There is a term called “Disenfranchised Grief” and it can be used to describe any time a person’s loss is not being validated or substantiated by those closest to them.
This creates a real problem for the griever. Not only do they have to struggle with the loss, but if they feel they have to defend the depths and complexities of their sadness to those around them, they may feel even more isolated, confused and alone.
Though largely unspoken, there are rules in grieving, and judgments being made about how sad we should be and for how long based on a number of factors. They can include the relationship we had with the person who died, their age when they passed, and in what way (sudden vs. expected) they died.
Sometimes these “rules” are obvious, like how many bereavement days a workplace will approve based on how we are related to the person that died (1 day for a friend, 3 days for a parent, 5 days for a spouse, etc.). Other times they are less defined, and can be found even within the walls of a bereavement group.
I witnessed this many years ago as I facilitated a group for those who had lost a spouse. As everyone went around introducing themselves and talking about their loss, there was a woman who asked them, “how long were you married?”. As each member answered….23 years, 42 years, 19 years…I wondered why she continued to break in and ask this each and every time. When it was her turn, no one had to ask as she offered “I lost my husband and we were married for 53 years”. She said this, crossed her arms triumphantly, and made it clear throughout the rest of the meeting that her loss was more significant because she had been married the longest and therefore she was suffering the most.
The judgments came in a different form in a general grief group I worked with not long after. A woman described her struggle as she was trying to come to terms with the recent loss of a neighbor. As she described her suffering and the fact that she couldn’t sleep or eat, a member of the group asked her to clarify, “you’re saying you lost your neighbor?”. It was hard to miss the judgment in her questioning tone.
I’ve learned a lot since these early groups. Firstly, it’s to start every new meeting with my own set of “rules”. Each person’s grief is unique. Therefore the way we feel, process and express our grief is unique. What works for you may not work for anyone else and vice versa. There is no timeline for grieving, and no right or wrong way to do it. And finally, we cannot judge a person’s loss based on who they lost, what their relationship was, or how old the person was at the time of their passing.
I can’t pretend that I didn’t have my own surprises or judgments, especially in my earliest days of working with the bereaved. The 80 year old man who was inconsolable after the loss of his 102 year old mother. The woman who admitted to being more effected and saddened by the loss of her friend than the loss of her father. The woman, who I mentioned above, who couldn’t eat or sleep after her neighbor died.
This can be confusing even to the griever who is experiencing it.
It took time for me to realize what made it so that some losses seemed “harder” than others to cope with.
Instead of the relationship, age, or manner of passing, what seemed to have the greatest influence on how a person may cope was the “proximity” of the deceased in their life.
By proximity I don’t necessarily mean physical distance. Instead, I’m talking about the nearness in time and relationship. To say it another way, how much did this person who died impact the griever’s day to day life?
The more time spent together each day, and the more our routine, plan and perhaps even our purpose is tied to the person who died, the greater it seems we feel their loss.
If we spent every day with our neighbor – if that’s who we had coffee with every morning, took walks with after dinner each night, and who we went to the movies with every weekend – that is a significant loss. The absence of that person will create a substantial void that will be felt during every morning cup of coffee, every night after dinner and every weekend when sitting home without anyone to go to the movies with.
We need this information not just to find more compassion for the grievers around us but to help us understand why we are hurting maybe more than we feel we should.
We can’t question another person’s feelings. We should spend even less time questioning our own. But perhaps if we can understand this idea of proximity and the influence it has on our ability to cope, we can gain more insight into our own loss and the losses faced by others.