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]

When Your Parents Wish You Weren’t Far Away: An Interview with Diane Stortz

Diane Stortz knows firsthand what it’s like to have children serving overseas, to want them to follow God’s calling, but also to want them close by. In 2008, she, along with Cheryl Savageau, wrote Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally (InterVarsity Press). Since joining the ranks of parents of missionaries (POMs), she has ministered to and heard from hundreds of parents walking the same path.

Tell us a little about your personal story as a parent of a missionary.

My husband and I never expected to be parents of a missionary, and becoming POMs was hard. Our daughter and son-in-law married while still in college. She was training as a vocalist, and he planned to be a youth minister. But they spent their first anniversary as missionary interns in Bosnia. Over the next two years, they made the decision to serve as missionaries after graduation. Our heads and hearts were reeling! We really hadn’t been prepared to “lose” our daughter to marriage so soon . . . and now we felt we were losing her all over again.

Making it feel worse, our church was their sending organization, they would be joining a team already in place, and our congregation was excited and thrilled. We heard “You must be so proud” a lot. Yes, we were proud and very supportive, but we were also hurting.

Book person that I am, I went looking for something to read to help me adjust, and found nothing. About the same time, Cheryl Savageau (counseling director at our church) and Judy Johnson (missions minister) were talking about ways to help us and the other POMs in the congregation (all of us were struggling). That’s how our ministry to POMs eventually was born. Cheryl and I wrote a book and, for about ten years, we led groups and workshops for POMs and for college students and missions recruits too.

You say you felt proud and supportive . . . but you were hurting, too. What other emotions do you see wrestling inside parents’ hearts?

Fear is often the only emotion that parents voice, and in some parts of the world that fear is justified. Many POMs, especially fathers, admit to worrying about the safety and well-being of their children and grandchildren. In our case, our daughter and son-in-law were interested in a place where there was recent war and lots of unrest, and I can still remember my husband telling our preacher one Sunday morning, “Not her, not there, not now!” (He eventually came around and even spoke at their commissioning service.)

But mostly, POMs grieve what they are losing—their expectations. Instead of the normal future they envisioned with their children and grandchildren, now their loved ones will be missing from holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, births, baptisms, vacations, ordinary outings, church services. Grandchildren will grow up in another culture, speaking another language.

Parents also have difficult life stages of their own to navigate—health changes, retirement, death of a spouse, perhaps divorce, caring for their own aging parents—that often occur at the same time they become POMs.

And going just a bit deeper, parents also grieve emotional distance from their children. In the decade of their twenties, young adults are establishing themselves apart from their parents. If the parent-child relationship has been strained already, which it often is during the teen and college years, now the gulf is widened. Throw in thousands of miles, a new language, and cultural differences, and the distance can feel insurmountable.

And being honest and open about these emotions certainly isn’t easy. In Parents of Missionaries you write that disenfranchised grief “results when we deny or condemn our feelings or believe God doesn’t care about our pain. It also occurs when others criticize our feelings or consider us too strong to need support.” How does this play out in the church?

My co-author, Cheryl, a licensed clinical counselor, introduced me to the concept of disenfranchised grief, which she describes in that quote. It plays a big part of the POM experience for many, sadly, even within the church, where we are supposed to “bear one another’s burdens,” not make them worse.

Many POMs don’t even recognize they are grieving, or they don’t want to admit it. Somehow they’ve gotten the idea that their sadness is sinful—if they had more faith, they’d be joyful all the time about becoming POMs, right? They are being selfish and God is surely unhappy with them, right?

Sending agencies/churches can get caught up with the mission and make little room for negative emotions, intentionally or unintentionally. Recruits and missionaries who don’t recognize how their choices are impacting their parents can become angry about what they perceive as their parents’ lack of support.

If POMs do try talking about the pain they’re feeling—to their missionary, to a pastor, to a friend or a Bible study leader—sometimes all they hear is advice to pray more and have more faith. But what they actually need is to have their true feelings—good, bad, and ugly—heard and understood so they can start to heal.

So there are really three realms within the church where POM grief needs to be recognized and dealt with. One is the POMs themselves, one is others who can understand (or at least are willing to try), and one is the recruits or missionaries.

What advice do you have for parents looking for someone who will hear and understand them?

It’s so important that POMs find connection and support, and it is largely up to them to find it. A friend who doesn’t really understand but wants to try is good. A group of other POMs is priceless—as long as honesty is encouraged and accepted. It’s important not to let a group be preempted by someone who wants to superspiritualize things and deny any negative emotions.

Cheryl located POMs in our area by contacting area churches. For several years, she and I ran a group that met monthly for dinner and conversation. Each meeting had a theme, such as dealing with grief, long-distance grandparenting, handling the holidays, using technology, relationships with adult children.

Some sending organizations now offer parent days and other ways for parents to connect. On Facebook now there is a wonderful group page, Parents of Missionaries. Some of the POMs in that group meet each summer for a retreat in the US (open to any POMs). The book Cheryl and I wrote together continues to be a resource many POMs find helpful.

POMs need to look at their situation as an opportunity for growth—personal growth as they deal with difficult emotions and reach out for help, growth in their relationship with God and dependence on him, and growth (and healing if necessary) in their relationships with their young adult and adult children who are missionaries or recruits.

That brings us to communication with the third “realm”—the children of POMs. Could you speak directly to those serving abroad—and those preparing to go—and let them know a parent’s hopes for bridging the emotional and physical space between them?

I think what most parents want to say, if they haven’t already, is something like this: “I love you and I miss you and my grandchildren terribly. I’m proud of the way you are serving the Lord, but I’m afraid of losing my relationship with you. What can we do to keep that from happening?”

POMs can and do learn to proactively keep connection strong from their end. But the goal is to be one team. When the emotional connection is strong in both directions, the physical separation is so much easier for everyone to bear.

During your preparation time, don’t leave your parents out. They may not know much about missions, support raising, language school, sending organizations, or international travel, but they want to be informed. They want to ask questions, but they also don’t want to interfere. If they don’t ask, offer them the information anyway, and do your best to keep them up to date once you’re on the field.

When departure approaches, your parents want and need time with you and their grandchildren, but they may not feel free to voice this because your calendar is already so full. (The same dynamic can occur during furlough too.) Let your parents know you want time with them too and prioritize some time together.

The best advice is to say good-bye well—spend time together, make some memories, resolve any conflicts. And if you’re on the field and that didn’t happen before you left, open your heart’s door to your parents and let them know you’d like a better relationship now: “We love you, we miss you, and we wish we were closer too. So let’s make a plan to be more connected now and in the future.”

Diane has also authored A Woman’s Guide to Reading the Bible in a Year and several children’s books, including I Am: 40 Reasons to Trust God and Words to Dream On: Bedtime Bible Stories and Prayers. She is online at

[photo: “Atardecer en el Palmar” by Carlos Calamar, used under a Creative Commons license]