A (Somewhat) Different Kind of Grief

As I said, I don’t want to post too many excerpts from Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days here, and the one that follows will be the last (the book is available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009TV4CE6).  However, what I’ve written about here is a very important part of the book; when I learned about what “disenfranchised grief” is (the definition here is by Kathleen R. Gilbert, Professor and Associate Dean at Indiana University, and is the best one I’ve come across), it finally explained to me why the grief I’d suppressed to a great extent after David passed away came back to hit me like a hurricane sixteen years later.  It may be useful to others who experienced losses in similarly “unacceptable” relationships, so I wanted to post it for them:

“Nor did I have any idea that there was a name for what I’d somehow believed was peculiar to me, and that, especially in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were many people who had found themselves in the same position.  The term for it is ‘disenfranchised grief’; I don’t remember how I came across the definition online, but reading it gave me, for the first time, an understanding that at least I wasn’t alone in my transgression of the rules, and that I could perhaps at least start to forgive myself for prematurely laying my grief aside and moving on at the time:

Disenfranchised grief is the result of a loss for which they do not have a socially recognized right, role or capacity to grieve. These socially ambiguous losses are not or cannot be openly mourned, or socially supported. Essentially, this is grief that is restricted by “grieving rules” ascribed by the culture and society. The bereaved may not publicly grieve because, somehow, some element or elements of the loss prevent a public recognition.

Some of those “elements” might include a “relationship that is not socially recognized” (for example, partners in a lesbian or gay relationship), or a manner of death considered to be “fault” of the deceased (AIDS, suicide, drug overdose, etc.), or the simple fact that the deceased was not the legal spouse of the person left behind…

The description continues:

Because of the lack of social recognition, disenfranchised grief is a hidden grief and this “hiddenness” can paradoxically increase the reaction to loss…It can intensify feelings of anger, guilt and/or powerlessness, thus resulting in a more complicated grief response. Rituals may be absent or the grievers may be excluded from rituals…

Disenfranchised grief may lay hidden for years, only to be triggered by later losses…

That about covers it, doesn’t it? There were all manner of bereavement support groups around at that time, but none, as far as I know, were for AIDS Caseworkers Who Fell in Love With Their Drug-Addict Clients. There wouldn’t even be a good acronym that you could make up for that.”

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