This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 3 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
This week, amid a slew of work meetings and deadlines, I received a text message from a friend who lives on the other side of the country: “T. has just been admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit,” he wrote of his daughter, for whom mental health struggles were not entirely new. “We are just surviving right now.”
My heart sank. I’m no stranger to the trauma of watching a loved one — scarcely recognizable in their psychological torment — be escorted behind the secure doors of a psychiatric ward. If my experiences were any indication, the path before my friend would be difficult and bewildering. It is one thing to grieve the loss of a loved one to death, but quite another to severe mental illness, addiction, or some other chronic and vaguely taboo condition that takes its toll gradually, silently, behind closed doors, seemingly unresponsive to prayer or positive thinking. And even if, God willing, his daughter recovers from what ails her, he will undoubtedly still lament that her childhood was marred at all by this season of shadows. How could any words, no matter how eloquent or well-intentioned on my part, possibly lighten his burden? After staring at his text a few moments longer, I toggled back to work emails.
What Is Disenfranchised Grief? In 1989, American professor of psychology Kenneth J. Doka coined the term “disenfranchised grief” to refer to what “persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”1 Many of the deepest sorrows in life are not tied to a concrete loss — like death — that can be bereaved through socially acceptable channels of public or religious rituals. I have already named the grief that surrounds mental illness and addiction, but there are innumerable ways we lose people we love to the great intangibles of life — parents to Alzheimer’s, children to budding autonomy and adulthood, friends to betrayal, conflict, or “merely” the sands of time and relationship neglect. Other times, the source of loss lies in even more intangible or invisible situations. We grieve in response to unemployment, aging, moving, infertility, divorce, and more recently the losses wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even positive life events — marriage or a new baby, for instance — can catalyze grief because of the changes in identity and routine they bring.
There will be no funeral for these losses, no obituary, no paid bereavement leave, no fridge full of casseroles brought by well-meaning friends, no mechanism by which to publicly acknowledge and express the reality of one’s sorrow, no gravesite to return to according to the rhythms of bereavement throughout one’s life. Because disenfranchised grief cannot find an anchor in social or ritual acknowledgment, its sufferers must mourn alone, unable to fully integrate their loss into the fabric of their lives. Over time, this can complicate the grieving process, adding layers of trauma and dissociation to it that strain mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
Grief and the Church. As a Christian, I have long wondered what wisdom the church — broadly speaking — can offer those who mourn, especially those carrying the hidden and unacknowledged pain of disenfranchised grief. But maybe I have it backwards. Perhaps the more beneficial question is what wisdom can disenfranchised grief offer the church?
Christ tells us “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4 NASB). It is easy to assume that the consolation referenced here is somehow external to grief, that those who grieve now will one day move beyond or outside of their grief and find solace in the love of God or the gift of eternal life. But what if grief itself is the comfort, at least when we dare to enter into it with the risen Lord? In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul tells his hearers not to grieve like those who have no hope (4:13). Remarkably, though, he doesn’t tell them not to grieve at all. Indeed, elsewhere he commands us to weep with those who weep, even as we rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15).
It is this latter injunction that particularly pertains to disenfranchised grief. As followers of Christ, it is not our duty to distinguish those forms of grief that are worthy of compassion from those that aren’t. We are called to grieve with those who grieve, end of story.
To carry out this mandate, we must first see and acknowledge those who mourn and face the reality of their losses. In our prayers, as in our interactions, we must hold space for the unnamed to be named, the unoffered to be offered to God, the shrouded shame of loss to be clothed in the light of Christian love. Why? Why should we — in keeping with the writings of the New Testament — give voice to a dimension of human experience that seems to challenge rather than manifest the joy of salvation? Because grief teaches us something we may be unable to learn in other ways — about Christ, what it means to follow Him, what it means to love our neighbor.
It is we who stand to learn from those who mourn, not the other way around. Just as the women who drew near to the tomb of Christ were the first to proclaim His resurrection, the church must heed the witness of those who have drawn near to the tombs of their own lives and found Christ there. Admittedly, this is not a novel concept but a kind of leitmotif throughout the Bible and historical Christian witness. The archetype, of course, is Job, whose grief — even over losses that would have been somewhat taboo in his time and place — only sharpened his faithfulness to Yahweh, impelling him to rise above human platitudes and seek an encounter with the living God.
The early church, too, professed the spiritual wisdom of grief, even that which lamented temporal losses like departed family members, rather than strictly spiritual losses like one’s sinfulness. St. John Chrysostom referred to Christ’s Beatitude for those who mourn as “the sum of all philosophy,” since “they who mourn for the death of children or kinsfolk, throughout all that season of their sorrow, are touched with no other desires, as of money, or honour, burn not with envy, feel not wrongs, nor are open to any other vicious passion, but are completely given up to their grief.”2 In the clarity of grief, those who mourn are granted the grace of surrender, of relinquishment. Grief is the mechanism by which we humans learn to begin letting go — of people and experiences and intangibles we may have lost, yes, but also of the countless false ideals and expectations we take shelter in apart from God.
Learning from Disenfranchised Grief. Disenfranchised loss, as a unique subset of grief, carries some unique lessons for those who are willing to learn. Many of the losses it entails — divorce, job loss, or estrangement, for instance — seem at first glance avoidable, the consequences of bad decisions or sinful actions, making them smaller or less valid griefs. Yet those who find themselves in such situations (as I have) soon realize the opposite is also true. As difficult as it is to face the tragedies we had absolutely no control over (and therefore cannot be blamed for), it is also excruciating to face the ones we ourselves contributed to, however much or little, intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes our best and most pious efforts are not enough to turn the ship in time to avert the iceberg. And yet, in this grief, too — this grief in which we hardly feel we deserve it — God is with us. How extraordinary.
In grieving with those who bear disenfranchised losses, whatever form they take, we afford them something they cannot give themselves: the chance to integrate their wound into lived community, social memory, and Christian love. In short, we offer them a foothold toward wholeness, toward becoming the New Creation they are called to in Christ.
At the same time, we give ourselves — as the church — the opportunity to integrate grief into the story of salvation. In an age of toxic positivity and self-reliance, of avoiding and numbing pain rather than seeking transcendent consolation, acknowledging the disenfranchised losses in our communities serves as a perpetual reminder that life is not perfect, and neither are we, and we will always be in need of salvation.
But how do we begin? How do we learn to acknowledge and weep with those who encounter disenfranchised losses, many of which are invisible to the naked eye of social interaction? What do we say and do in these situations? I asked myself the same question as I re-read my friend’s text, the paralysis of vulnerability and inadequacy creeping in. Memories of my seasons of silent grief came back to me then. Moments, weeks, entire seasons when the sadness and confusion had been as crippling as any other tragedy. What would have touched my spirit? What would I have been able to receive from others?
Several hours later, on the other side of North America, a party platter of sushi showed up on my friend’s doorstep. It’s not the cozy casserole I would have brought if my friend lived closer, and the sushi arrived three hours early because DoorDash didn’t factor in the different time zone. An imperfect gesture for an imperfect situation. But that’s probably the point. Sometimes, weeping with those who weep means ordering sushi. Other times it means offering to pray, picking up groceries, doing the laundry, or just saying, “I see your grief and am not afraid to stand here with you.” But it always means showing up in the imperfection of it all — life and loss — and being open to learn and hear the witness of those who mourn. —Nicole M. Roccas
Nicole M. Roccas, PhD, is a writer and communications professional in the Toronto area. Her books address sensitive and difficult areas of life, like grief, and how they relate to the lived experience of Christian faith. You can find her on Instagram (@NicoleRoccas) or her website (www.nicoleroccas.com).
- Kenneth J. Doka, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1989), 4.
- John Chrysostom, Homily 15 on Matthew, in Catena Aurea, Commentary on the Four Gospels; Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers by Thomas Aquinas, St. Matthew, vol. 1 (Oxford: James Parker, 1874), 151, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/p1catenaaureacom01thomuoft/page/150/mode/2up.