Disenfranchised grief: what it is and how to deal with it?

Unrecognized losses

“My grief feels like anger — especially anger at missed opportunities,” said Beck Simon-Burton, a transgender man who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children. Starting hormone therapy and getting surgery in the summer of 2020 have been important steps in his journey to become his authentic self. But while the transition was a positive experience, he also experiences surprising sadness.

“I’m 38 years old and I’m finally seeing myself for the first time, and I wonder what it would have been like if I could have done this years or even decades ago,” he says. “I’ve been very angry for years because I didn’t have the space to explore and understand my truth. It’s really sad to realize that I missed out on so much happiness and life because it wasn’t safe to be myself.”

(Did you know that transgender people are more likely to be victims of domestic violence?)

In addition to missed opportunities, there are many unrecognized losses that transgender people face in our society, he says.

Losses can be life-changing — some relationships with loved ones were lost or strained after he came out — or they can be minor, such as not being able to find gender-neutral clothes that fit or being mis-sexed by co-workers. Together they can cause a lot of suffering.

An added layer of pain to these losses is the fact that society generally doesn’t recognize them as fact, or if they do, they view the losses as invalid.

“When I was young, my feelings about my body were dismissed as a phase and I was told they were unacceptable, leading to a lot of embarrassment and fear,” he says. “Although I feel much more comfortable with myself, there are still many people in society who believe that my experience is invalid. Just look at all the anti-transgender laws that are being introduced. That’s why I’m sharing my story now. If I had seen other trans people when I was younger and had my feelings confirmed, my life would have been very different. I don’t want anyone else to go through such pain.”

This kind of grief has a name, and Simon-Burton isn’t alone in experiencing it.

What is rightless grief?

Grief that is not accepted or recognized as legitimate by society is referred to as disenfranchised grief. So not only does the person experience a painful loss, but they are also not given any support in grieving.

“Disenfranchised grief may fail to recognize meaningful relationships, minimize the importance of the loss to the survivor, and disregard the need to grieve,” said Ashwini Lal, chief clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine. Medicine in Pasadena, California.

This type of grieving is deeply ingrained in your culture, as different cultures have different standards for what types of losses are valid and worth grieving, says Abigail Nathanson, a doctor of social work and professor of grief and trauma at the New York University in New York. New York City.

“It forces the suffering person to ask himself, ‘Do I have a right to be sad about this?’ that is incredibly painful and disabling,” she says.

Examples of righteous grief

This kind of grief doesn’t just include losses related to being queer or transgender, as Simon-Burton experienced. Other common examples include:

  • pregnancy loss
  • A suicide or drug abuse-related death
  • The Death of a Beloved Pet
  • The breakup or loss of an extramarital affair
  • Death of an ex-husband
  • Loss of a job
  • An adoption that didn’t go through
  • Loss of independence
  • Death of someone who is not related by blood, such as a neighbor, colleague, mentor or client
  • Loss of body parts

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought its own losses, according to a study published this year Limits in psychiatry. There are, of course, the thousands of people who have died. Many of these deaths occurred without mourning rituals such as funerals, due to social distancing requirements.

But there are also smaller losses. Children who have been housebound for a year may mourn a loss of formative experiences such as graduation. Students may grieve for lost goals: going to college or finding a job after graduation. Countless others may mourn a loss of health, relationships, freedom, and more. This all falls into the category of disenfranchised mourning.

Why this is such a big deal

No one can stop you from crying over the death of your beloved cat or from mourning the loss of a miscarriage, so is it really a problem if other people don’t sympathize with you?

Being able to talk about the loss and get support from others is an essential part of the grieving process. As humans, we are determined to seek connections with other people, and this can feel like a core rejection, Nathanson says.

“In the end it says that if it doesn’t matter… [the beings or things that you loved] disappeared, it didn’t matter that they were here,” she explains. “And if what you love doesn’t matter, maybe you don’t either.”

In addition, there are some practical problems caused by a loss not being recognized by others. “Even though you are heartbroken and sad, no one brings you stews or flowers,” Nathanson says. “You may not be able to have a funeral or get time off from work, and you are expected to carry out your responsibilities as if everything is normal.”

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Symptoms of disenfranchised grief

The most common symptom of disenfranchised grief is isolation. When your feelings are invalidated by those around you, it is normal to withdraw. “You feel like you can’t talk about it because if no one gets it, why bother,” said Gail Trauco, a licensed oncology nurse and licensed grief counselor who has helped hundreds of people cope with disenfranchised grief.

(Isolation and loneliness can have a huge effect on your health and quality of life.)

For several years, Simon-Burton withdrew from his wife, terrified she would reject him if he came out as transgender, causing serious problems in his marriage.

Without acknowledging the reality of your grief and a chance to openly express and process your reactions, you’re more likely to become emotionally volatile, sometimes oppressive emotions, other times having outbursts of rage or rage, Lal says.

Note that while grief is normal, people can develop depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders with prolonged grief.

This was a particular problem for Simon-Burton, who says he had unexplained tantrums at his children. “I felt so uncomfortable in my body that I couldn’t appear in front of anyone else, including those I loved most,” he says.

(Here’s what science says about anger and how to manage it.)

“Society likes to tell people to ‘just get a grip and move on,’ which is painful and can make symptoms worse,” Trauco says. “In some cases, this can lead to the grieving person being bullied and/or becoming severely depressed or suicidal.”

Other mental symptoms may include becoming withdrawn, “falling apart”, experiencing brain fog or difficulty concentrating, or developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

This kind of grief can also exacerbate physical symptoms such as exhaustion, headaches, abdominal pain, chronic or diffuse pain, and autoimmune disorders, Trauco adds.

How to deal with

“The purpose of sadness is not ‘How do I stop being sad?’ but ‘How do I wear this and still live my life in a meaningful way?’ says Nathanson.

There is no one “right” way to grieve, nor is there a recipe for getting through it. However, there are some things that many people find helpful in the process, including taking the steps below.

You name it

The first step to process your grief in a healthy way is to name the loss or losses you are experiencing and recognize your feelings. Remember, the grief is legitimate and your feelings are normal, even if society doesn’t recognize them as such, Lal says.

Perform a mourning ritual

Have a funeral. Plant a flower bush. Commission a painting. Light a candle. Write a poem.

Choose something meaningful for you to commemorate your loss and carry it out. Even if you’re the only one there, it can be an incredibly powerful and healing experience, Nathanson says.

(This is how happy memories of loved ones make you feel healthier.)

Find your tribe

The people around you may not understand what you’re going through, but chances are there are plenty of other people in the world who do, and thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find them.

Go to message boards or online forums dedicated to the type of loss you have experienced. Simon-Burton was able to connect with other transgender men in his area, and he says that made a huge difference in how he felt.

There are several grief support groups available online. Griefshare.org is one. There are also several LGBTQ+ support groups that are helpful to people as well.

Connect with others who love you

Fight the instinct to withdraw and isolate by reaching out to supportive loved ones. Even if they can’t understand or empathize with your experience right away, feeling their love and support can be very healing.

When Simon-Burton finally had the courage to talk to his wife about his feelings, she immediately assured him that she loved him regardless of gender, which made all the difference to him.

Write down your feelings

Journaling was an important way Simon-Burton processed his feelings before, during, and after his transition. A journal is a great way to validate your own feelings and track your progress.

Avoid workarounds

People who suffer from disenfranchised grief are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, eat their feelings, gamble, spend hours in online games, shop compulsively, or engage in other addictive behaviors.

Avoid the temptation to self-medicate in this way — it won’t help your grieving process and could make your problems worse, Trauco says.

Do something nice for yourself

Eat a nutritious meal, take a walk outside, get enough sleep, take a warm bath — all these self-care acts that were fun before your loss became necessary when you’re grieving, Trauco says.

(You can also find comfort in reading quotes about pain and how to deal with it.)

Go to a grief counselor

Grieving is a normal and expected part of life, but you can get stuck in the process. This is especially true when your grief is not recognized or validated by others around you. Grieving counselors are trained to help you navigate these complicated feelings and support you through the process.

Be gentle and patient with yourself

Disenfranchised grief can be harder to work through than more typical grief, because you’re dealing with different layers of loss, Nathanson says. However long it takes for you to find a cure, it’s okay.

“Grief is not a disease. It’s not a sign that something has gone wrong. It’s actually a sign that something is going well,” she says. “It’s a sign that you loved them.”

Celebrate the wins

Much of dealing with disenfranchised grief is learning to validate your own feelings, and one way to do that is by celebrating your victories.

“I recently changed my driver’s license and passport to my new name and gender,” says Simon-Burton. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Finally. That. Is. Me.’ And it was the best feeling.”

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