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Disenfranchised Grief: How to Recognize It and Provide the Right Support

As therapists, we need to be aware of what disenfranchised grief is, how it shows up, and what our clients need to effectively manage their mental health.

Written by
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Caroline Myers, LCSW
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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    Nearly everyone is grieving these days, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. 

    Modern grief looks different. It’s not widely recognized or understood, and it affects the way we’re able to show up and perform at work. 

    As therapists, to provide adequate support to our clients, we need to be aware of what disenfranchised grief is, how it shows up, and what people need to effectively manage their mental health. 

    What is disenfranchised grief?

    Disenfranchised grief is an experience of sadness or grief that feels like a typical grieving process, but the catalysts are things that aren’t societally accepted or understood as grief. It’s harder to support because the causes are not universally acknowledged, and it shows up differently in everyone. 

    We all recognize that loss due to death elicits feelings of grief and sadness, and we have processes in place to honor that.  

    Disenfranchised grief, on the other hand, is often ignored because we don’t always know it when we see it, and we also don’t have the same established coping mechanisms readily available to address it. 

    If ignored for long enough, it can manifest into depression, prolonged grief disorder, or other diagnosable mental health issues. 

    The many faces of grief today

    Right now, grief is felt on a day-to-day basis, as people struggle through various losses on top of daily obligations and recurring traumatic events. It is layered and more nuanced than what we think of as typical or tangible losses. 

    It’s not the loss of a person or a specific thing, but rather the loss of what’s normal. The loss of human connection, the loss of the commute to work, and the loss of workplace connections. 

    We feel these losses deeply. I’m seeing so many people struggle with the emotional impact, but since they don’t fit into our traditional understanding of grief, we aren’t practiced in acknowledging these losses in ourselves or in others. 

    There's also stigma and judgment involved that leaves people feeling lonely and isolated, in addition to feeling sad. 

    Recognizing tremendous, nuanced loss

    Losses like large layoffs, pregnancy loss, death of a pet, and death due to COVID-19 are tremendous losses for people, and yet they aren't widely recognized. 

    Even more nuanced is grief due to the loss of familiar social interactions, and the loss of family connections due to division caused by cultural or political differences, newly enhanced in the COVID era. 

    Many people are feeling uncomfortable with routines that used to be familiar but aren't anymore. That discomfort leads to a lot of sadness. 

    People are going back to the office, but with questions:

    • Do we shake hands? 
    • Can I hug you? 
    • Do we touch elbows?  

    We’re grieving the inability of knowing how to be social. We’re experiencing feelings of anger, denial, and sadness, but don’t necessarily recognize that it’s due to different social interactions. 

    Divisiveness within families

    Things like the COVID-19 vaccine and now the supreme court reversal of Roe v. Wade have brought up a lot of political differences and shifting viewpoints that don’t match within families. 

    People are navigating relationships where they no longer agree with foundational value systems. This is heavy, and it can be alienating and frightening. 

    I see so much of this, and as people grieve and deal with these challenges, it becomes difficult to be fully present at work. Something that used to be enjoyable, like returning to work after a weekend with family, can now be extremely difficult. 

    People may begin to withdraw, have a harder time with teammates, experience challenges trusting one another, start to question things more, be more pessimistic and less positive, or suddenly exhibit chronic tardiness. Normal routines feel harder.

    How can therapists help?

    As providers, we need to continue recognizing the different ways grief can show up right now, so we can acknowledge and name it. 

    We know the power of identification and validation. Articulating this new, nuanced grief reduces stigma, opens conversation, and creates space for healing: 

    • Spend time exploring and processing what you’ve identified as grief with your client
    • Encourage taking time and prioritizing self care
    • Create ways to honor the loss in ways you would if it was grief attributed to death

    Loss alters our life in so many ways, and a  lack of stability has an ongoing emotional impact that creates vulnerabilities: 

    • Ordinary daily stressors can feel overwhelming or unsurmountable
    • Providing education and consistent support is an investment in building resilience
    • Acknowledging strengths and coping mechanisms provides pathways for growth that can help clients move forward

    It’s also important to note that many grieving clients are also managers and leaders at work. Helping clients prioritize their own healing can lead to creating more empathetic leaders who recognize grief in others and can help support team members who are also struggling with loss. 

    Acknowledgement is powerful. Letting our clients know we hear them and understand they’re experiencing something challenging can help them feel seen and known, as we create a safe space for them to work through their grief.  

    No one can truly understand a client’s personal experience, but we can learn how to recognize the many faces of disenfranchised grief and provide the kind of support each person needs.  

    About the Author
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    Caroline Myers, LCSW
    Spring Health Provider

    Caroline is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Colorado and North Carolina. She specializes in transitionary periods of life in her current practice. Previously, she worked with youth aging out of the foster care system combining both skill building and therapeutic intervention into practice.

    About the clinical reviewer
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