Unauthorized Grief

When I was in my early 20’s, one of my best friends lost her second child.  She was full term with a baby boy and found out just before delivery that he had passed away.  I had recently moved from the Midwest to California and learned all of this from a distance.  As the details came in, I was sad, horrified, and uncomfortably helpless.  I was also, unfortunately, full of judgments.

As a young, single woman who had no experience with pregnancy or parenting, I could only try to imagine what she had been through.  It seemed surreal, like something that happened to people I wouldn’t know.  My heart ached for her and I repeatedly made brief, awkward statements over the phone to express my sympathy.

As I heard that my friend had named her son, visited his grave daily, and spent much of her day crying, I felt sympathetic and then, within weeks, a bit uncomfortable.  When the weeks turned into months, I continued my brief, awkward statements while my internal judgments got louder. It seemed strange to me that she would grieve so intensely for someone (as I judged) who was never really in the world.  She didn’t really know him, right?  She already had one living child and certainly could expect to have more.  Could she be making too much of her loss?  Was she somehow making it worse?  Might she be committing the crime (as we Midwesterners tend to see it) of being raw and open about intense feelings?

Kenneth Doka coined the phrase “disenfranchised grief” to refer to certain types of grief  that are commonly unrecognized or minimized by society (Disenfranchised Grief:  A Hidden Sorrow, 1989).  Examples include those losses that society views negatively, such as loss of a loved one through suicide, and those that are somehow hidden, such as a miscarriage or other losses during pregnancy.

People grieving these types of losses without societal support can feel the added burden of isolation in their grief, and possibly shame related to their strong feelings in the absence of validation.  They are, in a sense, grieving without permission and without social acceptance that their loss warrants a full experience of mourning.

A disenfranchised grief experience may be especially challenging for the bereaved.   If support to those grieving a perinatal loss is lacking or inauthentic, it may add to their pain and suffering. To my knowledge, no one has ever felt helped by hearing (or sensing from their friend’s unspoken communication) that she is overreacting to the loss of her baby.  Grief is not a choice and therefore not something one can be talked out of.

It may help you to know that your grief experience may not be well understood by others and that lack of understanding can lead to unhelpful responses, including minimizing your pain.  It may also be important for you to know that societal and cultural awareness of perinatal loss is growing and that whether or not you have met them yet, there are people on your planet who understand you.  If you don’t see them immediately, look for books, websites, blogs or support groups.  Your loss is understandably devastating, and it may be taking up much of your energy.  You are having your own experience of grief, and you don’t have to spend extra energy worrying that you are doing it right in the eyes of others.

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