- Disenfranchised grief is others dismissing feelings of grief over the loss of someone they deem unimportant.
- We may grieve someone we have never met because they mirrored something we longed for within ourselves.
- Society is often uncomfortable with the grieving process.
I have been thinking about the tremendous public outpouring of grief and affection for Tina Turner after she died on May 24 in her adopted nation of Switzerland. I know from experience that not only public grieving happens when someone of this stature dies. Often, someone can feel a great loss and grieve as if a close family member has passed. We’ve seen it with the passing of other idols such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, James Brown, Janice Joplin, Christine McVie, John Lennon, and Princess Diana.
Unfortunately, people can often dismiss others’ grief over the loss of someone they’ve never met, not understanding how that grief can run so deep. This can easily result in the grieving person feeling judged, withdrawing, becoming silent or isolated, and in an unhealthy state. In our society, we are uncomfortable with the grieving process. Even if we accept that someone is sad over the loss of someone or something they felt strongly about, we become dismissive, especially if, after a while, they don’t “just get over it” and move on. These people miss the point that the grieving is not really for the person who died. It’s about them.
This kind of deeply felt loss over someone or something that is not immediately related is known as “disenfranchised grief.” It can happen over anything from the death of a pop idol to a pet to a coworker, patient, or someone we knew, resulting from a socially stigmatized cause, such as AIDS, drug addiction, or even lung cancer. When someone we care about develops dementia, we may grieve for who they were to us. People might say, “At least they are still with you,” but they are not the person they were before, which is a loss. It can include a miscarriage, where people respond, “You didn’t meet or raise this child. How can you grieve something you have not had?” Or maybe you left an abuser or a narcissist, and while that is good for you, it raises deep grief for you about the loss of what could have been or wished it had been that people don’t understand.
Why disenfranchised grief?
In the case of a pop idol such as Tina Turner, we associate that person with how we felt at various times in our life–perhaps we remember when we first heard that artist sing something that perfectly reflected how we felt inside at that moment. The great Roberta Flack even sang about that very experience in her number-one hit, “Killing Me Softly.” Maybe we remember how deeply we were in love with a spouse before they became abusive or how alive we felt then. One client recalled how he broke down in tears seeing a historic video of Sly and the Family Stone singing “I Am Everyday People” in the ’60s when he first encountered his own awakening of social justice and the feelings of hope embodied within the hippie culture.
I had such an experience when I went to my first Cher concert. Cher showed this video montage of everything she’d ever done, from Sonny & Cher's early recordings in the ’60s to their show in the ’70s, her solo music and movies through the ’80s, and her 1999 song “Believe,” which brought her career back. I was happy but suddenly began sobbing uncontrollably. My friends were asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and I really didn’t know until I realized that it wasn’t about her, but it was about me, about where I was and what I was feeling when I saw her over the years in these various incarnations.
Another reason we may grieve someone we’ve never met is that they mirrored something we longed for within ourselves. In Turner’s case, she became the embodiment of the women who, despite facing numerous obstacles and hardships—born poor, Black, married to an abusive husband, fleeing his abuse in the middle of the night without a plan, money, or even friends—built a new and massively successful career in her 40s as the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
She was on MTV in the 1980s when videos of people of color were not shown. She was sexy and powerful and had a base of fans who saw in her a model of the women they wanted to become. A friend once told me of attending Turner’s concert in the ’80s, being struck by how many big and strong-looking women with wide shoulders and broad hips were in attendance and how worshipful they appeared toward Turner. She mirrored their ambitions.
But it may be even harder to understand when someone is deeply affected by, say, the death of an ex-partner or ex-spouse who was abusive. Like these other examples, it may not be as much grief for the ex themselves, but who we were before the abuse became intolerable. There may have been good years in which the relationship was a joy, or the grieving person believed, maybe naively, in the ideal of a healthy, fulfilling relationship. They are not grieving as much for the ex but for the loss of the idealistic person they were then.
Impatience with others’ grief
We are a society that is largely uncomfortable with grief. Additionally, we have few truly meaningful rituals around the major events in our lives. We tend to want to keep moving forward and leave the past behind. Consider the differences between us and other countries when it comes to cities. In Europe, for example, one can see buildings—churches, homes, castles, etc.— that have stood for thousands of years and are sources of veneration and pride for citizens. In America, though, there seems to be only a handful of people who fight against the destruction of historical buildings. We have little time for “old things,” old people, or even our history.
Tina Turner said that her fame passed quickly here in America, while she had longevity in the UK and other countries outside America. We move at a fast pace and are onto the next big thing—rarely looking back.
When young men approach manhood in indigenous or older societies, their passage is honored and ritualized through the young person engaging in various symbolic acts of courage or endurance, thus becoming a responsible participant in that culture. In our society—apart from bar mitzvahs in the Jewish community—mostly the only initiation they are likely to receive is provided by street gangs or the military. When a spouse dies, we may hold a funeral or memorial service, but afterward, the survivors may be judged if they grieve for too long and don’t quickly embrace the process of daily living. We don’t seem comfortable in general with others’ grieving process.
However, grief, disenfranchised grief, complicated grief, and any other types of grief are real experiences not to be hurried or dismissed. It is important to find symbolic and/or practical ways to descend into the grief and re-emerge back into life.
Finding ways to grieve
What we must not do is allow others’ judgment of our process to stifle our need to grieve. Grieving is a natural and necessary process that helps us heal. Sharing our feelings is one of the most effective ways to experience that healing.
- Find a supportive friend or family that understands grief and your grief.
- If one has no supportive friends or family nearby, groups are available online, such as on Facebook, that have formed for this very purpose. Find the online Tina Turner fan club.
- Find a therapist who is supportive of the grieving or disenfranchised grieving process.
- In the case of Tina Turner, spending time with others who felt deeply about her, perhaps in her fan groups online, listening to some of her many songs, or watching one of her movies such as "What’s Love Got to Do with It?" or "Mad Max Thunderdome.”
- One might build a shrine to the person that includes photographs or other mementos that recall their loved presence.
Remember, whether it is you or someone you know who is grieving the loss of someone significant to them, honor the process. Be there for yourself or that person and be part of the healing process.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.