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The Loneliness of Unshareable Grief

Acknowledging disenfranchised grieving in 2020.

Masha Raymers, Pexels
Source: Masha Raymers, Pexels

One of the greatest causes of loneliness is grieving something that no one seems to understand or appreciate. We silently suffer a loss because others have discouraged us from drawing attention to it. This is known as disenfranchised grief, a term coined by grief researcher Kenneth Doka in his groundbreaking book in 1989, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. He defines disenfranchised grief as “a loss that is not socially sanctioned, openly acknowledged, or publicly mourned.”

This is a grief we hide. It is our own private sorrow—unshareable—yet somehow bearable. Because it is not typically related to an actual death, we might dismiss this grief in ourselves when we witness how other people have suffered far worse than we have, especially in 2020.

Even though it is collectively affecting everyone during this pandemic, disenfranchised grief feels lonely. David Kessler, in a poignant interview, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” compassionately witnesses, “Yes, we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has…The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.”

Disenfranchised grief is widely varied and deeply personal, though socially invalidated, compared to other “more deserving” losses, and often discounted as not being worthy of grieving. And yet it is indeed real grief—and we do suffer the consequences of grief reactions such as sleeplessness, bouts of tearfulness, angry outbursts, forgetfulness, loneliness, withdrawal, not bothering with self-care, and lack of concentration or focus. It sneaks up on us and we hardly know what it is until, suddenly, we find ourselves paralyzed one day, listlessly staring through the window and uttering, “Gosh, this really hurts.”

For example, perhaps we once tried to talk openly with a friend or partner about our unique experience of a bitter disappointment, but it was dismissed (even with the best intentions) as “You’re taking it too hard,” “Don’t take it so personally,” “Don’t make mountains out of molehills,” or “Stop overthinking it."

All around us, we see a pandemic-wide ocean of grief flooding everyone’s lives. Artists and writers are wiped out—cancelled concerts, gallery openings, performances, film premieres, book signings. Meanwhile, restaurants, salons, hotels, sports clubs, and retailers in a world full of innovative and hard-working people are suffering similar losses. Long-held dreams are now dashed. On top of that, people are lining up in mile-long lines at food pantries.

Too often, for the sake of not being “selfish” or self-absorbed (no pity parties allowed), our grieving becomes a source of shame—a burden to others, a gripe, a nagging pain in the neck. We hold it in, push it down, or put in on the back burner. We have jobs to do, families to take care of, chores to get done. Our show must go on, even if we hold grief in our hearts. We still must hunker down in the complex, thankless, chaotic world of 2020 survival.

But at the risk of rubbing it in, here are some common losses many of us are grieving that could count as disenfranchised grief.

What Has Been Lost or Drastically Changed (An Unfinished List)

  • Our jobs and livelihoods
  • Our pre-pandemic social life
  • Our sense of safety
  • Facial cues and body language that help us communicate
  • Classroom learning in person
  • Support groups in person
  • Gatherings for holidays and special events
  • Independence and free mobility
  • Community as we once knew it
  • A sense of belonging and sense of place
  • Mask-wearing feelings: the good, the bad, and the ugly
  • Having an illness that is not COVID-19
  • People dying of other things besides COVID-19
  • Feeling bad and trying not to feel numb while COVID numbers surpass 270,000 dead in the US

Doka encourages us to go ahead and name our grief, even if no one else can relate to it. He tells us how important it is to enfranchise the grief that we have disenfranchised, especially the pain we bear alone. And note the “diss” in disenfranchise. Instead of dissing, we can allow ourselves to grieve with dignity those particular losses that we have borne during this year. We have a right to claim whatever it is that is keeping us up at night or making us cry suddenly in the car. We can gently and compassionately enfranchise our pain by befriending it, honoring it, and allowing our emotions to tell us the truth. We don’t have to shame our grief by calling it a “pity party” and stuffing it in the closet along with our journals and binders full of painful memories. Though people might have told us that others “have it worse” or that we must “get over it,” we can at least be fair to ourselves and acknowledge our unique ways of understanding grief. There is a big difference between wallowing in our bitterness and gently allowing tears to start and stop. David Kessler understandingly adds, “When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It is important that we acknowledge what we go through.”

Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets who understood grief, says it well in "Wild Geese": “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” As Mary Oliver could pour her grief into poetry, we can express our grief with creative acts by making things—tree decorations for the holidays, baked goods, scrapbooks, carvings, paintings, music, cards, poems—and maybe our own, once-disenfranchised grief can be channeled into something we can share with others. We can also turn our grief into a sense of purpose by joining a cause we care deeply about, community activism, or starting a support group for those facing a common loss that has isolated us.

In his programs sponsored by the Hospice Foundation of America, Kenneth Doka suggests the following ways of enfranchising our grief with ourselves and with others.

Enfranchising Grief During COVID-19:

  • Sensitivity to loss
  • Validation
  • The power of naming
  • Virtual support
  • Disenfranchised grief is grief

Once we can enfranchise our own grief, hopefully we can extend our compassion and help others by enfranchising their grief. We can empathically listen, first and foremost. We can share their favorite songs, movies, or photos that express their losses, and they might appreciate your thoughtful gaze, listening, or comments. Maybe our loved ones or colleagues have tried to express their losses already, though it may have come across as prattling on, kvetching, ranting about FOMO or cancellations, Zoom mishaps, or fleeting misunderstandings—but it all counts as grieving, as disenfranchised bits of undigested and nasty fragments of the grieving process. We could agree to chalk it all up as 2020: the year of lonely, disenfranchised, grief.

Over the holidays this December, we have the opportunity to help our loved ones enfranchise the disenfranchised experiences that were discounted or minimized in the name of survival. We have all survived the grind of survival mode itself in the name of “the show must go on,” “buck up,” and “get through it.” Your grief, my grief, and everybody’s grief had to be suppressed, for honest and noble reasons. But now, as 2020 comes to a close, let’s give ourselves some consolation prizes for what we have lost. Let’s hand out these prizes over the holidays (greeting cards, presents, cookies, playlists) with some tender and appreciative acknowledgments. Hopefully, we can toast with our glass of eggnog, warm cider, or Merlot by honoring one another’s courage in facing enormous challenges. Or in some sense, we could say (playing on the words of Elizabeth Gilbert and Namaste): May the glorious mess in me recognize the glorious mess in you.

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