process. There is no time limit. Just like there is no objective list of acceptable losses. Loss is loss.

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash
Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

Complicated Grief

When grief isn’t acknowledged or allowed, when we’re pressured to “get over it,” we risk that grief becoming complicated.

Honesty, I think some definitions and explanations of complicated grief make grief itself sound unhealthy when in fact, we know it is a process over time with no clear endpoint. That being said, when grief is so strong, so prolonged, that it causes functional impairment and/or health issues, we tend to label it as complicated.

Yes, grief is grief. It’s a process that doesn’t necessarily end. When grief destroys our health and ability to function, however, clinicians worry.

And maybe grief wouldn’t become complicated if we accepted and allowed it—for all losses.

Negative Emotions

Ultimately this can all come down to our discomfort with negative emotions and pressure to only express and experience positive emotions. I call that “Instagram psychology” and “positivity pressure.” Psychologists recognize, however, that for mental health, we must acknowledge and experience our full range of emotions—the good and the bad.

So, if you’ve experienced a loss, know that it is real. You have a right to grieve. It’s healthy to grieve your losses.

And if you’ve been feeling down but you’re not sure why, is it possible you’re grieving? The cost of disenfranchised grief is that it makes loss that much harder to identify.

For what it’s worth, know that there are a lot of us out there who do allow you to grieve. We may not be the loudest, but we’re there.

Facebook image: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

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