The Invisibility of Grief
I attended a conference once where one of the presenters said that when people undergo a major change in their lives they experience something very similar to grief. ‘Similar?’, I thought to myself. ‘No, it is more than similar, it is identical; it is grief’. Grief is our reaction to loss, not just our reaction to bereavement. This sounds a very straightforward statement to make, and yet I regularly encounter situations involving significant losses other than death where the people involved are not taking account of grief at all – even though I am sure they would do so if a death had occurred.
This is what I mean by the invisibility of grief. There are so many situations in which it is a significant factor and yet will often receive little or no consideration. I have come across social care workers who have been involved in settling older people into a residential setting (when increasing infirmity has necessitated giving up their home) who have given no thought to the grief the person concerned is likely to be experiencing. Similarly I have worked with child care staff who have not considered the grief involved in experiences of child abuse, a phenomenon characterised by many losses at many levels. Thankfully, I have also met many people who are well tuned in to loss and grief issues and respond very supportively and sensitively. However, it is the proportion of caring professionals who do not do so that causes me some degree of consternation.
I am not blaming or criticising such staff. If they have not had training on such issues and/or suitable guidance through supervision, then they cannot be criticised for not being aware of what they are not addressing.
Similar concerns occur in the wider workplace and not just in the caring professions. For example, employees may be given compassionate leave and, in some organisations at least, a very supportive response at a time of bereavement. However, if their loss is not death related, they may receive little or no support – even though losses unconnected with death can often be more impactful than a bereavement. For example, a worker whose spouse has been sent to prison may experience a stronger grief reaction than a worker whose grandparent has died (especially if they were not particularly close to their grandparent).
Kenneth Doka’s work on disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989) has proven influential. A disenfranchised loss is one that is not recognised or socially sanctioned and does not therefore trigger off the type of social support people normal receive at the time of a significant loss. He identified three main forms of disenfranchisement: (i) the relationship is disenfranchised; for example, someone in a secret same-sex relationship – that is, one that is not ‘out’ – whose partner dies may receive little or no support if the person who has died is perceived as a flatmate or a lodger; (ii) the loss itself is disenfranchised; for example, a death by suicide may evoke less support than a less stigmatised cause of death; (iii) the griever is disenfranchised; for example, it is often assumed that people with learning disabilities do not grieve or that older people ‘get used to grief’. Corr (1998) added a fourth form when he made the important point that workplace losses can also be disenfranchised, as so many organisations are not geared up towards dealing with such matters (see Thompson, 2009).
We can also add a fifth form of disenfranchisement, namely losses that are not death related: divorce, homelessness, abuse, redundancy, becoming disabled or chronically sick, being a victim of a crime and/or violence and the myriad other losses that are part and parcel of life. Anything we put our heart into can lead to grief when we lose what we have made that emotional investment in. Grief is therefore a much wider concept than a response to death.
So, in the people professions – whether the caring professions or management and human resource practice across all sectors – we need to be attuned to issues of loss and grief and not fall into the sadly all-too-common trap of missing the significance of grief in situations where no actual death has occurred.
I have worked with many groups over the years (students at universities and practitioners and managers on training courses) where we have looked closely at just how significant a factor grief is in people’s problems – especially where that grief has not been acknowledged and given the attention it deserves. The result every time was a group of people who went away much better prepared for tuning in to loss issues. Such groups were also generally much more aware of how certain apparently inexplicable aspects of the situations they had been dealing with were now much more explicable.
Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He is the author of Grief and its Challenges (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and has also produced a DVD on working with loss (www.avenuelearningcentre.co.uk). His website is at www.neilthompson.info.
Corr, C. (1998) ‘Enhancing the Concept of Disenfranchised Grief’, paper presented at the annual meeting of the association for Death Education and Counseling, Chocago, IL, March.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (1989) Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Lexington, MA, Lexington Books.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (2002) Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice, Champaign, IL, Research Press.
Thompson, N. (2009) Loss, Grief and Trauma in the Workplace, Amityville, NY, Baywood.
Learn about grief with Neil’s book http://astore.amazon.co.uk/neilthomp-21/