With the recent tragic death of Whitney Houston, I was reminded of the concept of “disenfranchised grief” when it was reported (erroneously) that her ex-husband, Bobby Brown had been asked to stay away from her visitation and funeral. Could you explain the concept and perhaps discuss some examples of disenfranchised grief?
Thanks, Mike Mc Carthy”
Great question!!! Disenfranchised grief isn’t talked about a lot in mainstream media and doesn’t that just fit the point that the concept is trying to make!
Ken Doka has been the expert on disenfranchised grief, in the field of thanatology. He states that it is a concept that integrates psychological, biological, and sociological perspectives on grief.
Ken writes, “the grief experienced has been disenfranchised — that is, the survivors are not accorded a “right to grieve”. Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice.
Bobby, as you suggested in your question, is a great public example of disenfranchised grief. People blame him for introducing her to drugs… so we think, how dare he act like he cares or that he is grieving.
One can look at it this way… suppose a couple has gotten a divorce and the wife has remarried. Her first husband dies but she’s happily married to someone new. . . we don’t tend to think of this former wife as a “grieving widow”. And yet, she may still have very strong feelings of love and affection for her husband. Or maybe she has unresolved feelings.
Maybe the only tie between them still are the four children they had together. But he is still the father of her children. And we, as a society, don’t expect her to grieve for him. Check out Hallmark… I bet there isn’t a “sorry that your former husband has died” card. Even think about what we call the deceased. . . “your loved one”… we grieve for people we don’t love, we just don’t often think about it unless it’s happening to us.
When I think of Disenfranchised Grief, I think about the AIDS Epidemic. I think about the partner that had spent time loving and caregiving for someone who was dying and yet no one knew that they were in a relationship. There was no one there to support the surviving partner. Or because of the shame and unjust stigma of a death like AIDS, parents were afraid to be honest about how their child died.
I felt very lucky to be working for a small community-based hospice when my colleague and mentor died. Everyone I worked with knew that I did the work that I loved because of people like Lois. But how many times has a co-worker told you that a friend has died and you awkwardly say, “I’m sorry to hear that” and hope the topic changes?
Sometimes it’s that society doesn’t honor the relationship as important… why would I be filled with so much grief for a friend I had worked with? What I loved about Lois was that she was a smart woman, especially around dying. She married her long-term boyfriend the year before she died because she wanted him to be able to grieve as a “husband”.
What about bereavement leave from work, if you even get it? Usually it’s for immediate family only so what happens when it was your uncle that raised you like he was your father and you tell work that your uncle died?
She knew it would be different for him if they were “only dating” than if they had been married. We all knew they were soul mates, partners, whatever you would want to label them, but in order to make sure he was allowed a “proper” grief period, she knew that they had to change things.
There can also be stigma or shame about how the person died, as I mentioned above, such as a death to AIDS. I remember when people would see my red ribbon pin and ask me about it. When I told them honestly that my brother had died of AIDS, they recoiled like snakes. I never saw anyone jump like that when they saw a pink ribbon for breast cancer.
Other losses that can be disenfranchised include — loss in a residential situation like a nursing home, school friends, people with disabilities, clients, clergy persons, loss of an animal, loss connected to adoption, and probably the grief that is most disenfranchised is a child or adolescents loss for anyone in their lives (with the possible exception of a parent or grandparent).
We don’t think about someone grieving for an abusive parent or spouse and yet, we do. Again, Bobby and Whitney are a good example of this. Despite their ups and downs, they had a connection. . .
It is hard enough to lose someone we love a lot. I wonder if it isn’t harder, in some ways, to lose someone we have ambivalent feelings towards. This will be a topic that we will talk about more when we talk about forgiveness practices.
I hope this helps. And thanks for the question Mike!
- Understanding Grief – A beginning… (namasteconsultinginc.com)
- Layers of Grief (Part I) (namasteconsultinginc.com)
- A Man’s Grief (namasteconsultinginc.com)
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