Disenfranchised grief: What it looks like, where it goes


What happens to grief when those around you don’t understand it? Where does it go? How do you process it?

Disenfranchised grief, when someone or society more generally doesn’t see a loss as worthy of mourning, can deprive people of experiencing or processing their sadness. This grief, which may be triggered by the death of an ex-spouse, a pet, a failed adoption, can be painful and long-lasting.

Here, we reflect as physicians on our own experiences and memories of this phenomenon.

Suzanne Cole, MD: ‘I didn’t feel the right to grieve’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my little sister unexpectedly died. Though she was not one of the nearly 7 million people who died of the virus, in 2021 she became another type of statistic: one of the 109,699 people in the United State who died from a drug overdose. Hers was from fentanyl laced with methamphetamines.

Her death unraveled me. I felt deep guilt that I could not pull her from the sweeping current that had wrenched her from mainstream society into the underbelly of sex work and toward the solace of mind-altering drugs.

But I did not feel the right to grieve for her as I have grieved for other loved ones who were not blamed for their exit from this world. My sister was living a sordid life on the fringes of society. My grief felt invalid, undeserved. Yet, in the eyes of other “upstanding citizens,” her life was not as worth grieving – or so I thought. I tucked my sorrow into a small corner of my soul so no one would see, and I carried on.

To this day, the shame I feel robbed me of the ability to freely talk about her or share the searing pain I feel. Tears still prick my eyes when I think of her, but I have become adept at swallowing them, shaking off the waves of grief as though nothing happened. Even now, I cannot shake the pervasive feeling that my silent tears don’t deserve to be wept.

Don S. Dizon, MD: Working through tragedy

As a medical student, I worked with an outpatient physician as part of a third-year rotation. When we met, the first thing that struck me was how disheveled he looked. His clothes were wrinkled, and his pants were baggy. He took cigarette breaks, which I found disturbing.

But I quickly came to admire him. Despite my first impression, he was the type of doctor I aspired to be. He didn’t need to look at a patient’s chart to recall who they were. He just knew them. He greeted patients warmly, asked about their family. He even remembered the special occasions his patients had mentioned since their past visit. He epitomized empathy and connectedness.

Spending one day in clinic brought to light the challenges of forming such bonds with patients. A man came into the cancer clinic reporting chest pain and was triaged to an exam room. Soon after, the patient was found unresponsive on the floor. Nurses were yelling for help, and the doctor ran in and started CPR while minutes ticked by waiting for an ambulance that could take him to the ED.

By the time help arrived, the patient was blue.

He had died in the clinic in the middle of the day, as the waiting room filled. After the body was taken away, the doctor went into the bathroom. About 20 minutes later, he came out, eyes bloodshot, and continued with the rest of his day, ensuring each patient was seen and cared for.

As a medical student, it hit me how hard it must be to see something so tragic like the end of a life and then continue with your day as if nothing had happened. This is an experience of grief I later came to know well after nearly 30 years treating patients with advanced cancers: compartmentalizing it and carrying on.


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