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The Woman Who Didn’t Get to Grieve

For some families, suicide can make grieving taboo. But it shouldn’t be.

Key points

  • American culture often leaves people feeling like their sorrow doesn't count.
  • Disenfranchised grief occurs when family members aren't invited or allowed to grieve together.
  • Some losses, like suicide, can lead to traumatic grief, complicating the healing process.

After many years of accompanying clients through episodes of loss and grief, all the while experiencing significant losses in my own life, I’ve come to see grieving as an art we need to get good at to experience a rewarding life.

Much of what people are taught about grief in our American culture, (and in the cultures impacted by our values) is likely not to be true, or at least misleading, causing much suffering in its wake. This is what happened to the woman who didn't get to grieve.

The conversation happened online recently after a presentation where I mentioned something about the "Art of Grieving." An elderly woman spoke up and said, somewhat matter-of-factly, “I’ve never done that. I’ve never grieved.”

Given that she had obviously had a long life, I asked her to say more about that. She began naming situations where, in her mind, no grieving had taken place.

When my parents died, I lived far from home, so I wasn’t involved in much that went on. My siblings handled everything. With my first husband, I had divorced him by the time he died. With my second husband, since I was his second wife and we had no children, when he died, his first family swooped in and took charge of everything. I attended the funerals, of course but that was all.

“There’s a name for that,” I told her.

It’s called disenfranchised grief. It sounds like you were treated as though your sorrow didn’t count since you weren’t in your parents’ life closely when they died, and since you were a divorced wife and later, a second wife. I see that a lot was missing for you by not being able to grieve with members of your community.

Having had her sorrow validated, she continued naming losses. “I had a brother who was estranged from the family, and when he died of suicide, we didn’t mourn his passing.”

“There are a couple of names for that,” I said.

First off, we don’t have a name for losing a sibling. When our parents die, we are orphans. When we lose a spouse, we are widows or widowers, and when we lose a child, people say we are bereaved. In Sanskrit, there is a word for this which means it is against the natural order of things.

But the sorrow of losing a sibling, a person you are genetically closest to, and who may hold significant memories with you of a shared childhood, that loss is not fully appreciated by others who have not experienced it.

So, I would call this traumatic grief, which in this instance you have lived through on two counts–your brother was estranged from your family, a significant loss in itself, and then, his taking his own life is another occasion ripe with taboo. These are losses often not spoken of. It’s difficult to grieve something or someone we can’t speak about.

Speaking about the notion that there are things we need to grieve, which we are discouraged from speaking about seemed to elicit one more loss. Moving closer to the camera, the woman said, “And in my own family, my daughter has not spoken to me for two years. And I have no idea why or what I might have done.”

“It’s not in the grief literature,” I told her, “But the younger generation has a name for that, and it’s called ghosting. My opinion on that is that it fluctuates between unkindness and cruelty."

By sharing her experiences with me, she was given the first opportunity to express her grief through storytelling, an art form for grieving. As we wrapped up the call, she told me later, “Thank you for giving me to me.”

Our online meeting ended before I had a chance to say what comes to me now, “I’m sorry for your many cumulative losses and especially for the secondary losses of not being able to experience support while you grieved them.”

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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