Naming Your Grief—and Finding an Answer

I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.

Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,

This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”

Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.

Certainly, cross-cultural workers, with all of their transitions, often deal with this kind of sorrow. And it’s significant enough that an article in Australian Family Physician discusses the response of general practitioners (family physicians) to repatriated cross-cultural workers affected by grief. The part of the article that most helps me understand the concept is the authors’ explanation of six types of disenfranchised grief (drawn from Doka’s work). I’m presenting the list here, but I’ve taken the liberty of adding my own examples (in brackets) of how they might apply to cross-cultural workers:

  • The griever’s relationships are unacknowledged
    [“You can enjoy yourself now that you’re back with your own people.”]
  • Lack of acknowledgment of the griever’s loss
    [“People move all the time. It’s not like somebody died.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever as not being capable of grieving
    [“She’s just a child. She’ll make new friends.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to the circumstances of the loss
    [“You knew what you were getting into when you decided to go overseas.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to their way of grieving which is not deemed appropriate by the community
    [“The Bible says ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.'”]
  • Self initiated disenfranchised grief where shame plays a significant role
    [“Why don’t I trust God more?”]

The authors go on to stress how important it is that general practitioners understand disenfranchised grief and take steps to deal with it. Not only may family doctors be asked to treat physical symptoms that are a result of grief, but they may also be the only affordable and “safe” help that is available to the re-entering worker.

I’ve internalized most of the categories above (that’s where the “self initiated” part comes in), especially the second one, “Lack of acknowledgment of the griever’s loss.” When I attended the grief-support meetings, at times I said I was there to observe (which was partly true), and at other times I said I was there to deal with my move back to the States—but that often seemed shallow as I listened to the stories around me. So after a while, I started adding that my father had died a few years earlier, while I was out of the country (and that was true, too). Without mentioning the loss of my father, I could imagine the others saying, “How does leaving a foreign country compare to losing a loved one?” Of course, no one in the group ever said that, but it didn’t stop my imagination.

Instead, that group was one of the places where I’ve found empathy. And for those in the group, empathy was an answer to the grief and an answer to the dangling question marks in our hearts. Outside the group, though, even for those with “acceptable” reasons for sorrow, things were different. Those who are grieving deeply often hear others tell them that their continued sadness is “unhealthy” or “unholy” or that they’ve been sad “too long.” “You need to get on with your life,” their friends might say, along with “We want the old you back” or “Stop being selfish and get over your pity party.”

And then there are the “at leasts” that tell you that things aren’t so bad, because they could be worse. Brené Brown talks about the “at leasts” in a presentation she gave to Great Britain’s Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. “At leasts” are an enemy of empathy. “Rarely, if ever,” she says, “does an empathic response begin with ‘at least.'”

Below is a short video made from the relevant portion of Brown’s talk. The animation is a nice touch in fleshing out her words. I especially like the image of lowering a ladder down into another person’s darkness. One of the books we have on our bookshelf at home is Bonnie Keen’s A Ladder out of Depression: God’s Healing Grace for the Emotionally Overwhelmed. It is nice to see that ladder not just as a metaphor for recovery, but for empathy, as well.

I do need to say, though, that while Brown does a great job describing empathy, she does so at the expense of sympathy. I really don’t think that empathy is “very different” from sympathy, and I don’t agree that “sympathy drives disconnection.” That sounds to me more like detached pity or a lack of compassion. Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people,” but that would actually be a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago, it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling,” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”

Empathy, on the other hand, is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”

One could make the case that inserting our feelings into others’ situations can get in the way of seeing the individualness of their experiences. Sometimes it’s better not to respond with “I know how you feel” but rather with “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

As Brown explains, sometimes the best thing to say is very little, something like “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” Sometimes the best answer is not having all the answers.

If only we could all acknowledge each other’s grief—however we label it. Then we could share openly and honestly. Then we could listen with compassion. Then we could sit down next to someone, with empathy—or sympathy—and “mourn with those who mourn.” Then we could give and receive the community we need.

This post is adapted from two that I wrote earlier for, here and here

(Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Kenneth Doka, ed., Hospice Foundation of America, 2002; Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Springer Publishing Company, YouTube, October 4, 2013; Susan Selby, et al, “Disenfranchised Grievers: The GP’s Role in Management,” Australian Family Physician, Vol. 36, No. 9, September 2007)

[photo: “Hiding,” by Kristin Schmit, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at

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