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Rules and norms influence our perceptions, feelings, and actions on a daily basis. From necessary things like traffic laws to more complex concepts such as social scripts, our strict adherence to rules arguably prevents society from descending into a post-apocalyptic style free-for-all.
Regulations which govern our external behavior make sense (mostly.) But what about those social norms applied to our complex emotional experiences?
What trajectory is the unimaginable and illogical supposed to follow?
When we lose a tie which seems irrevocably enmeshed with our sense of identity (mother, husband, partner, daughter, etc.) what script should we follow? As once familiar faces fade and we move instead towards committing the details of absence to memory, which traffic laws should we obey to get this stalled car back on the road?
In the United States, rigid laws govern who meets the definition of “bereaved” (typically, immediate family members) as well as what they’re entitled to—who controls what happens to the body, will there be an autopsy, what form of funeral or memorial to have (if any), etc. In our less formal, though equally rigid social sphere we apply a strict set of criteria to whom is permitted to mourn and how their grief should appear to us—the outsiders.
Legally and socially, a premium is placed on blood; after all, it’s “the tie that binds.” Humans are social beings by nature. Most of us have at least a few relationships which aren’t legally defined as part of our immediate family, but whose existence is an integral component of our identity. Emotionally, these people comprise our closest group of kin and the bond we share means they’re included in our family.
Besides traditional defining roles, many of us also occupy the position of a stepchild, stepparent, roommate, lover, ex-spouse, ex-partner, in-law, expectant mother or father, co-worker, mentor…(the list continues). The loss of these relationships through death or separation creates the same feeling of grief as any other significant loss. But, this process (called “disenfranchised grief”) follows a different trajectory than socially acceptable grief.
Disenfranchised grief often occurs when mourning a loss which remains unrecognized or invalidated (knowingly or unknowingly) by society.
Disenfranchised grief features the usual signs and symptoms of standard grief, as well as a potential slew of additional issues and complications. It frequently follows a longer and more complicated course than standard, acceptable forms of grief. The emotional experience of disenfranchised grief often feels all-consuming. Developing a variety of maladaptive coping mechanisms in a misguided attempt to “deal with” (or dull) the pain of unacknowledged loss is common.
Three forms of loss commonly associated with disenfranchised grief have been well documented.
In terms of an unknown loss, think of loss applied to motherhood: loss due to miscarriage (typically outsiders remain unaware of this very real and painful loss of a child) versus the loss of a child (from infancy through adulthood) who people know and define as an integral part of your family and your identity.
A common example of “unacceptable” grief is a loss as applied to love.
Think: Ending an extramarital affair, or having an extramarital partner die versus the loss of a more socially acceptable (traditional) relationship through separation, divorce, or death.
Unacceptable losses also commonly involve highly stigmatized causes of death. Widely seen in the bereaved after suffering a loss due to suicide, unintentional drug overdose, or car accidents caused by driving under the influence (amongst others).
Think: Losing a best friend, a former lover, neighbor, co-worker, etc.
Common examples of intangible loss occur with the loss of a title or status, such as losing one’s license to practice medicine or law, losing a job at a company you’ve spent your entire working career with, getting dismissed from university, etc.
Our occupation and place within its hierarchy are often vital pieces of who we are and the loss can be just as devastating as that of a person. This can also apply to a loss of trust, autonomy, a dream or goal, or any other aspect of our identity.
No two losses are the same, but I’ve yet to meet another person who doesn’t know loss. When we refuse (knowingly or unknowingly) to acknowledge or validate someone’s loss, we deny them the right to social support, potentially increasing their risk for isolation.
Without social support, we also refuse the bereaved access to ordinary forms of closure such as ceremonies, funerals, or memorials. Traditions which promote expressing thoughts and emotions to others and are invaluable when working through grief. Additionally, when a person isn’t allowed to acknowledge their loss publicly, it’s common to see intensified reactions to loss or death.
What gives them the right to grieve? What gives us the right to judge?
Believe in it, validate it, acknowledge it, or don’t. The grief exists either way, as does the loss. The bereaved should be allowed the opportunity to express their loss without fear of judgment, minimization, or denial. They should be treated with unconditional compassion and given a chance to receive adequate support.
Being able to provide social support starts with a sense of personal responsibility and becoming more emotionally attuned towards our feelings, as well as others.
Emotional attunement centers around being emotionally present and available—the ability to see, hear, correctly interpret, and respond to our feelings and the feelings of others through both verbal and non-verbal means of communication.
Sounds like a superpower, right?
Emotional attunement comes more naturally to some than others. People with insecure, disorganized, or anxious attachment styles (these occur when a child doesn’t establish an emotionally secure connection with their primary caregiver) often have a harder time creating and maintaining emotional attunement, compared to those with secure (“safe-base”) attachments.
Additionally, children who grew up in emotionally neglectful households—a lack of action on the parent’s part to acknowledge their child’s needs or wants, including the failure to notice the needs’ existence, or the inability to interpret or understand their child correctly—often face difficulties forming and maintaining secure emotional connections and attunement.
If you’re someone with any of these pre-existing roadblocks, chances are you’ve begun to pull away as you read this and maybe you’ve thought, “Oh no, I can’t do it.” You can! Anyone can; it’s uncommon but not unheard of for attachment styles to change. Most people learn a dynamic through observation which they ultimately go on to recreate in their relationships.
Changing emotional attachment style hinges on conscious effort and experience. Further reading on this topic is a great starting point. Individual therapy is beneficial (many would say crucial) for people wanting to develop a secure attachment style. Unfortunately, this process is neither fast nor easy to accomplish without support. A professional can help provide the appropriate tools and feedback to ensure this change becomes a lifelong one.
So how do you apply attunement to disenfranchised grief when someone is suffering less traditionally; let’s say they’re full of rage, or sadness, for no apparent reason, for months or years on end.
We owe it to ourselves and them to ask “Are you alright?” or “Do you want to talk? I could be completely off here, but I feel like you’re going through something.” Allowing people to share sends a clear and decisive unspoken message: “Your feelings and experiences are real, and you have a right to feel what you’re feeling. I will not look away.”
There’s not a “correct” way to grieve. Given the multifaceted nature of the emotion, it’s logical that grief looks a little different on everyone. However, it’s worth noting a person’s ability to reestablish emotional balance after a loss is considered a measure by which professionals can gauge the “success” (or lack thereof) of someone’s grieving process. Social connections, support, and validation are critical when fighting to establish emotional equilibrium.
This is how we can empower the disenfranchised (and ultimately ourselves): it begins with listening.
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