Disenfranchising our collective grief

Disenfranchising our collective grief

Can disenfranchised grief be a collective experience felt by a community? My blog on why I think it can.

‘Disenfranchised grief’. Ever heard of it? It’s most definitely a thing – a recognised form of grief.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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.

Deliberate disenfranchisement

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.

The G-word

The G-word

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Feeling sad and mournful? Or perhaps angrier than usual? Maybe your emotions are volatile, swinging from one state to another at breakneck speed? Or are you just numb, moving through your days in a deadened state?

How are your energy levels? Maybe you’re feeling apathetic or listless, like everything is too much trouble? Perhaps you are feeling a little manic, compelled to burn up nervous energy? Are you sleeping more than usual, or insomniac?

Right now, Melbourne, where I live, is slogging through our 6th lockdown. As I write this, we have been in a total of 230 days in lockdown since our first began in March 2020. So many people around me are reporting in via social media, phone, Zoom, and email that they are feeling, well, crap. Not themselves. Bent out of shape. Prone to mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns, or with patchy concentration. And struggling to maintain motivation, hope, patience, a sense of proportion, or long-term thinking.

I have friends who are reacting in different ways, variously experiencing tearfulness, apathy, fear, pessimism and other moods or emotions that are uncharacteristic and disproportionate. Using myself as one example, I regularly feel anger: bitter and black-hearted. I’m not usually like this; I have to fight the impulse to be cruel every day. But I have insight into why I feel like this and that helps.

People are wondering ‘what is wrong with me?’

We all know that we are exhausted by lockdown and then Covid in general. And here in Australia we have good cause to be angered, disappointed, and cynical about some of our politicians who have bungled quarantine and vaccination programs and, in NSW, lockdown measures, leaving us a population with too many people unvaccinated (through no fault of their own) while at the mercy of Delta outbreaks. So, there are plenty of reasons for Aussies to feel fatigue, stress, and frustration.

But the dark moods and disorientation I am noticing in Melbourne have a particular flavour during lockdown #6, I think. And I have a theory as to what it is that is affecting my networks.

If you are asking yourself ‘what is wrong with me?’ then have you considered that you might be in grief?

Grief is a word that gets bandied about, often used to describe depression or trauma more generally. But, in the context of this blog, I am using it very specifically.

I define grief as a response to the radical absence of something that was important to your life. And I think that Melbourne, or that part of Melbourne I know or can observe, is in a state of grief.

Recently, Melbourne has lost something. Last year we used lockdown, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other public health measures with great efficacy to drive down a big second wave of Covid, from many hundreds of infections a day to zero. We didn’t enjoy it, it was hard, it cost us, but it did work. Collectively, we were brave and disciplined. We stopped Covid from getting out of control not just in our own state but from spreading across the country. We bought Australia some time.

In the first half of 2021 we enjoyed weeks at a time with no or only a few community transmissions of Covid. When small spikes did happen then we resorted to short circuit-breaker lockdowns to drive the infection rate back down to zero. We all badly wanted (and still want) to be done with lockdowns, and looked forward to being vaccinated but, at least we were living a reasonably calm and safe life and knew that we had strategies in hand to control small outbreaks.

This state of affairs has been taken away from us.

It has been taken away from us by a federal government that bungled quarantine and vaccination. It has been taken away from us by the NSW government not controlling their own Delta outbreak (which then spread across state borders to infect Melbourne). These politicians have been incompetent and negligent in their duty of care to their communities to a sociopathic degree. Their lazy, dishonest, callously careless, and delinquently inadequate approach has imposed upon us an outbreak that, this time, has spread rapidly. Our state premier, whose government has tried so hard to keep Covid at bay over the last 20 months, has finally had to admit that we will never see zero community infections again.

We did not choose this.

A set of conditions under which we could effectively control outbreaks has been wrenched away from us. Other federal and state politicians from outside of our own state, encouraged and abetted by their corporate cheerleaders and the Murdoch press, have pissed on our public health achievements from a great height. For the first time in months, we have people in ICU in Melbourne hospitals. For the first time since 2020, some poor souls have died.

Now we have to live with not just another long lockdown and general anxiety about Covid, but a sense that something that, just a few weeks ago, was possible and achievable will now never be achieved by us again. So, this is why I think we are processing grief. We are dealing with a loss.

I don’t enjoy experiencing grief (who does?) but I do find it a fascinating state and do believe that having awareness that you may be in grief helps. It has helped me to understand my strange rage – I still feel angry but I have a sense of where that anger is coming from. This sense of orientation helps me to resist its worst impulses.

So here are some pointers about grief:

Grief is not just one emotion, but more of an umbrella term that covers a whole range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours that make themselves felt in the emotional, psychological, physical, behavioural, and spiritual realms. (For a list of symptoms of grief, click here).

We all manifest grief differently. No two people ever grieve alike. So don’t ever judge or proscribe another person’s grief.

You are entitled to your grief, so give yourself permission to be a little emotional or unhinged. Watch out for recklessness, though, as this can be another manifestation of grief. You are entitled to feel the feels and think your thoughts but not entitled to get reckless with someone else’s safety. So, non-mask wearers, if your grief is manifesting as “Fuck it, everything’s useless” then you still have to wear your damned mask.

You can feel grief over things or people you didn’t like or had mixed or ambiguous feelings about. Even if something you hated, like living in lockdown, is suddenly yanked away, and that thing was central to your life, you may still feel a weird sort of grief: you still have to process its absence and the ramifications of that.

Finally, I believe that a healthy grieving process can be an enriching and profound experience, if an uncomfortable or challenging one. But watch out for complicated grief, which is where you get stuck in your grief and start to experience depression. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of depression and do not hesitate to get help if you feel that you are affected.

Apologies to my interstate and overseas readers for this Melbourne-centric blog, but I have badly wanted to reach out to my fellow Melbournites who, I can see, are struggling right now. I don’t think I have ever seen us so collectively low. If you are reading this and from outside of Melbourne, perhaps you can ask yourself if your community, too, is processing grief over things that belonged to a pre-Covid life that have been ripped away.

Wherever you live, before you chide yourself and ask, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ perhaps consider that you may be experiencing grief. In which case nothing is wrong with you. You are just being human.

Although grief affects all of us differently, you do not have to do this unsupported or alone. And if you suspect that your grief is slipping into depression then please get help. Check out this page for sources of support available to Victorians.

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