Grief is the emotional response to loss. It is characterised by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depression, numbness, anger and even guilt. In normal grief resolution, these feelings gradually subside. Disenfranchised grief, however, interferes with normal grief resolution causing the feelings associated with grief to persist for a very long time.
Disenfranchised grief is grief that is not openly acknowledged, socially accepted or publicly mourned. A relationship which has been kept secret prevents open acknowledgment of the loss. As the relationship is not recognised, the loss is not recognised and therefore the griever is not recognised. When a relationship is considered socially unacceptable, you are cut off from many social supports. You are considered to be at fault and therefore have no right to mourn. With very few opportunities to express and resolve the grief, a feeling of alienation from society emerges. Grief is held on to more tenaciously than if the grief was fully recognised.
The effects of disenfranchised grief and the consequent poor grief resolution are displayed in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Depression, emotional disturbances, withdrawal from society, psychosomatic illnesses and low self-esteem are all symptoms. The loss of community cultivates a persistent sense of loneliness and abandonment and many of those affected succumb to substance abuse.
In normal bereavement, rituals surround and ease the pain. In cases of disenfranchised grief, there are no rituals. You receive no cards, no flowers, nor any expressions of sympathy. There is nothing to validate your loss. Society sees no reason for you to grieve so there are no allowances for a change in your attitude, behaviour or outlook as there would be in normal bereavement situations.
With disenfranchised grief it can be difficult to accept the reality of the loss. You may not see a body, or attend a funeral. There is no concrete focus for the grief. Dreams and plans are hard to mourn. There is also little opportunity to fully experience the pain of the loss since it often needs to be kept a secret. The situation makes those that know uncomfortable so you find that you have to suppress and deny the pain. Adjusting to the loss is difficult. Your life situation and emotional environment has changed dramatically, yet your physical environment remains the same. How can one reinvest emotional energy in another relationship when this one still exists, if only in the mind?