Mind Matters — Disenfranchised Grief

Old memories returned this week, precipitated by some current events. No, not political current events, simply happenings in my own circle of friends and family. Reflections on disenfranchised grief and feeling marginalized emerged.

What do I mean by disenfranchised grief? Perhaps every grief is somewhat disenfranchised—not accepted by the culture as the legitimate process of mourning a loss. We want a quick fix, people to “get over it” and “move on.” Some losses are called disenfranchised, however, because they may not be considered significant losses in the first place. Accordingly then, “griefs of birthing” are disenfranchised—not accepted as legitimate losses even as they happen. Never mind getting over it quickly—why be so sad in the first place is the common cultural reaction. And so there is a disenfranchisement of the loss from community connection, a feeling of being marginalized or being isolated can occur.

One acquaintance related how the week before she had spent the night at the hospital with her niece who had a miscarriage—the woman, young though she is, is thirty-five and fears she will not be able to get pregnant again. Another set of friends have been going through infertility treatments and several rounds of in vitro fertilization, to no avail. Another disenfranchised grief.

For a number of years, I facilitated a healing workshop for those who suffered the disenfranchised grief of birthing loss—whether it be from early infant death, infertility, miscarriage, or even abortion. All these events can carry with them a profound grief and mourning process that is invisible to the culture and the community. No one can see the wounds and the reaction of many is “Oh, but your loss was so early, it can’t be that important” or “what did you do wrong to have it be this way” or “just adopt.” People also react to the griever with the sanction that you “should be happy for your sister, friend, etc., who is having a baby … why didn’t you go the shower? How selfish of you!”

Actually, it is the speaker of these words who is insensitive and uncaring. I, many years ago, went through infertility and miscarriages and remember the reactions of others to my grief. Ironically, when I broke my leg and hobbled around in a cast, I prompted more consideration, yet that brokenness was so infinitesimally fleeting in comparison to the heart brokenness felt in the aftermath of the invisible losses of birthing. If visible woundedness can prompt concern perhaps we need to consider how many people we may meet could be the “walking wounded?” What is the pain and woundedness we cannot see?

Then there is the problem of what we do see—or think we see—and judge the other by the “visible.” Again, this reflection relates to another recent incident. My husband had minor surgery this week and my flashback upon seeing his bloodied and sutured forehead was of my daughter at the age of two being attacked by our dog [yet another story]. My husband’s countenance returned me to her, and I reflected on the race back then to the hospital that evening with our bleeding toddler. There were, apparently, numerous assumptive strikes made against us by the hospital staff that evening. I was in my bathrobe—strike one. Strike two for the staff: our country address smacked that maybe we were “poor, white, … .” Strike three: I also carried a nursing infant. We were treated shamefully that night. Not only were we overwhelmed with anxiety about our daughter; we were also met with scrutiny and judgment.

So, in this case, what was considered “visible” became a way for others to treat us condescendingly and with no compassion.

My father used to say “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.” I would expand his axiom to include learning how not to be so quick to judge another’s journey. To question ourselves, “perhaps their grief or wounding is of the invisible kind.” To question ourselves, “what is the invisible beyond what I interpret (or misinterpret) to be visible?”