When You Can’t Talk About Your Grief

There’s a phrase for the torment that you can’t talk about: disenfranchised grief. It was first defined by Kenneth J. Doka in 1989 as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Your heart is grieving, but you can’t talk about it to your friends because it’s considered unacceptable or tasteless or shocking. You’re sad, but the world doesn’t want to hear about it.

Examples of Disenfranchised Grief

·    Religious Amanda, age 14, just lost the love of her life, her 15-yr-old boyfriend to her best friend. She feels betrayed, lost, hopeless, depressed, scared, angry, and sad. When her parents minimize her pain, telling her it was just “puppy love,” she wants to scream at them, “I gave up my virginity for this relationship!” But she doesn’t. They don’t understand the depth of her pain, so she puts on a smile and keeps it to herself.

·    When my friend MaryAnn lost her soul mate to cancer, she cried nonstop for 14 days. On the 15th day, she packed away his belongings and went hiking, laughing and joking with old friends. “You’re in denial,” friends told her because they couldn’t believe that she could recover that quickly. Her grieving was different, and therefore, unacceptable to them. Two years later, she was still at peace with his passing and moving on with her life. What her friends didn’t understand that during the two years when she and her friend were fighting his cancer, she was learning to let go. Every month that he got worse, she slowly let go of him.

·    When Elizabeth had her 4th miscarriage, her friends and family were used to it. But for her, the death of this fetus was also the death of hope that she would have a family. All the pain that she had been trying to dismiss for 8 years came tumbling out. Her grief was profound and prolonged. Friends couldn’t get her to “snap out of it,” as she had in the past. She became good at pretending, but spent many hours each day in bed crying.

·    Everyone thought 10-yr-old Jodi was a quiet child. Sweet and shy, she kept to herself. What they didn’t know was that she couldn’t talk about her pain. When she told her alcoholic mother that her father was sexually abusing her, he was arrested and went to prison. Now she feels alone in the world because she is left with an alcoholic mother who pays little attention to her.

·    Blaine was devastated when his wife of 50 years died in a car accident. Though family members extolled her virtues, they also told him that at least she had a long and productive life. “It was her time to go,” they told him. This didn’t help to ease his immense pain. He went into a deep depression and finally died two years later. His daughter says he died of a broken heart.

A Tale of Two Families

Betty and Jean, both single parents, were close friends and next-door neighbors for some 30 years. Two of their children were the same age, and Rob and James became close friends. They went to Sunday School together and helped each other to earn the badges leading up to Eagle Scout. When James received the “Hope of America” award in 6th grade, his mother Jean was proud and happy as was Betty. In fact, Betty was the first to jump to her feet in a standing ovation for him. When Betty’s son Rob received a basketball scholarship to college, Jean felt as much joy and pride for him as if it had been her own son James. They played sports together, did science projects together, and even double dated in high school.

When James was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in college, Betty spent many hours with his mother Jean in his hospital room. They prayed together, cried together, and Betty provided a good listening ear for Jean. Betty organized a charity fund through their church for her good friend’s son to get the necessary surgery to save his life. Despite valiant efforts and the best of surgeons, James died after a four-year battle with cancer. Jean was surrounded with love and sympathy from neighbors, friends, relatives, and their church community. It was one of the largest funerals that people could remember. Hundreds of flower arrangements were brought to the grave and Jean’s home. She had more casseroles than what she could eat in a month. And Betty stayed with her friend Jean to comfort her through torturous days of sorrow.

Shortly after losing his best friend, Rob learned of another, even greater loss. His father, who lived in another state, died in a motorcycle accident. He had always hoped to be able to move close to his dad so that he could get to know him better, and now that would never happen. In his grief, he turned to alcohol and drugs. When his grades fell, he lost his scholarship and his place on the basketball team. Things got worse when he was expelled from college and turned to pain killers. Rob died of an overdose two years to the day after James died. It may or may not have been accidental.

Sixteen people attended Rob’s funeral. Betty’s friend Jean came, but slipped out the back door of the church before the procession to the cemetery. No one seemed to know what to say to Betty. Unlike Jean, there was no outpouring of love from the congregation. Betty was alone in her grief and felt like she was going crazy.

That’s when she called me to talk about her son, her grief, and the craziness that she felt. I let her know that she had a right to her grief. She had a right to be comforted, affirmed, and validated.  Her grief was real and raw. The lack of community support threatened to turn her grief into something bitter and ugly.

Apparently it’s all right to die of cancer. It’s not all right to die from drug abuse. At least that is what society would have us believe. But what about the person’s need to talk?

Therapists Will Listen

People turn to therapists for disenfranchised grief because no one else wants to listen. What a shame! People heal when they can talk about their pain. In fact, one of the most important factors in the resolution of grief is social support from others. Please know that you have the right to tell your story and indulge your grief—whether others want to hear about it or not.

One of the things that you may need to address eventually is that hidden reservoir of anger lurking just beneath the pain. As much as you may not be ready to do this, you will eventually need to forgive others for not being there for you when you needed them most. You’ll need to do this so that you can set yourself free from the bonds of resentment. Grieving is a process, and it wants a voice. You’ll need to do some talking or writing. In addition to that, you may want to give yourself the gift of some grieving rituals.

Grieving Rituals

Although they vary by religion, culture, or region, healing rituals can help us to let go. You don’t have to spend money or be religious to have a ritual. Consider these:

Celebrate a Life. Much like a formal funeral, a private celebration can also be very powerful. Set up a time and space where you can celebrate the life of your loved one. Perhaps you’ll want to pick some special music, gather photos, write about your loved one or tell another person some special stories.

Create a Scrapbook or Video Slideshow. Several of my clients have done this and brought their scrapbook to therapy. I remember one client brought me her scrapbook each week for three months. She told me charming, lovely stories about her beloved cat who had recently died. We laughed and cried together while she told her stories.

Carry a Private Momento. It may be a photo, a ribbon, a postcard, or anything small that you can keep in a purse or briefcase. One client I knew wore a small heart necklace every day to remind her of her love. Several of my clients have gotten tattoos over their hearts.

Plant a Tree. Planting a tree in someone’s name can be public or private. It doesn’t even have to be a tree. It can be a flower, a bush, or even a potted plant.

Donate Your Time or Money to a Cause. Several people that I know have donated their time and efforts to causes that they support. It helps them to heal knowing that they are contributing something to the greater good.

Hang a Favorite Poem on the Wall. Maybe it reminds you of your loved one or what you had together. Perhaps it perfectly describes how you feel. Maybe it helps you to have hope.

Light a Candle. A client of mine says that she lights a candle every night to memorialize the past relationship that she can’t openly acknowledge. It’s enough for her to know why she is doing it.

Spread the Ashes. After a cremation, many people find solace in spreading the ashes in a treasured place—on the top of a mountain, in a body of water, or at a favorite place you both enjoyed.

Your Challenge

If you’re grieving, talk. Grief needs an outlet. If you have no one to talk to, then write your feelings. Perhaps you’ll want to keep a private journal of your feelings.

If you know of someone who is grieving, then listen, listen, listen. You don’t have to say anything magic. Ask how the person is doing and then just listen without judgment.

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