Grief or loss has no bounds because loss can be anything. While most loss is something dear to oneself, there can be a wide variety of losses than fall outside of standards of what some would could consider regular. Some of these losses are referred to as disenfranchised losses because they fall out of the usual and normative categories.
Understanding that loss is not only objective but also subjective is key. Grief Counselors cannot label some things or losses as normal and others as not abnormal or not important. Yes, there must be a line somewhere but if Grief Counseling only acknowledges normal losses then grief counseling ceases to serve all.
What we consider main stream loss is loss of someone dear. We tend to as a society rank things and classify them. Human society also ranks and classifies losses. Obviously the loss of a parent, or child, or spouse is considered the most devastating types of losses one can endure. We tend to rank siblings and grandparents next, with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends thereafter. Yet this type of ranking can sometimes be wrong. For some, a parent relationship may exist with a grandparent or aunt or uncle. For others, a dear friend may be closer than a distant sibling.
So it is very naive to always assume a ranking of loss. In some cases, unique relationships exist. Unique relationships can go well beyond human bonds as well. One of the most disenfranchised type of loss is pet loss. Individuals assume since the loss is not a family member or human friend that the loss of a dog, cat, horse or even a hamster or rabbit is meaningless. Again, some individuals create bonds that are very intense. These bonds need respected. In the case of a family pet, it can be very traumatizing and hence a serious loss. As a society, and as certified Grief Counselors, we need to recognize this reality.
Is there a line that needs drawn? Can a loss become to insanely abnormal? This is hard to say. It is true that complicated grief and abnormal reactions can occur but the grief counselor must be very careful in diagnosing what is a normal loss or a complicated grief reaction. If someone’s plant dies, goldfish, then how far can we begin to see a disproportionate grief reaction to the value. Again this is difficult because bonds are what determine grief. Abnormal bonds are subjective but where is the line drawn? From human to dog, or dog to goldfish? This is indeed difficult. People may form abnormal bonds and that needs addressed but one must be careful in assessing what is normal and not normal. There definitely is a line but it is not as universal as some may think.
Beyond the hierarchy of losses which unfortunately can determine what is a “real loss” and what is not, one can find many other types of disenfranchised losses. Disenfranchised loss views can easily dismiss many who are forgotten in the mourning cycle. For instance, how many times if the father neglected when a miscarriage occurs? How many times, is a step father or step mother neglected if a step child dies? How many times are cousins, or others discounted, beyond siblings during a loss of a brother or a sister. One cannot dismiss the grief of other people in the life of a person just because they do not fit neatly as son, daughter, brother, sister, or mother and father. There are numerous other relationships that can be over looked,
Relationships that are not mainstream can also sometimes see disenfranchisement. Like a boyfriend who may grieve a loss of a girlfriend but not be seen as important to the family, there are numerous same sex relationships, where other partners are neglected in the pain and grief they feel over the loss of their significant other.
In addition to this, certain types of deaths may be seen with stigma. Stigma can also affect disenfranchisement. Suicide is a common example. In these cases, the family needed support, is sometimes neglected because of the delicacy of the subject.
Other types of losses, such as miscarriage, are also commonly downplayed or dismissed. Even the pain suffered by couples who cannot conceive.
In addition, many losses are also downplayed or dismissed that fail to meet the criteria of death. A loss of a job, relationship, or the loss of a body part can all be downplayed. These losses are still very painful and while they may not entail the ultimate loss of death, they still nonetheless carry grief with them. For many the loss of a fiance or the pains of a divorce are equal to death. The end of something and the loss of that person is final.
Grief Counselors need to be aware and alert to all types of losses and not quick to dismiss to a social hierarchy of reaction. Every loss needs to be acknowledged and understood in relationship to the griever. Unique grieving situations can arise beyond the mainstream. This is not to say, grief counselors should not dismiss unhealthy grief reactions or abnormal bonds, but it does say grief counselors should keep an open mind about different types of losses. Disenfranchised grievers can be minimized by merely acknowledging loss.
In doing so, grief counselors must dismiss comparative statements and instead address the loss. Statements that start with ” at least it was not this or that” or “it could have been worse” or “this is not that big of a deal” need to be removed from every grief counselors treatment. Grief Counselors need to acknowledge the loss and understand how that loss affects the individual. Whether it is the loss of a rabbit, or a teenage breakup, the loss must be understood for what it is. Only the griever can later access the value of the loss in comparison to other things. In some cases, they may very well consider that loss to still be a significant loss. An elderly woman may consider the loss of her cat to be very devastating even though many others would dismiss it.
The purpose of the Grief Counselor is not dismiss any loss but to help clients understand their loss, adapt to it and evaluate it on their own terms. Return to healthy adaptation of the client is the mission of the grief counselor, not loss judgement.
Loss judgement is the key term to remember with disenfranchised grief. Grief counselors cannot judge loss but only acknowledge and help others deal with it. When loss is not acknowledged, the griever suffers more intensely.
Disenfranchised grief will continue to exist because society has its own standard on what loss is. People have their own ideas and fail to show empathy. While this is a reality, it should not be a reality in Grief Counseling. If you would like to become a certified Grief Counselor then please review the American Academy of Grief Counseling’s program and see if it meets your academic and professional goals.