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 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
Dr Ken Doka (1) has suggested four ways in which grief can remain hidden or
- 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
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
Page last updated 25th August, 2016