Disenfranchised Grief

Version 2“I am so embarrassed,” a client said recently. “My dog died, and I called into work sick for three days. I know so many people who have had real tragedies in their life, and I can’t get it together to get to work because my dog died. I really feel like something must be wrong with me.”

Losses seem to be rank-ordered in our minds or in the culture by the type of relationship, rather than the depth of attachment. Deaths that are not a primary relative may not be deemed worthy of intense sorrow. Examples can include the death of a pet, an ex-spouse or romantic relationship, a friend or a relative, such as a cousin or an in-law.

This type of loss is referred to as disenfranchised grief.1  In the example mentioned above, this person had a very deep and meaningful attachment to her pet. During several years of turmoil in her life, she found that her dog was a constant support. She was relieved to know there was nothing wrong with her for her deep sadness. If there is meaningful attachment, there will be sorrow, no matter who receives the love that comes from that attachment.

1. Kenneth Doka, ed., Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies (Champaign, Il: Research Press, 2002).

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Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O'Malley has recently published a book, "Getting Grief Right" about grief recovery.

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