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How Psychology Can Validate Disenfranchised Grief

Grief in the margins.

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and rise in violence and addiction have left many loved ones with traumatic loss. Trajectories of grief vary.
  • Disbelief, yearning, emotional pain and numbness are natural responses to loss. How long grief lasts is highly individualized.
  • Family, community and society help us bear loss. We need expanded understandings of whose grief is valid to reduce disenfranchised grief.

We are a nation saturated with grief at this cultural-historical moment. The COVID-19 pandemic, a steady drumbeat of mass shootings, rising single homicide and suicide rates, and an opioid crisis have combined to leave behind millions of bereaved people.

What we once understood about the experience of grief, psychological research has shown no longer holds. Contrary to popular thought, grief doesn’t unfold in a predictable sequence of emotions. Conventional family relationship arrangements don’t actually predict whose grief is more enduring or disruptive. Disenfranchised grief — when one’s grief is unseen or invalidated — is more common than generally known. Acknowledgement, validation, and acceptance are crucial to help us live with loss and the pain that arises when our experience of grief is not well understood. In this post, I will explore grief and bereavement in its full and diverse complexity, based on current research and my clinical practice.

What do the terms bereavement, grief and mourning even mean? These words are often used interchangeably, but actually refer to different aspects of the loss experience. Bereavement refers to the actual experience of losing a loved one due to a death. To the fact of a loss. Grief is a person’s response to loss — all the feelings, thoughts, and actions a person has and takes in its aftermath. Mourning is the process by which a person adapts to the loss, and includes private, social, or cultural rituals and practices that assist in integrating loss into the reality of the bereaved person’s life.

How we move between attachment and loss gives character to our lives. A psychologist-mentor wrote this to me when I was in college, after I lost someone I loved and grappled with my first experience of grief and mourning. He’d introduced me to the work of John Bowlby, a twentieth-century British psychoanalyst who pioneered the study of attachment and loss. Before the concept of the five stages of grief became popular, Bowlby identified shock, disbelief, and yearning as key descriptions of the initial responses to grief. In fact, contemporary research on grief supports the idea that disbelief, not denial, and yearning, not bargaining, are more commonly felt among people who have lost a loved one. Now, psychological research identifies disbelief, yearning, emotional pain, numbness, preoccupation with the lost loved one and social withdrawal as common aspects of grief.

How long people grieve is highly individualized, yet research supports the idea that most people can re-engage with their present lives and accept the fact of a loss in about a year and a half. Much of this research, however, relies on samples of elderly widows who grieved the loss of a husband from death by natural causes. The grief trajectories from traumatic losses, or of significant relationships outside of marriage, as well as racially and culturally diverse people, are not as well-studied. We need a better understanding of common experiences of grief when a death of a loved one is developmentally unexpected, traumatic, and when the bereaved person is someone other than a spouse, offspring, parent, or sibling. And we need to understand better the experience of grief when the loss doesn’t involve the death of a loved one — perhaps instead, the loss of a place, a relationship, or an experience.

While contemporary research on grief has refined or replaced earlier ideas, formative theorists like Bowlby understood that our experience of grief and loss is shaped by the webs of relationships in which we are nested — those of family, community, and society at large. Whether and how grief is validated at each of these levels will affect our process of mourning, and our ability to honor the past while we live in the present and plan for the future. Sturdier webs help us bear loss. Fragile ones leave us more alone in ways that interfere with acceptance. In future posts, I'll explore these topics and how psychology research can help challenge conventional wisdom to validate the diverse expressions of grief that manifest in our lives.

References

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness and death. (Attachment and Loss #3). NY: Basic Books.

Zisook, S., & Shear, M.K. (2009). Grief and bereavement: What psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry, 8, 67-74.

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