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Quotations I love: Disenfranchised grief

Lynne Baab • Thursday April 1 2021

Quotations I love: Disenfranchised grief

Last week I had a delightful conversation with a retired minister. We talked about patterns of aging, and she mentioned something she has observed. As people get older, they experience fear and anxiety about what’s happening to them. Then they default into the patterns that have helped them cope with anxiety in the past. She sees increased attempts to control as a primary coping strategy. I also see denial, forced optimism, alcohol, etc.

As she was talking, I remembered an article I recently read about disenfranchised grief, forms of grief that aren’t validated by the people around us or that we don’t take seriously because we think other people have it worse than we do. I wonder if the anxiety associated with aging is actually a form of disenfranchised grief.

“People don’t feel like they have the right to grieve. . . . A year into this [pandemic], the losses are piling up. I just had this conversation in my office when this person said, ‘I can’t complain about my grief, because people have it worse.’ But we have to correct that thinking. Your grief is your grief. You can’t compare it to other people’s.”
—Lisa S. Zoll, a licensed clinical social worker in Lemoyne, Pa., who specializes in grief counseling.

I wonder if the things we feel anxious about as we age – such as decreasing physical strength/health, decreasing mental sharpness, and losing friends and family members – are calling us to grieve. But we know other people have it worse than we do, so we don’t let ourselves grieve. Or perhaps we don’t want to admit those things are happening so we can’t grieve them.

The term “disenfranchised grief” comes from the work of Kenneth J. Doka, a gerontologist who has written many books and articles. Tara Parker-Pope quotes Dr. Doka: “A constant refrain is, ‘I don’t have a right to grieve.’” Our grief can be disenfranchised by lack of interest from people around us, and we can disenfranchise our grief ourselves.

An excellent article on Healthline on the topic of disenfranchised grief lists several common areas where people’s grief is not affirmed by others, including the death of someone in an unrecognized relationship, such as the death of a former partner; loss that’s considered “less significant,” such as moving or changing jobs; and loss surrounded by stigma such as infertility or a loved one going to prison. These forms of unacknowledged grief relate to what the people around us, and society in general, view as appropriate things to grieve.

The pandemic has precipitated other forms of grief that we don’t feel we have the right to have. We know other people have suffered more than we have. Parker-Pope writes, “In the hierarchy of human suffering during the pandemic, a canceled prom, a lost vacation or missing out on seeing a child’s first steps may not sound like much, but mental health experts say that all loss needs to be acknowledged and grieved.” Those words come from her New York Times articles entitled, “It’s OK to Grieve for the Small Losses of a Lost Year.” The title of the article is a lovely statement.

I’m speaking this Saturday at a youth camp. The theme of the camp is “Move.” The day between Good Friday and Easter is the saddest day of the Christian year, and I’m going to draw on the sadness of the day to propose to the students that God welcomes our sadness. I’m going to highlight two lament psalms, Psalm 10 and 77. Both of those psalms move from sadness, frustration and anger to trust in God. Both psalms have a pivot verse that describes God’s response to the grief we have expressed in prayer.

The pivot in Psalm 10 is verse 14: “But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands.” God sees our trouble and grief, no matter how small, even if someone else is suffering more.  

The pivot in Psalm 77 comes in verse 10: “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” God changes our grief into trust, peace, thankfulness and joy. We can’t experience God seeing our lives, and God changing our grief, unless we name it and bring it to God.

I’m going to close my talk this Saturday with Psalm 30:4: “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.” When we allow ourselves to grieve in God’s presence, God enables us to move to joy.

Next week: an 18th century quotation from St. Paul of the Cross about letting creation call us to praise God. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.

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