Grief is never straightforward, but there are some losses that can be harder for others to understand.
Estrangement is its own kind of loss and feeling grief over it is perfectly legitimate and normal.
But to many, that loss isn’t easily quantifiable because it wasn’t caused by death.
What happens if, by the standards of wider society, your grief isn’t seen as viable?
This is what’s typcally known as ‘disenfranchised grief.’
Noel McDermott, a psychotherapist, explains: ‘Disenfranchised grief is a term used to describe situations in which, for some reason, the grief a person is feeling is deemed illegitimate. The reasons for the illegitimacy might be social, cultural and political or might be mostly driven by internal belief systems.
‘For example, it may be we tell ourselves the relationship we had to the person who has died is too distant and that it’s somehow wrong of us to feel loss, or we would be somehow stealing another person’s space to grieve, such as in the event of the loss of a grandchild, or the loss of a spouse’s parent.
‘Or maybe we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling grief because the person we lost was someone we were estranged from, by choice or circumstance.’
Integrative counsellor Billie Dunlevy says some other examples are cases where the relationship is stigmatised, the way in which the person died is stigmatised, the way in which someone grieves is stigmatised, and non-death losses.
She adds: ‘Estrangement is a non-death loss, and it also can sadly be the case, that the person grieving is not really recognised as a griever.
‘When someone makes the choice not to speak to their mother anymore, for example, there can be a sense that any feelings of grief they carry around estrangement do not have anywhere to go.
‘They may feel that they do not have any right to grieve or miss someone they walked away from. This is disenfranchised grief.’
Unfortunately, estrangement is often judged and misunderstood, and unsolicited advice and opinions abound.
Billie lists examples such as:
- ‘Why don’t you just try and make it work?’
- ‘You only have one (insert relative here); don’t you feel bad?’
- ‘You’ll regret this when they’re old.’
- ‘If you feel sad about it, why have you blocked them?’
Indeed, a key issue with disenfranchised grief is the lack of understanding you can be met with from others when you try to share your loss with them.
‘This is where the disenfranchisement occurs,’ says Noel.
‘It’s not that we don’t feel the loss, it’s that we are cut off from (or disenfranchised from) legitimate forms of expressing our grief – for example, by attending the funeral, or by having others automatically understand we are grieving and supporting us, or by giving ourselves permission to feel the loss.’
When it comes to estrangement, it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s OK to lament the loss of someone who did you wrong.
‘The truth is estrangement is a living loss,’ explains Billie. ‘Regardless of the quality of the relationship, the loss can be significant when we disconnect from close family.’
She adds: ‘The grief often includes wishing and longing for things to be different and finding it hard to come to terms with the reality of the family dynamic.
‘We need to understand that grief is not a sign of us colluding or even forgiving someone who did wrong to us, but that it is a sign we are fully human,’ says Noel.
‘Our grieving is expressing our individual humanity, not what we think about the person. At that point, we can let ourselves feel and then heal. This is true no matter who initiated the estrangement.
‘Grief is thought of, anthropologically and historically, as the indicator of the beginning of true human experience. In anthropology, the beginning of human culture is often associated with rituals and practices to decorate the graves of lost loved ones.
‘So, while we may be disenfranchised from current norms of public grief in a particular situation, we are not disenfranchised from our humanity, and we can create meaningful ways of acknowledging our loss.’
How to cope with grief over an estrangement
Find acceptance and support
Billie suggests three things; you should find a place where the complexity of your grief is understood, seek support from others who’ve gone through something similar, and remind yourself that you’re worthy of time the time and space to grieve.
‘Living grief comes in waves,’ she says. ‘Sometimes people can feel fine and other times it throws them off balance, and they need support.
‘It is not a straightforward process to make peace or come to a place of acceptance of who your family is. Therapy offers an experience where someone walks beside you as you work stuff out. It does not have to be one more thing you have to do alone.
‘Look for other people who have similar experiences. Online support groups and forums can be a good place to start. You may also find, if you feel able to be honest about your situation, that you could know people who are living with the same struggles. Sharing deepens are feelings of connection, so we feel less alone.
‘And give yourself permission to grieve – the kind of allowances and understanding that people are given when someone dies might be what you need sometimes – things like leaving a social event earlier, spending time alone and taking mental health days off from work.
‘If there are specific dates that are hard for you, think about how you can support yourself around them by offering yourself compassion and lots of self-care.’
Honour your feelings
Noel says many people find ways to honour their feelings through rituals, describing them as: ‘the container of those feelings that occur when we lose meaning.’
‘Religion provides this for a lot of people and if you’re religious you can access it to give meaning to your loss,’ he adds.
‘For those who are not religious, there are methods used in therapy – for example writing a letter to the person you’ve lost, reading it to your therapist or someone else trusted to share your feelings and then keeping the letter, or ritually letting it go for example through fire.
‘We can create personal and private rituals that we repeat at anniversaries associated with the relationship lost. Is there a song, an event, or a place associated with the relationship that you can engage with for a period of mourning on a regular basis?
‘Remember, in this, what you’re honouring is your own capacity to feel pain -which is your own capacity to feel love, and that is important for you to celebrate.’
Find somewhere for this love to go
Billie also says volunteering and creating your own chosen family can help, explaining: ‘As an adult, you can choose who you spend time with and what relationships to nurture. Find somewhere for your love to go.
‘Make friends and connections that fill you up, where you do not have to pretend or behave a certain way to feel like you belong.
‘We can all get caught up in our heads at times and forget about the bigger picture of our communities. We need each other, and giving back to others is not an entirely selfless act.
‘There are lots of positive mental health and wellbeing effects associated with volunteering. You can choose a cause related to your grief or something completely different. Giving your time to others in need can form a great part of your toolbox for coping.’
Degrees of Separation
This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.
Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.
If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]
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