Writer: Shruti Tekwani, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Coach, Choice Theory & Reality Therapy Trainer

Grief doesn’t always mean death and loss isn’t always tangible. The term “disenfranchised grief” was coined by Dr. Kenneth J Doka in 1985, and he described it as grief that is not acknowledged by society. Indeed, if someone is experiencing emotions that are unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms, it can make it particularly hard to process. It can be very isolating to go through an experience that is not understood or dismissed by people around you. All grief is valid. Whether it is a physical death or an emotional loss, it can help to have insight on where feelings come from and how to navigate them when they overwhelm us.

Grief that is not acknowledged by society – Dr. Kenneth J Doka

As a mental health therapist, I have had the privilege of seeing people at their most vulnerable, sometimes to the point when they don’t recognize themselves. Whether they initially seek out counselling, for example because they are going through a divorce or they have recently retired and are struggling with navigating the space that opens up in their lives, I often ask if they believe they are grieving. Sometimes I get a confused look and they’ll respond, “but nobody died”. While I understand that we associate the concept of grief with death, grief is sorrow after a loss, and I have come to realize that there are many faces of grief and can describe it as any loss that disrupts our world on a long term basis. Everyone has gone through or will go through some sort of grief, as loss is an inevitable part of life which doesn’t always go according to plans. 2020 has clearly proven that to be true.

Why is it that loss throws us for such a loop? As human beings, most of us are creatures of habit. We expect things to go a certain way and we tend to count on them for survival. If our car doesn’t start when we’re counting on it to get to work, that is a disruption in our routine, and it forces us to think of another way to get what we need. Just like that, when our expectations aren’t met, our needs aren’t met. Sometimes the options that are made available to us are limited and we feel trapped without the tools we are used to.

So, what do we do when we are experiencing loss? Everyone is unique and there is no ‘one-size-fix-all’ solution that I am aware of. We all get our needs met differently, and that translates to grieving differently. When we experience loss, it means that one or more of our needs aren’t being met. If we lose a limb, a relationship, our home, or a person, it requires a certain amount of adjustment to get back to functioning again as we are used to.

According to the concept of Choice Theory, developed by Dr. William Glasser, every human’s basic needs profile includes 5 physical and psychological needs: survival, love/belonging, freedom, fun, and power/significance. While all humans need all 5 of these, the level of need that each person requires is stronger for some than others. If my need for freedom is stronger than the others, my behavior and feelings are going to reflect that. How this translates to loss is because it is important to look at how we are used to getting our needs met. If I lose my job which satisfies my survival, love/belonging, and power/significance needs, my grief is going to be heavier than if it only affects one need. When we grieve, it is sometimes about the life we were expecting to lead and the picture in our heads of what that should look like. It takes conscious effort and intention to adjust those pictures in our heads. One of the first steps in overcoming loss and grief is to know your needs and be able to recognize what makes you tick. Once you are familiar with that, it is a bit clearer.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everyone can say they have lost something. We are experiencing disenfranchised grief as a human race and it can be validating to recognize this. Sometimes we are in the middle of feeling things that are unfamiliar and don’t have a name, so it is hard to comprehend where they are coming from. In the past few months, we have all been forced to adjust our individual worlds and some of us have coped better than others. I really believe it all boils down to how we are getting our needs met within the limitations set upon us. Are we able to meet our needs when something is taken away from us? How do we do that when we are faced with curfews and health regulations? If we are high in need of love, belonging, and connection, it is helpful to recognize that the lack of human touch and social contact can be causing some unhappiness within us because we are grieving for the way we used to show love.

Not only is it knowing, but it is also in realizing what we have control over. It seems like wherever we turn, something is being taken away from us. A physical death, no matter how sudden or heartbreaking, leaves us with a process. There are funerals to attend, rituals to perform. When dealing with disenfranchised grief, there is not always a system in place to deal with this grief. With all the loss during the pandemic, there has not been a formal way of saying goodbye to our old lives. Not only that, but the loss keeps moving timelines. We are telling ourselves that it is temporary, but the deadline keeps moving in our heads which makes it hard to accept and to grieve. Slowly, we are adjusting to a different way of living, but a part of our hearts is still craving and missing what we have lost, expecting it to come back some day. Processing grief isn’t exactly fun, but it is important. It is not always possible to work through grief alone. Disenfranchised grief, in particular, may be hard to overcome without professional support. Grief counselors and other mental health professionals can help you acknowledge and accept your loss while validating your pain. Naming and processing it could be the first step in moving forward.

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