‘Disenfranchised grief’. Ever heard of it? It’s most definitely a thing – a recognised form of grief.
I define grief as a reaction to the radical loss of something that was central to your life. It’s an umbrella term that covers a wide and varying range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours. We often think of grief as something that happens when a beloved and close family member or friend dies, and many of our conventionally accepted rituals of grief are centred around this.
But note that I said “something”, rather than “someone dear” in the paragraph above? That’s because that sense of radical loss can also be attached to other people and things: ex-spouses, abusive parents, estranged family members, jobs, pets, businesses, and even events can all be grieved over. Perhaps the reasons are different compared to those that drive grief for someone dear to you, but their absence can still bring up sadnesses, regrets, anxieties, and a profound urge to recognise and process that absence.
Disenfranchised grief happens when someone feels a grief that is not recognised or expected in the eyes of society:
“Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls this ‘disenfranchised grief’. He coined the term in 1989 to capture this feeling of loss that no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to. ‘Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,’ he says.”
How is our grief being disenfranchised?
In 2020, I wrote The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless in response to the job losses and industry shutdowns experienced during lockdowns because I was concerned that the very real grief that was being felt by many who experienced a loss of vocation would be a form of disenfranchised grief. I wanted to talk to an experience of grief that would probably be brushed aside as a side-story to an economic event. In a sense, given how widespread this vocational displacement was, the grief over loss of vocation was also a collective grief.
Right now, I sense that my networks in Melbourne are undergoing collective grief over our forced transition from a community that enjoyed low rates of community infections of Covid to a community who is dealing with a rapidly growing outbreak that effectively rules out a return to our former state of either small and brief outbreaks or no infections at all. I write more about my reasoning behind my idea that we are undergoing collective grief here.
The reason why I am writing these blogs about collective grief is that I don’t think that we live in a very grief-literate society. Even when my mother died in 2019 – an event that society was happy to acknowledge as one deserving of grief – I found the reactions of many people to be clumsy, crude, and unhelpful. It was as if they had no idea what to say or do. When I talk about grieving for a vocation, or over Melbourne’s recent travails, then people look at me askance. They think I’m wrong: ‘I’m not in grief. I just cry all the time, can’t sleep, or concentrate on my work because of lockdown and the way I wish things were as they were before. But I’m not in grief.’ So, our lack of grief-literacy leads to groupthink in which we deny our own collective grief.
But there is another disenfranchisement of Melbourne, and perhaps other community, grief that has been happening which is far more egregious and sinister. And this disenfranchisement is not the result of unthinking alignment to societal norms around grief; it is quite deliberate.
During 2020 and 2021, the Melbourne community has suffered constant trolling by the Murdoch owned press as well as criticism from our own federal government. The public health strategies that were successful in 2020 and early 2021 at controlling outbreaks of Covid, but which cost the public undertaking the strategies dear, were railed against by journalists and editors working for News Ltd and also by our Prime Minister, federal Treasurer and federal Health Minister. Our state government leaders, who have done everything they could to keep us alive, were denounced as power-hungry or inept, and the public who chose to commit to our state public health strategies were jeered at as “sheeple” or as suffering Stockholm Syndrome. A fair share of vaccinations, income support, and other considerations have been hard wrung from our federal government and given begrudgingly.
During 2020, Victorians suffered through one of the longest and toughest lockdowns of anywhere in the world up to that date. This lockdown was also successful in driving down rates of infections to zero. We deserve to be proud of our effort, but it was achieved through real sacrifice. We have never been thanked by our federal government or, I believe, News Ltd. and our collective griefs – over a loss of freedom, agency, sense of safety, or finances – have never been acknowledged. Instead, we have been denounced repeatedly as a rogue state, a problem community.
This heaping up of abuse was relentlessly layered down on top of our experience of living with anxiety, tedium, loneliness, frustration, and, for some, fear for extended periods of time during lockdowns. As I write this in September of 2021, I can detect a lowness, manifesting as anger in some of us, depression in others, hopelessness and apathy in others still, that is lower than any other collective mood I have noticed so far. Partly this is due to real grief over the current state of affairs (a runaway Delta outbreak seeded here in Melbourne due to another state’s desultory incompetence) but it is also due, I think, to the fact that this grief we currently feel, and all of the complex feelings and thoughts that came before it in 2020, have been utterly denied and dismissed by our federal government and many in the media.
Grief is hard.
It’s yuck. But, embraced, it can also be profound and enriching. Grief shows us things about ourselves by amplifying our feelings about what we are mourning: the qualities or values or conditions that we miss so badly give us clues as to what is important for us right now. And in these insights lie the paths to healing, resilience, recovery, and the capacity for future joy.
Disenfranchising grief blocks that. By forcing us into a stance of psychological defence each time they denied or cheapened or offended our collective grief, those political and media ‘leaders’ drew off energy, focus, resilience, and emotion that we needed to deal with our grief. This was a terrible thing to do to our community.
Last year I wrote ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on #grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. People have lost their place in the world. How do they grieve for that? I wrote some notes on how to start unpacking grief over being displaced in the world.
You might find it helpful. And I most definitely need the cash. Available here.