Danielle-Marie Schimke,
Dip Couns, Adv Dip CFT, Grad Dip Counselling and Integrated Psychotherapy (process)


Developed from the French word “grève,” “grief” means a heavy burden (Johnson, 2003). The purpose of this paper is to enlighten readers on the process of helping grieving persons cope, or carry, all types of grief and loss and to educate on the positive impact that addressing disenfranchised grief could have on an individual, families and the community. The aim is to elucidate, remove the confusion and clarify, disenfranchised grief, focusing primarily on its negative impact, and the social non-acceptance of some types of grief and loss.

“The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorised, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied.”[i] Molly Fumia  

Unhappy person and people not listening


To disenfranchise meaning to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity (“Merriam-Webster Dictionary,” 2015).

The University of Texas at Austin’s Counselling and Mental Health Center, CMHC (2015) defines loss as, “an inevitable part of life, and grief is a natural part of the healing process”, books and references on grief and loss abound, most of which point to grief being in relation to death, however, a few others examples including the obvious death are: divorce, prodigal children, unemployment or retrenchment, loss of health, limbs or physical appearance, loss of purpose or self-esteem (Zagdanski, 2013; Sheets & Jackson, 2005), basically the loss of anyone or ANYTHING we value, including miscarriage (spontaneous or induced), a loss from AIDS, suicide, and even affairs (Worden, 2010). Further examples include, “the letting go of a long-held dream” (CMHC 2015) the loss of the assumptive world, referring to “the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, or orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life”, that whatever the assumption is the fact is that the reality of the disruption is hard to conceive and all in all the range of possibilities is massive (Kauffman, 2002). The negative emotions evoked when sensing a lack or loss of control which some liken to feeling like grief (Smollan, 2014).

Understanding such loss to be a ‘crisis of meaning’, that “when we experience events that don’t fit our schemas, or violate our assumptions, or shatter our illusions, we experience a crisis of meaning” (Landsman, 2002). The same could be said for grieving things that one never had and therefore never had the chance to lose (Bloom, 2002). It could also be considered that the upbringing of some may have been ‘too good’, basically failing to prepare them for negative experiences, to build any form of defence mechanism against said experiences (Rando, 2002). Consider too, a child’s assumptions that their caregivers will love them and keep them safe, that they need predictability and structure, reassurance, and when this doesn’t happen they lose, trust, meaning, and faith, the recommendations here, and daresay in all areas of grief, are to re-create a safe assumptive world (Goldman, 2002).

Disenfranchised grief, was first coined by Kenneth Doka in 1989, it is described as grief that cannot be openly expressed due to the type or nature of the loss not being recognised by others, it is when persons are not accorded a ‘right to grieve’ (Doka as cited in Attig, 2004), the nature of such actions also being described as a deprivation of entitlement, and disenfranchisers as failing ethically and politically, as well as lacking in empathy (Attig, 2004).

Losses which are not socially sanctioned are otherwise disenfranchised (Worden, 2010), or invalidated by others out of fear that their own assumptive world could be bought into question (K. Doka, 2002). Directly related to disenfranchisement are two types of loss (Aaron Lazare as cited in Worden, 2010):

  • socially negated – losses viewed by society as non-losses, for example, miscarriage, including abortion, and the
  • socially unspeakable – losses the mourner can’t discuss due to held societal stigmas, for example, suicide, and death by AIDS. A significant number of parents whose children suicided or overdosed actually being blamed for the death (Byers, 2013).

As a grieving parent and grief counsellor Nathalie Himmelrich (2014), adds a third:

  • that which doesn’t meet the expectations of grief models – losses viewed as not conforming to the when, why and what of various grieving theories. To the degree that those experiencing such grief would fall into the category of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) as diagnosed by the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). While some state such a move is good for the griever (Pies, 2013), others disagree (Frances, 2012; Begley & Royalty, 2013), and others, still, even stating this is not the case (Pariante, 2013; Pies, 2013).

As a challenge to disenfranchised grief Robson & Walter (2013) have a two-fold argument:

  1. That by the very nature of the word disenfranchisement implies one ought to become enfranchised which is not purely clinical and could be assumed to be “a political term meaning to admit to citizenship, to set free, to liberate, as from slavery…” which would then label the disenfranchisers as oppressors, and,
  2. That the legitimacy of bereavement is not a binary yes or no, but that it is actually scalar or hierarchical.

In said contention, the tool that they used as evidence of this hierarchical theory had participants focused solely on social recognitions of grief and asked them to construct where they each viewed a mourner should sit in a scale of selected mourners “first reserves” to “lesser mourners”, that is, the tool asked participants to express what level they feel people should be grieving. Robson & Walter contend that “disenfranchisement is not a norm, but a feeling experienced by mourners whose personal grief exceeds their position in the hierarchy… as perceived by [others]”. Basically, the community decrees where and how one should or shouldn’t grieve, not the one grieving. The question should be then posed, how is this not disenfranchising?

Looking more closely at the definition of disenfranchised grief, in order to adequately define it, we need to fully comprehend the power of loss and the full spectrum of human emotion that goes with it, first however, we must obtain some knowledge of what it means to be attached to something or someone (Worden, 2010). Bowlby (as cited in Worden, 2010) is a key figure in this area and has shaped a theory that humans form attachments from a need for security and safety, though he sees attachment as being distinct from purely physical needs and can invoke feelings of intense anxiety and strong emotional protest when the connection is severed, even if only temporarily. This theory on attachment is that humans, as well as many animals, develop bonds early in life, the attachment behaviour is a normal part of human conduct and is maintained into adulthood. The view is that loss challenges assumptions causing the griever to have to reconstruct their world afterwards, one’s general beliefs can also be affected, causing faith and philosophy to be called to account and questioning long standing beliefs (Bray, 2013), all complicating the search to find meaning in the loss (K. Doka, 2002).


A study by Professor David Maddison which looked at the physical effects of grieving on widows found that a significantly large portion of the widows studied suffered adverse health effects, however, the remainder did not. The findings? The women who stayed well had someone who allowed them to grieve, while larger group did not (Graeme Griffin as cited in Zagdanski, 2013), clearly indicating a benefit between receiving help from friends, family and professional helpers and leaving mourners to cope on their own.

 “I would like to help. I really would. But I just don’t know what to say. I’m sure I say too much, and sometimes I think what I say hurts more than it helps. So, most of the time, I stay away and don’t do anything at all” (Wright, 2006).

It is important to note that simply someone’s discomfort in talking about or avoidance of another’s grief, can often hinder that person in their resolution process (K. Doka, 2002), similarly the same can be said for minimising someone’s loss, even if done with the best intentions and an upbeat focus on the future (Worden, 2010). Sometimes, simply the reactions of others to a grief experience may be enough for the griever to experience greater issues, take for example Mrs A (79). Involved in a bus accident, unable to travel on public transport afterwards, she relied on her two sons, but, whenever she tried to talk to them about the accident they became upset causing Mrs A further distress, yet such re-telling and ventilation of emotions and reactions is necessary to help integrate the experience (Watts, 1994; Johnson, 2003). Empathy is the key, any loss needs to be acknowledged, seen through the eyes of the griever without being filtered through the observers own experiences or understanding (Wright, 2006).

The difficulties move beyond the usual not knowing what to say, using such well-worn clichés as “time will heal”, rather than accepting the mourner is experiencing a difficult time and just needs to tell someone about it, or attempting to turn your thoughts to other things simply because they don’t know what to say (Zagdanski, 2013).

Secondary problems are likely to arise when a person is unable to actively participate in the recovery process (Raphael & Meldrum, 1994). There are many disruptions to grief some of which are, somatising, that is the unconscious conversion of grief into physical symptoms in order to have their emotional needs met, repressing, inhibiting, minimising, or diluting feelings, delaying, postponing, or denying, replacement, guilt, any number of which when left to their own devices typically comes out in ways which are not good for the mourner, and may be triggered even by small future losses (Wright, 2006), such is the nature of what happens when grief is disenfranchised.

The problem is that the issues which cause grief vary greatly in size, the bigger the perceived scale the more society puts into helping those affected, the paradox is that those with the smaller issue, receiving less attention from members of society, are the ones who are most disadvantaged (Horne, 1994), the ones most likely to have their grief disenfranchised. A most critical component in coming to terms with a loss is how the one grieving appraises their experience, (Horne, 1994; Raphael & Meldrum, 1994), their responses to issues are not only affected by these perceptions, but also influenced, whether for good or bad, by other factors including their social systems such as family and work (Horne, 1994). Consider the effect that the rejection and denial of the validity of the grievers complaints is likely to have on these and other relationships. For example, a husband says,

“My wife spent all day after the miscarriage crying – and the next day too. When I asked her how long this was going to go on, she exploded in a rage! I wondered if she was going crazy. After all, she wasn’t in pain” (Rank, 1985, pg. 24).

Discounting another’s reality or loss as remote or unreal can cause a wound that is infected by doubts and uncertainty, there is the potential for making the period of grief work more difficult (Clair & Sabo, 2001).

The consequences on those experiencing loss which is or has been disenfranchised can lead to a deterioration of the emotional efficacy of the individual, having a profound and long term impact on their lives (Clair & Sabo, 2001).


Disenfranchised grief is still grief and needs to be treated as such. Helping professionals should be sensitive to the diverse range of losses which exist, remembering the uniqueness of each individual, their perceptions and the evaluation of the loss experienced (K. J. Doka, 2002). The most important factor in any grief and loss intervention would be compassion and empathy driven professionals offering those grieving understanding and support (Jordan & Neimeyer, 2003; Johnson, 2003). Challenging the assumption that grief counselling is ‘naturally’ beneficial, Jordan & Neimeyer’s (2003) research found that a large portion of participants in the studies undertaken would have been better off had they not received grief counselling. Though the extent of such potential harm could not be determined, nor were the cursory descriptions of the interventions used enough to decipher whether specific methods were the problem or whether it is grief counselling as a whole.

The question remains, were these mourners suffering disenfranchisement? Could this be another reason why the study found grief counselling to be non-beneficial?

Loss affects people in many different ways, the following circumstances and elements have been known to lead to heightened stress on multiple levels causing what may seem like a lesser loss to have an almost catastrophic reaction (Raphael & Meldrum, 1994);

  • Multiple bereavements
  • Multiple losses (even across an extended period of time)
  • Extreme deprivation
  • Situations where support and security is deprived
  • Personal vulnerability
  • Level of support available
  • Depth of personal involvement
  • Repetitive exposure of Health and emergency workers

Two key themes of a helpful model of care are (Raphael as cited in Raphael & Meldrum, 1994):

  1. Recognition of the suffering; it must be recognised that the person has been hurt
  2. Recognition of the strength of the one suffering.

Talking through is a healing process (Raphael & Meldrum, 1994; Johnson, 2003), however, an individual’s coping mechanisms and avoidance of reminders, as well as, things like the shutting out of feelings, withdrawal, and increasing irritability are all hindrances to this (Raphael & Meldrum, 1994). Grief is a socially constructed experience, meaning that those struggling need support socially and culturally in order to interactively explore and socially mediate meaning. A griever’s friends and family provide, ideally, emotional availability and a willingness to support and to discuss spiritual and religious issues, from a cultural perspective providing safe and appropriate conditions for disclosure, exploration and growth, without which may lead to disenfranchisement.

For a professional such a role would be to provide hands on, facilitative and educational support and pace the griever’s steps through the process (Bray, 2013). It is also worth pointing out that the emotional intensity of any grief encounter can become an issue for the helper/professional, it is important for those exposed regularly to such to find an effective emotion management strategy which balances both empathising and keeping professional distance (Cain as cited in McManus, 2012), it is also recommended to maintain adequate supervision sessions (Phillips, 2016).

Romans 12:15 “weep with those who weep”[ii], a grieving person may need counsel, but they don’t live with their counsellor, they live with their friends and family, and whether it is liked or not relationships will change, faithfulness to the relationship may very well save their life (Sheets & Jackson, 2005), Ecclesiastes 4:8[iii] is revealing in such a regard, “there was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil”.

To be disenfranchised means you are not comforted, Isaiah 49:13 says, “For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” People need to be allowed to have their grief and all the feelings that go along with it, without those ‘helping’ trying to make the pain go away (Zagdanski 2013).  This process is referred to by some as re-enfranchising, re-creating or re-building (Attig, 2004; Kauffman, 2002; Worden, 2010; Zagdanski, 2013), basically this is allowing the griever, no matter what they are grieving, to grieve, instead of snatching this very important process away from them, it is first and foremost about the one needing help (Egan, 2010). Psalm 56:8b (NLT) “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears”. ‘Keeping track of’ as meaning, to keep count, to count, to number, take account of, and reckon, and ‘sorrows’ as meaning, grief, mourning, sadness, distress, unhappiness, regret, and troubles and that by ‘collecting all our tears’ “God knows us so intimately that He keeps a precious account and cherishes even the tiniest of things, even those things, which we do not lend a second thought to” (Shanks, 2013), the apostle Paul exhorts Christian believers to do the same (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

“The power of the remedy of respect for suffering is made clear repeatedly. Respectful response to the disenfranchised in their sorrow promotes understanding and empathy. It liberates mourners from discounting or dismissal of the significance of their losses or of the extent and depth of their suffering, discouragement of expressions of their hurt, oppressive interference in efforts to come to terms with brokenness and anguish, isolation, and inappropriate social sanction. Respect from others promotes mourners’ self-respect and self-esteem as it welcomes and embraces them in caring community” (Attig, 2004).

The most common complaint Zagdanski (2013) hears is, “no-one really understands”, in her asking grievers what it is they want from most people, the comment “someone who’ll listen” is rarely left off the list. Consider Job, “I’ve had all I can take of your talk. What a bunch of miserable comforters!”[iv] “The key to facilitating effective mourning that integrates grief into life experiences is the space and permission to protest”, a comforters attempts to “smooth over or placate emotional responses of anger and protest”, do more harm than good (Lucas as cited in Harris, 2015).

Validating feelings and experience is imperative in any therapeutic relationship and that most clients don’t want advice, but simply to have someone listen (Litchfield & Litchfield, 2015; Egan, 2010; Anderson, 2010). A task called active listening, involving three vital parts, the listeners “manner and body language (attending), treating the sharer as an equal and not giving cheap advice (respect), and reflecting back to the sharer what they think they have heard (empathy)”, there is no quick fix formula, it is something that must be learned (Litchfield & Litchfield, 2015). Whether the listener agrees with the sharer or not, the task of listening is vitally important (Anderson, 2010), Zagdanski (2013) explains it thusly,

“[listening] allows them to talk freely about a matter of real importance to them. In being allowed to talk openly, the problem is aired and examined… when you are expected to clam up that’s just where your problem stays – locked up tight, right along with all the feelings.”

“The task of re-learning the self and the world is usually arduous and often overwhelming” (Roos, 2013), the last thing one needs is to be disenfranchised.

Yet, the disenfranchising of grief happens in our community on a daily basis, Doka’s (Worden, 2010) concept of societies views on certain griefs not being socially sanctioned seems to be shared by many. Society holds the belief that we shouldn’t cry or talk about our feelings, especially men (Conroy, 1995), however, we as helpers can teach those grieving and the wider community to change the perception that grieving is weak or self-indulgent, that grieving indeed has a purpose (Zagdanski, 2013; Anderson, 2010). All of us face problems in life, and whatever the issue when we need help, we need help, not to have them solved but to help in the management thereof, using said problems as an opportunity for growth (Egan, 2010) and in the re-creation of a safe assumptive world.


Not nearly enough has been written on the topic of disenfranchised grief, a paper here or there, a paragraph or sentence in an entire book, journal, or report on grief. It is rare to find assessments that cater to loss other than death without having to modify them, thus disenfranchising.

Public awareness and societal views need changing, but so too would the helping professions. Grief, no matter what size or type still needs to be acknowledged and accepted, not simply coped with or defended against. Associated with all change is uncertainty, a prime example being insecurity, which can cause anxiety, sadness and stress, it has been noted that until there is some form of resolution uncertainty can last a considerable period of time with effects not unlike that of grief, a key element of which is powerlessness (Smollan, 2014). Trained helpers have the power to inform, teach, and express to individuals and the community about loss, about how it effects the individual and those around them, about how it both hurts and leads to growth and healing.

It is proposed that disenfranchised grief needs further time to address and more in depth studies made, not just in the effects of grief on individuals, but also on their families, friends and communities, and also the effects of disenfranchising that grief.


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[i] (Molly Fumia as cited by Johnson, 2003)

[ii] NLT

[iii] NIV

[iv] Job 16:2 (MSG)