Does grief sit on a continuum from best to worst? It sometimes seems that way.

“Yes, but I still have my husband, you don’t. Your story is worse…”

“Yes, but at least I got to say ‘goodbye,’ you didn’t. Your story is worse…”

“I could never get over the loss of a child. Your story is worse…”

Are some losses “easier”? Do adult children grieve less for parents than husbands grieve for wives; do parents grieve more for children; do young children, laughing and playing, experience loss at all?

In groups, I hear these comparisons. As I listen, I wonder. Why do we diminish our own grief? And, why do others do so?

Martha, an only child, is 75 years old. Her mother, Rose, recently died, just after her 101st birthday. Martha’s friends comforted her with expressions of sympathy such as “She is with God,” “She was a lucky woman to live so long,” and “You were lucky to have her so long.”

Martha’ s father died when she was 45 and, five years later, Martha divorced. Rose welcomed her back into their family home where they spent over 25 years together. “My mother was my biggest supporter after my divorce; we did everything together.”

Without her mother, Martha is bereft. Alone for the first time in her life, she worries what life will look like going forward. She does not feel “lucky” and would give anything for “one more day.”

Researchers describe disenfranchised, or unrecognized, grief. This occurs either because society deems some losses not valid – or we, as individuals, do. Parental death in old age is not recognized as much as deaths of younger people. Other examples include loss of homosexual partners, co-worker death or illness, patient deaths of professional caregivers, etc. Self denial can include many examples as well.

Adrienne fell in love and, within six months, married John, the “handsomest man in south Texas.” Her family adored him and so did she. However, within a very short time, things changed. John devolved into an abuser who berated Adrienne, and later their son, for fifteen years. “When he drank, he was mean. And, he drank a lot.”

Adrienne divorced and continued raising her son alone. Contact with John was sporadic and financial support was nil.

Ten years passed when Adrienne received a call. John described his recent diagnosis with Stage IV lung cancer. He was tearful, apologetic, and asked to come home. Hoping her husband had “finally changed,” Adrienne agreed. Within weeks, John was home. Her family was confused and angry with her.

Verbal abuse resumed and increased as John’s disease worsened. Adrienne “couldn’t do anything right.” To the end, John criticized her efforts. Adrienne felt like a fool.

At John’s death, Adrienne anticipated feelings of relief. Her abuser was gone. She waited for a free and hopeful life, unencumbered by someone who never loved her. Her family and friends expressed encouragement and wished Adrienne a future with much more happiness.

During these expressions, Adrienne remained quiet. She wouldn’t dare express her feelings of profound grief for her lost husband, lost dreams and lost opportunity for a happy marriage.

Bereavement research identifies denial as a common grief response, buffering mourners as they navigate one hesitant step after another. Typically, over time, as mourners identify and cope with this process, denial diminishes.

However, for some, denial expands to include self disenfranchisement. Mourners feel “un-entitled,” responding either to others’ reactions or their own sense of remorse or shame.

Tina was grateful the clinic was twenty miles away. Her family and friends would never see her. She gathered what she needed for today: checkbook, identification and a pair of sweat pants.

The clinic was bright, almost cheerful, she thought, as she checked in. She wavered when giving her name, but responded and sat down to read magazines. Two other young women sat in the waiting room; no one made eye contact.

Tina heard her name and walked to the procedure room. Within minutes, it seemed, she was no longer pregnant. Staff members were kind as she was moved from one room to another and was finally discharged.

“I can go back to college; no one will ever know,” she thought. “My life will go back to normal.”

For months, nightmares awakened her and tears soaked her face. She never told anyone about “that day.” She graduated and began a satisfying career. After a time, she married and had two children. She loved them with all her heart – all three of them. And, often, while no one ever commented, family and friends noticed that Tina seemed “very far away.”

Choices

We embrace cultural practices and norms from childhood throughout adulthood. We view these as good, necessary, and sometimes, better or more important than those of other cultures. We take comfort in traditions and willingly share these across generations.

Disallowed grief often stems from those practices, biases, or prejudices that exist within all of us.

On the other hand, disenfranchised grief offers many choices. For example, we can recognize customs from other cultures and honor these, even if these are far from our own. We can choose to be open to possibilities that one person’s definition of loss may be completely different from another’s. We can acknowledge that individuals within families will grieve in different ways, each in response to the unique relationship they had with a lost loved one.

Possibilities

What if…

we reach out to others and, even if we don’t understand, honor that place in their grief?

we strive to recognize disenfranchised losses as these occur?

we, as mourners, stop responding with “I’m OK” and honestly answer with “I’m doing the best I can…”?

we look at our own grief and allow the enormity of it to wash over us?

we allow this validation for ourselves?

we recognize, acknowledge and honor our lost relationships through self nourishment and care?

Imagine the possibilities…

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Judith Pedersen

Judith Pedersen

Judith Pedersen began work with families and individuals experiencing loss in 1998 with Lourdes Hospice in Upstate New York. She expanded her knowledge and experience with life altering loss through her responsibilities with the American Cancer Society in 2003. Her experience includes work with families facing sudden, traumatic loss as well as loss of children, adolescents, adults and seniors. In 2005, Judith founded Interregnum: Services for Loss and Life Transition, a not for profit agency whose mission is “to provide meaningful service to all who grieve and to all who care about them.” This agency serves through counseling, education and community service. Judith leads this agency as both Executive Director and President of the Board of Trustees. In addition, in her role as adjunct professor in the Master of Social Work Program at Rutgers University, New Jersey, Judith teaches “Loss Across the Lifespan,” a course designed to educate students about loss as this affects individuals as well as family systems. Judith graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Masters in Social Work with an emphasis in Death, Dying and Bereavement from Marywood University. Postgraduate work includes certification and designation by the Association for Death Education and Counseling as a Fellow of Thanatology in Death, Dying and Bereavement.

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