Grief Topic

Unrecognised or Hidden Grief

Would you know if someone close to you had a significant loss? Most people would confidently reply “Yes!” We generally expect to recognise the grief of family and friends. However many major losses and the attendant grief, can remain hidden from others or unacknowledged. There is a name to describe this situation – disenfranchised grief.

Disenfranchised grief refers to losses that are not openly acknowledged, socially supported, or easily recognised.

This can happen in many ways. For example, we may believe that grief is associated only with loss through death. Such a belief fails to recognise that many non-death situations involve loss and can result in grief. Unemployment, migration, moving house, separation and divorce, illness or disability, and other significant changes can lead to feelings of loss and grief.

The losses associated with life stage changes, such as marriage, a child’s beginning of school, graduation, children leaving home – the “empty nest syndrome”, and retirement, may not be recognised because we view these events as “normal”.

Dr Ken Doka (1) has suggested four ways in which grief can remain hidden or unacknowledged:

  1. When a relationship is not recognised
    Unrecognised relationships can include those of friends, neighbours, foster parents, work colleagues, step-relations, counsellors and helpers, ex-spouses, unmarried or homosexual partners or secret love. The grief experienced due to, the death of one of these persons may be overlooked or not seen as significant.
  2. When a loss in not recognised
    Certain types of losses – such as death of a disabled child, delinquent child, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, giving up a child for adoption, death or loss of a pet, dementia – may be seen as less significant than other losses that we think are more “important”.
  3. When the grieving person is not recognised
    Some people may be considered “not capable” of grieving, and therefore are not recognised as grieving people. These may include children, old people and those who are intellectually disabled.
  4. When a death is difficult to publicly accept
    The potential shame and embarrassment associated with some deaths may cause grieving people to avoid support or may cause them to be shunned by others. Such deaths might include suicide, homicide, violent and accidental deaths, AIDS-related deaths, or the loss of someone that is missing but presumed dead.

Unrecognised grief can also occur in situations of long-term loss, such as chronic illness, drug abuse and addiction or disability. Because such losses are ongoing, we may assume that those in such situations have got over the loss. However, a process of chronic sorrow may arise and needs to be recognised by those who can help these people experiencing long-term loss.

For those who are able to help, counsel or support, here are some useful points to remember:

  • Identify and openly recognise the loss and grief which have remained hidden or which others have ignored. Those grieving are likely to be and feel very much alone and unsupported.
  • The usual rituals and activities which help the grief process, such as the funeral, may not be accessible or relevant. We can help them with ways of expressing and acting on their grief.
  • The unrecognised losses may result in a grief process, which is more complicated. Professional counselling, therapy or more active support group involvement may be required. Those close family and friends can help in assessing the need for and accessing such assistance.

    (1) Doka, K. J. (1989) Disenfranchised grief: recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington books

    Page last updated 25th August, 2016