Everyone who’s ever grieved knows how devastating grief can be. It affects every part of us, tangling our emotions and putting stress on our bodies. Grief can cause physical pain and illness, and it can make us distracted, exhausted, and depressed.
The important people in our lives — loved ones, employers, teachers — don’t always understand the symptoms of our grief. Especially if they haven’t experienced grief in the same way we do, they might think we’re overreacting, or that we’ve been grieving too long and need to get over it. They might not even recognize that the irritability or sleepiness we’re exhibiting is a direct result of grief.
There’s a name for when people don’t understand or acknowledge our grief: disenfranchised grief.
When does disenfranchised grief occur?
It’s especially common when you’re grieving a loss that doesn’t fit in with expectations.For example, if you’re experiencing deep grief over pregnancy loss, the loss of a pet, or the death of a celebrity who you didn’t know personally, some people might think it’s not comparable to the loss of a spouse, child, or parent, and they might dismiss your grief.
It’s painful when others don’t understand your grieving or don’t believe that you’re really feeling the loss that you are. Disenfranchised grief is more common than you might realize, and it increases the trauma of a loss.
And yet it can even go a step farther. The more extreme version of disenfranchised grief is known as suffocated grief.
What is suffocated grief?
Suffocated grief, first defined by Dr. Tashel Bordere of the University of Missouri-Columbia, describes situations when grief is not just unacknowledged, it’s also punished. Dr. Bordere has found it’s especially common for children to have their grief suffocated, especially in a classroom setting. Children from less privileged backgrounds are often the most strongly affected, Dr. Bordere says, and all the more so when they’re also African American.
“Their normal grief reactions are penalized,” Dr. Bordere says, “or they’re misinterpreted based on the lens that people are using to decide about whether they get to grieve. African-American youth, for example, are disproportionately placed in classes for special education and behavior issues in lieu of offering support or people understanding that some of their behaviors are tied to normal grief reactions of being distracted, sleepiness, regressive behaviors, and things of that nature.”
Disenfranchised or suffocated grief in the classroom
Children don’t always grieve in the same way adults do, and teachers may not always know about the losses in their students’ lives.
Maybe a student’s dog has died, or they’ve even lost a cousin or grandparent. The teacher is less likely to hear about these losses than the loss of a parent or sibling, so they don’t have any context for a sudden change in behavior that can lead to grief expressions like anger or withdrawal.
Minority children living in an inner-city neighborhood can have additional sources of grief that a teacher might not be aware of. They are more likely than privileged children to witness a shooting, or to be harassed by people in positions of relative power, or to have a family member sent to prison. These are all traumatic experiences that can lead to grief and the behavioral changes that come with it.
Even when a teacher does know about a student’s loss, they may not understand the ways that student expresses their grief. The teacher might be expecting sadness and tears but actually see a child sleeping through class, failing tests in a subject they used to do well in, or developing a tendency to talk back.
These are all punishable offenses in classrooms, and a teacher who doesn’t understand the root cause of these behaviors will respond by failing the child or issuing detentions and suspensions rather than extending compassion and helping the student cope.
There’s a domino effect for students whose grief is punished in school. A failed test or missed homework assignment can lead to even poorer academic performance. One dismal school year might result in the student being held back a year or tracked into special education or remedial classes. There, they’ll face new stigmas and an uphill battle toward success later in life. Studies show that special education students are substantially less likely to graduate college than general education students, and once in the workforce, they earn four dollars an hour less than others.
All that can start with one tragic death in a child’s life.
Disenfranchised or suffocated grief in adults
It’s not just students who can be affected. Another common place for grief to be suffocated is at work.
An adult who has lost someone may by distracted and upset while at work, affecting their productivity and performance. They might miss workdays to attend the funeral, help settle a parent’s affairs, or simply grieve.
Executives and other higher-paid workers can typically get away with these changes in behavior and attendance, and they may even have bereavement leave provided by their employer. But hourly workers are more likely to have a strict cap placed on their time off, requiring them to choose between taking the time they need and keeping their job.
If they skip a loved one’s funeral or continue to work despite debilitating grief, their work performance may suffer, and they might face disciplinary action or firing even though they did what was required by going to work.
Dr. Bordere also points to a suffocated grief situation that happens in hospitals. When a loved one is hospitalized in critical condition, families may show up in large numbers to support each other and await news. When those families are African American, Latino, Middle Eastern, or from other less privileged ethnic groups, they’re more likely to be policed by hospital staff for their grief expressions.
In some cultures, wailing is a totally normal reaction to a death — it’s what’s expected. But a large family wailing in a hospital waiting area is likely to prompt calls to security. The same goes for any other highly vocal or physical grief reaction in a hospital setting. And the sad truth in today’s America is that those grief symptoms are even more likely to prompt a security call if the people expressing them are black or brown.
Dr. Bordere told us how devastating this can be for a grieving family: “At a time of grief and pain, their pain gets disrupted and silenced, and even punished, when they’re asked to leave their cared about person and are faced with a security officer with a gun at the bedside of that person. But they’re just simply crying or wanting to pray as a group over their cared about person who is dying, or who has died.”
Disenfranchised and suffocated grief happens all over the spectrum of human experience. It can affect college students, who may have to choose between taking a final exam and being there for a dying loved one. It affects the families of criminals, whose grief is suppressed and diminished after their loved one is killed or sentenced to prison. It can happen to anyone, but it’s most likely to happen to the least powerful among us, who are subject to punishment by those with power.
Reducing disenfranchised and suffocated grief
What can we do to try to prevent disenfranchised and suffocated grief?
A big part of the solution is understanding the grief of other people, Dr. Bordere says.
“One way around suffocated grief is just becoming more educated around what grief looks like,” she says. “That it goes beyond emotional expression. People expect that tears are the most frequent way that people grieve. But people grieve physically, eating more, eating less. Cognitively, being distracted, jumpy. Spiritually, questioning religious beliefs and trying to find meaning. There are so many different, diverse ways in which people grieve.”
Dr. Bordere has developed a tool that illuminates how children tend to express grief and how they can best be supported while grieving. It’s invaluable for teachers, but they’re not the only ones who can benefit from it; it’s also useful for parents, social workers, medical personnel, and anyone who works with children. It’s called S.H.E.D.: Surviving, Healing, Evolving Through Death and Loss, and it’s available through the University of Missouri Extension.
If you’re not someone who works with children, you can still work to avoid causing suffocated grief to those around you.
Understand that there are usually reasons for changes in a person’s behavior, and grief may be behind a change that seems problematic to you. The answer may be support rather than punishment. Advocate for sensible approaches to bereavement policies in your workplace, and be flexible with your own employees when they’re grieving. Don’t be quick to report unusual behavior that isn’t hurting anyone, like loud crying in a hospital.
In essence: Be kind and compassionate. Everyone around you is struggling in their own way, and many are actively grieving. We’re better people when we try to be helpful — or at the very least, avoid being harmful.