I want to petition the internet, nay, the world, to stop defining, measuring, or comparing people’s grief based on title or primary role. Our titles – i.e., wife, boyfriend, mother, grandfather, friend – can mean so much when we get them. But ultimately, they cannot describe a relationship’s complexities and layers, and therefore cannot convey the nature of someone’s grief. And sadly, when people assume the depths of a person’s grief based on title alone, it often leads to disenfranchised grieving.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of people’s roles and identities. On the contrary, these things matter a lot to the people who hold them. And when a person fears they’ve lost a role integral to their identity, it can turn their world upside down. I get that. But, a title alone can no more describe a relationship than your name can fully illustrate the unique person you are.
We talk about “secondary losses,” which are losses that result from a primary loss. And we have the term “cumulative loss,” which describes when someone grieves multiple losses simultaneously. But we don’t to describe how losing one person can feel like losing 50 because of the many spaces they inhabited in your life.
Think about it; I’ll bet very few of your close loved ones fill just one role for you (or you for them), for example:
A spouse who is also a best friend and co-parent.
A parent who is also your #1 fan and the person most likely to bail you out of jam.
An aunt who is also your primary caregiver and your most unconditionally loving family member.
Assuming You Know Someone’s Grief Leads to Disenfranchised Grieving
What a title implies is entirely subjective, depending on individual relationships, experiences, and backgrounds. For example, to me, ‘grandfather’ was someone distant who we visited a handful of times a year. My understanding of ‘grandfather’ is utterly different than that of my nieces and nephews, whom my father has lived with since birth and has played an active role in their day-to-day lives.
And many people feel they have a relationship that defies conventional labels. For example, someone could be in a relationship with a partner for 20 years but never marry. Theoretically, that relationship is just as deep and interconnected as any. However, in the absence of a marriage license, many people feel their grief is minimized or denied. As a result, they may experience disenfranchised grieving.
For more about Disenfranchised Grieving, read our article Understanding Disenfranchised Grief.
Some people may even self-stigmatize their grief and internalize feelings of being undeserving. Sensing their grief won’t be validated, they may deny themselves the right to express their sorrow or receive support for it. If you are struggling with the grief of someone who was many things to you, or if you feel people are judging your grief on face value, read below for a few tips.
If you’re grieving someone who was many things to you:
Find opportunities to validate to yourself the many things your loved one was, and is, to you. For example:
- Journal about the spaces they occupied in your life.
- Make a list of the many roles they played (mother, cheerleader, safe haven, most-trusted advice giver).
- Talk to others about how important they were to you.
- Recognize the role(s) they continue to have in your life.
If you’re feeling vulnerable to stigma and disenfranchised grieving:
Two: If you are feeling vulnerable to stigma, self-stigma, and disenfranchised grieving, remind yourself of the following. If it helps–say it out loud, write it down on a post-it, or say it to yourself in the mirror.
- You are entitled to your grief-related feelings. You do not need anyone’s else’s validation or approval. Your feelings are valid because you feel them.
- Feelings are neither good or bad, right or wrong, they just are. If they exist, they exist.
- You are just as deserving of peace of mind and well-being as anyone else, and so it’s just as necessary for your to find ways to cope with your grief as anyone else. Pretending your grief doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.
- You are deserving of compassion and grief support. If someone else minimizes your grief and your need for support, you can either choose to tell them or choose to ignore them. But choosing to believe them is not a useful option.
If you’re supporting someone who’s grieving:
- Try and enter interactions with your grieving friend or family member with an open mind. Throw out any preconceived notions about X relationship causing Y amount of grief. Grief does not work this way.
- If you’re going to assume anything, assume the person is grieving profoundly and needs support. Let the person tell you if this isn’t the case, not the other way around.
- If you have a relationship where it would be appropriate to ask questions, ask them about their relationship with their loved one. Asking questions allows the grieving person to talk about the many things their loved one may have been to them, which can be a validating experience. It also helps you to be a more supportive person.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.