Disenfranchised Grief: The Silent Grief

I lost one of my dear friends to suicide in 2010. Her sudden death came as a shock to those who were close to her. I was left with many unanswered questions and mixed emotions dealing with the loss. It wasn’t until I learnt about  disenfranchised grief (DG) a few years later that I realized that the mixed emotions I experienced were traits of DG as a suicide.  This really hit home when I lost a few clients from a series of drug overdoses over the course of two years while working as an art psychotherapist in an in-patient facility for clients with concurrent disorders in Vancouver, BC, Canada. I remember the first time it happened, I held back my tears as I was at work and only felt safe to release them when I was driving home on that day. Continuing to hide my grief, I attended the memorial service for each of the clients with much discomfort. I also watched my colleagues grieve in silence like I did. I have also supported many clients who have experienced DG in my work as a psychotherapist. I have learnt from all these experiences that we don’t just grieve for people who have died; we may also grieve for people who are still alive or experiences that we have lost. 

For this year’s National Grief Awareness Day, I would like to talk about DG as I think it is important for clinicians to be aware of how it affects clients and their grief process. Over the last few years, I have seen an increased number of clients showing up in my office grieving over experiences and/or losses that are not often being acknowledged, validated or supported. For example, the demise of a friendship, a dying pet, divorce, surviving an affair and life transitions such as a job loss due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Oftentimes, clients feel obligated to hide their grief or to speed up the process so as to “return” to society. 

Dr. Ken Doka defined disenfranchised grief as grief that is not socially acknowledged, recognized or supported (Doka, 1999). It is also known as the silent grief as the griever, like in my case with my friend and my clients, it was not publicly acknowledged and supported due to the shame and stigma attached. 

Some symptoms of DG:

  • Feeling intense sadness
  • Anxiety 
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Numbness
  • Somatic (physical pain and tension)

With DG, the griever often grieves in silence due to the stigma and/or shame. 

Check out this video of Dr. Doka where he talks about examples of DG and how the term originated – Disenfranchised Grief with Dr. Ken Doka  (https://youtu.be/BhfxzY65SmI).

5 types of DG Experiences:

  • Non-death Losses- divorce, breakups, health changes, loss of job or home, COVID and all the trauma that followed, moving from your country of origin.
  • Stigmatized and/or Unrecognized Relationships – partner, extramarital affair
  • Not recognized as a griever – co-worker
  • Loss surrounded by stigma – suicide, addiction, overdose, abortion
  • Grief that does not align with social norms – culturally different ways of grieving
  • Stigmatized way of grieving – absence of or extreme grief responses

Unhealed Grief from DG Can Look Like:

  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Feeling numb
  • Shame
  • Fear of the future
  • Denial
  • Oversensitivity

There are many interventions available to support clients in the grief process. One of the most widely used interventions in grief work is art therapy for its nonverbal creative process and sensory experiences. I have supported many of my clients who seek DG counselling using art therapy intervention as a safe medium to explore feelings associated with the grief and loss as well as the stigma and shame.  Here’s a video of how an artist who experienced disenfranchised grief (pregnancy losses) found her “flow” through art making – A grieving artist goes viral finding flow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M80Rh3wocQ)

Last but not least, supporting clients with DG is similar to supporting clients who have experienced grief and loss. Know that the grief process is not linear and that the grief journey has its peaks and valleys. It can affect someone physically, emotionally, spiritually, behaviourally and cognitively. It can also challenge a person’s belief system. However with disenfranchised grief, it is important to acknowledge that the grief is still valid even if it is not publicly recognized


Disenfranchised Grief with Dr. Ken Doka  (https://youtu.be/BhfxzY65SmI).

A grieving artist goes viral finding flow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M80Rh

Written by:

Veralyn Chan

Clinical Counsellor and Art Therapist (MC: AT, DVATI, RCC)