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Disenfranchised Grief: Mourning Events that Never Were

There are so many ways that the pandemic took pieces of our hearts and lives.

Key points

  • Disenfranchised grief, guilt, and stress occur when losses or stressors are not typically acknowledged or validated.
  • Disenfranchised grief is a normal response to loss but can can be uniquely distressing.
  • Coping skills such as acknowledging your emotions and creating new rituals can support mental health.

We are hearing a lot about disenfranchisement these days and rightly so. In addition to growing concerns about disenfranchising voters across the nation, there are also a variety of disenfranchised experiences that are rooted in the pandemic and its effect on our lifestyles.

What Is Disenfranchised Grief?

One form is disenfranchised grief. This includes the experience of losing people for whom you were not able to properly grieve, people who died alone in hospital rooms or even in their homes, and for whom funerals were not allowed to occur due to COVID restrictions. The death of an extramarital partner or a former lover or romantic interest can also generated disenfranchised grief.

Beyond the loss of individuals to death, disenfranchised grief can describe the loss of a partner to divorce or an unavailable partner returning to a spouse, among other sources in which grief is felt, but not socially acceptable to exhibit.

While these examples differ dramatically from the COVID-related deaths that left families grieving but unable to gather to memorialize the deceased or comfort one another, the feeling of being unable to process the loss in a public manner has a common thread. Grieving the loss of those with whom you had unacknowledged or complicated relationships may also lead to disenfranchised guilt for feeling the sense of loss which others may feel you may not be entitled.

Disenfranchised grief also captures the feelings of grief or loss that surround all of the events – big and small – that you missed during the past year. Birthday celebrations, proms, graduations, first dates, retirement parties, holiday traditions that were interrupted for the first time in a family’s collective memory. We depend on rituals and celebrations that give shape and routine to our lives – day in and day out and throughout the year.

The morning commute was lost to many this past year and while the cost of transportation decreased, the rhythm of the day was disrupted and many missed that built-in time for transitioning from home to work that a commute provided. Whether you spent the time listening to podcasts, doing puzzles, making calls, or just letting your mind turn off the problems of the day and just be in the moment, its loss may leave you missing that daily ritual.

Big events that were “supposed” to happen but did not left many longing for the past or hoping for a future in which the world went back to how things were. We grieve for these events even though we’re grieving the loss of something we never had. Research suggests that it is the anticipation of an event, such as a vacation or party, which is responsible for the biggest uplift in emotions. While we’re used to the anti-climactic feeling that occurs the day after a holiday or a celebration, this past year left us with the unanticipated absence of an event we’d anticipated, which leaves us feeling even worse than we’d normally feel as we don’t have the memories to enjoy after the post-event letdown.

What Is Disenfranchised Stress and Guilt?

Disenfranchised stress describes some of the feelings of anxiety and frustration that arise after a year of working from home. You know how lucky you are to still have a job, so you may not feel that you’re entitled to express or even experience the turmoil and dysphoria you’re feeling.

You may also be feeling disenfranchised guilt – you want to be there to support those who need you, but the health-smart choices require you to stay away. You feel fortunate that your job allows you to work from home, but you feel guilty complaining about your own stressors. You’re thrilled that the vaccine began rolling out fast and furious, but you feel guilty because you qualified early. You’re having a bad health day, but you don’t want to complain because your health status is how you qualified to get the vaccine.

We’ve all been battered by the pandemic in some way, whether it’s visible to others or not. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling right now.

How to Cope with Grief, Stress, and Guilt

Dealing with these feelings of disenfranchisement is important to your overall mental health and emotional well-being. If you’re dealing with a death:

  1. Acknowledge your loss to yourself and others – those who may be experiencing what you are feeling as well as those who can offer you support. Connecting to your support system can be remarkably healing.
  2. Create rituals and practices that connect you to your feelings and to the person who has died. For instance, if the person was a gardener, plant a garden or a perennial plant or tree in their memory. Create a ritual that you enact on the person's birthday each year or another special date. When we create new rituals, we are honoring the relationship with the person who has been lost and putting in place a way to keep the relationship and what it means active in our lives.
  3. Write a letter to the person who has died and share your authentic feelings and memories of them that have significance to you.
  4. Journal about your feelings and experiences.

If you’re dealing with the absence of an event:

  1. Acknowledge that disappointment is normal and that it’s okay to experience frustration and sadness.
  2. “Get outside yourself.” This means that it can be helpful to shift our perspective and recognize that we are not alone in our sense of loss at expected events that did not occur. When we share our feelings with others and learn of others’ experiences, it helps to normalize what we’re feeling as well as helps us to appreciate the experiences of others.
  3. Recognize what you were expecting the event or experience to provide – for instance, more time with family, recognition for an accomplishment, acknowledgement of a significant personal milestone. Once you know what you were seeking, brainstorm if there are alternative ways to catch up on what you missed out on. Begin planning a future event that will fulfill the unmet need – even if the event will not have the same timeliness that the absent event would have held, it can be healing to begin the planning process and anticipate the ways in which the loss will be mitigated.

If you’re dealing with disenfranchised stress:

  1. Acknowledge that you are entitled to your own feelings, regardless of what others might say.
  2. Make a list of all of the stressors that you are experiencing and brainstorm ways to decrease the negative impact the stressor has on your life.
  3. Find others who share your perspective or can be supportive of your experiences and feelings.
  4. Remind yourself that stress reduction for one area of your life helps minimize overall stress, so build time into your day for meditation, exercise, outdoor time, or leisure time. When we’re mentally exhausted from trying to justify our feelings and physically exhausted from the workday, engaging in mindfulness activities can also help recharge and re-calibrate our emotional and physical state.
  5. Don't feel guilty for the feelings you are experiencing — we should never try to compare or measure our own stressors against those of others. All of us are unique and respond to events in our own way — don't assume that your distress is "less than" another's just because your circumstances are "different."
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