I had never heard the term “disenfranchised grief” until I listened to an NPR story on June 14, 2021. Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka 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.” He was talking about this grief in the context of the pandemic – what we, individually and collectively, lost, what we are grieving now that we are beginning to emerge from a year of isolation.
But the term covers a myriad of losses: the loss of a job, missing out on milestone events, such a graduation or a 60th birthday celebration. It could also refer to the loss of a pet (how often have I heard, “It’s just a cat.”). For me, disenfranchised grief offered both validation and a name for losses I grieved before the pandemic changed our daily lives.
There was no name for what I was experiencing in the spring of 1978 or in the summer of 2010; no name for the loss I experienced when my mother was hospitalized for weeks, months, for depression when I was a child. In the 1950s, mental illness was still a taboo subject. After all, my mother was still alive, just “sick.” The same was true for my dad and his alcoholism which meant he broke promises, missed important events. With the help of therapy, I long ago acknowledged and came to understand my childhood losses and the affects they had on my life.
But the disenfranchised grief kept coming. I wonder if there is anyone who has not experienced such grief during the pandemic. As the death toll mounted so did the grief, both personal and collective. But there were also the unacknowledged griefs, the hugs we could no longer safely give loved ones, the graduations, first day of school, the birth of babies we could not safely meet.
As an introvert and someone who had experienced disenfranchised grief for a few years before the pandemic, the Covid-19 shutdown and isolation was almost welcome. And I admit feeling a bit guilty about that. During the pandemic, I could join the collective grief, grieve my losses as part of the collective losses. I could mourn openly. “We’re all in this together,” people kept saying. Well, yes – and no. But that’s a topic for another day. Yes, there were losses during the pandemic – three new babies born in our family during the pandemic, the annual family Thanksgiving gathering canceled, birthdays celebrated quietly, trips not taken, a major celebration for me canceled, and others. But they were minor compared to the years before the pandemic.
In my first email marketing pre-sales of my forthcoming book, When There Were Horses, I said: “I wrote these poems during some dark and lonely times, a few years before the pandemic threw us all into isolation. There were times I doubted my ability to survive. But I let the ghosts in; I let the voices that needed to be heard have their say, and I wove the joy, the sorrow, the love and loss into this collection.”
One of my dearest friends/family was surprised at what I had written, and said to me, “it’s not as if (your dad) had just died.”
No. It’s not. There are some griefs that cannot be spoken. Some that I do not fully understand. In the late summer of 2010 after I learned of the death of a loved one, I spent a week with my own ritual. Every night at sundown I would take a glass of wine, a white cloth handkerchief, and a notebook out to the upstairs porch. I would write, cry, and sip wine until dark and I could no longer see to write. We had been estranged for years, and most of my friends knew nothing about that part of my past. I did not (and still do not) have the language or the inclination to talk about that relationship.
Grief is difficult, and there are many types of grief. I’m glad that we’re developing more language to describe different kinds of grief. It’s a rough river to navigate. Recently a friend shared with me a saying from her grandmother that helps me accept and appreciate what others are going through: “We all carry a bag of rocks. You don’t have any idea how heavy anyone else’s bag is. All you can do is carry your own bag of rocks.”
And with my bag of rocks, I’ll hopefully find my way to shore.