Disenfranchised Grief and Addiction
Grief is the natural response to the loss of something cherished. It seems natural to grieve the death of a family member, a divorce, or a terminal illness, right? But what about a job loss or the death of a pet? Can we grieve those things? Or what about someone who dies from overdose or suicide? Does society deem these deaths worthy of our grief?
Fact: Grief is a natural response to any loss that is significant for the griever. Do you have to understand someone else’s loss? Nope. Because it’s not your loss. We need to stop judging what someone else grieves.
Kristina Tripkovic via Unsplash
While everyone grieves differently, some common responses to grief include feeling sad, hopeless, depressed, numb, irritable, angry, or guilty. For some people, grief is experienced physically, through aches and pains, fatigue, or loss of appetite. Grief can even affect our spirituality, causing us to grow in our faith or even to question our faith.
Emotional responses to grief typically lessen over time if society accepts the loss as traditionally worthy. But when someone grieves the loss of something that society dismisses, the grieving often hangs on as it struggles to find the respect it deserves.
What is Disenfranchised Grief?
Grief researcher Dr. Kenneth Doka coined the term disenfranchised grief about 20 years ago. Doka explains that disenfranchised grief results from a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly supported.
Society disenfranchises grief and mourners by minimizing, avoiding, or denying the loss or by shaming the griever. Grief makes people uncomfortable, so society tends to ignore grief and hurry people through the process. When society attempts to regulate grief—what’s worthy of grief and how long are we allowed to grieve—we end up judging someone’s grief, even unintentionally.
When loss is minimized or shamed, the griever often struggles to cope with the loss. Disenfranchised grievers tend to withdraw from society in attempt to hide their grief, which often leads to depression, low self-esteem, emotional disturbances, and psychosomatic illnesses.
Psychosomatic refers to real physical symptoms that arise from or are influenced by the mind and emotions rather than a specific organic cause in the body (such as injury or infection).
Examples of Disenfranchised Grief
Disenfranchised grief typically occurs for the following reasons.
The loss isn’t seen as worthy. Examples: death of pet, non-death losses such as romantic break-up, loss of personality due to dementia, loss of career, loss of freedom due to imprisonment, loss to addiction, deterioration of financial status.
The relationship is stigmatized. Examples: death of partner in extramarital affair or in relationship not accepted by all (such as same-sex or interracial).
The mechanism of death is stigmatized. Examples: suicide, overdose, miscarriage.
The person grieving is not recognized as a griever. Examples: ex-spouse, estranged family member, in-law, step-parent/child/sibling.
The way someone is grieving is stigmatized. Examples: lack of visible grief response, extreme grief response.
Significant loss is inherent to addiction and addiction recovery. Long-term addiction to substances or to behaviors can lead to losses that are unrecognized or stigmatized by society. Addiction often leads to the loss of relationships, jobs, financial stability, freedoms and privileges, and health. Many people simply blame the addict for making choices that lead to their own losses. This lack of empathy means society shames the addict for the losses the addict experiences. And shame never helps an addict heal.
Grieving the Loss of One’s Own Addiction
In order to recover from addiction or unhealthy behaviors and patterns, a person must let go of people, places, and things associated with the addiction. And that includes anything seen as a trigger for the addictive behavior. So imagine it: you have to give up something that helps you numb what you are hiding from, plus you have to say good-bye to your friends, hangouts, and hobbies, maybe even your job. That’s a lot of loss, especially all at once.
While letting go of unhealthy behaviors and patterns is a positive step toward recovery, sometimes the loss can create obstacles to recovery. Perhaps the person’s family has cut ties, taking away all healthy supports. Or maybe the person’s behaviors in addiction—like poor work performance or chronic tardiness—lead to being fired and losing a source of livelihood. So while a person may be trying to deal with the loss of some things she needs to lose, she might also be dealing with the loss of the only good things she has in life.
Oh, and she’s losing all of this while society dismisses her losses and shames her for even having an addiction that she needs to lose.
Grieving the Loss of a Loved One to Addiction
When addiction leads to death, society becomes very opinionated. It’s his own fault. He should have made better choices. He could have stopped, but he didn’t. His parents weren’t paying attention. Look what he did to his family.
To some, the girl who overdosed was “just an addict.” But she was someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother. She was a woman who struggled, a soul who needed help. Society seems to think we should all just write off our loved ones who struggle with addiction. Simply stop caring about them because of their addiction.
Addiction can take our loved ones in different ways: imprisonment, estrangement, personality change, or death. Each of these possibilities creates a significant loss for loved ones, despite being judged and shamed by society.
Disenfranchised grievers tend to hide their grief in order to avoid shaming or dismissing comments from others. When you lose a loved one to the disease of addiction, it is crucial to find someone empathic to your situation. Do not hide the significance of your loss. If you do not know anyone who can offer empathic support, consider joining a support group or talking to a counselor or therapist.
How Grief Can Lead to Addiction
Many people suffering from disenfranchised grief turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their loss and the related shame cast by society.
Anxiety is a common effect of disenfranchised grief and, because such anxiety can last for about six months after the loss, many people turn to prescription anxiety medication. Benzodiazepines are some of the most commonly prescribed anxiety medications and also some of the most addictive drugs available.
If you feel you need help dealing with anxiety, please talk to a medical professional about your options.
Healing from Disenfranchised Grief
You may have heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified these stages in 1969, she intended them to identify the typical stages people experienced after receiving a terminal diagnosis. But over the years, Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief have received criticism because society has applied her model outside its intended type of grief.
Disenfranchised grief does not follow the five stages of grief cycle. It’s more like a roller coaster or a U. There is no one way to experience or heal from grief; it is an individual process determined by the mourner.
To heal and resolve any type of grief, the goal is to establish emotional balance. While there is no single way to accomplish this healing and resolution, the following steps may help a mourner who is suffering a loss that is dismissed, denied, or shamed by others.
Accept the reality of the loss. Acknowledge your pain and recognize that it is worthy. It helps to talk to someone who can empathize with your particular loss.
Don’t judge your grief or try to numb or hide it; accept it and feel it. Experience the pain of grief and all the emotions that follow. Accept that grief can trigger many different emotions and can be triggered by many different emotions.
Adjust to the new environment that includes the loss, with a goal of emotional balance. Take care of yourself physically to support your emotional balance: eat well, get plenty of rest, and exercise.
Withdraw emotional energy from the negativity and reinvest it in something healthy and positive. If necessary, seek help through therapy, counseling, or a peer-support group.
Written by Laura B. Demers, © 2020 Reclamation Sisters