Mental & Emotional Health
When Estrangement and Grief Collide
There is a type of grief that is rarely discussed or even widely known. It is formally classified as “disenfranchised grief” and sometimes called “estrangement grief”. This kind of grief is not readily acknowledged by society. I do not believe the lack of acknowledgment is intentional. After all, you cannot acknowledge that which never occurs to you.
This form of grief that can be a surprise in its arrival. It is a grief seldom broached by its sufferers because of the all-too-common “fear and guilt factor”. And yet it is more common than people realize.
Kym was the wife of an Army officer for thirty years. About thirteen years ago, her husband was injured and subsequently diagnosed with PTSD. Although he managed his symptoms for a number of years on his own, a combined number of serious stressors resulted in a psychological break.
After holding a weapon to Kym’s head, her husband thereafter disappeared, threatening to take his own life. Kym had already spent a year in an abusive situation and after his disappearance, an additional eighteen months of a life fraught with terror ensued. She did not know where her husband was, she never knew if he would suddenly show up, and her life was lived in constant fear.
Rather than being informed by the military (as is protocol), Kym’s children were tasked with informing her of her husband’s eventual death by suicide. Most might assume that Kym’s feelings would be of relief. However, Kym states, “Even after [over six] years, the grief is overwhelming. I don’t know if my grief is normal. The guilt comes in waves; that his death is my fault, at least in some part”.
Hannah’s** husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and amid much ugliness, subsequently divorced her six years after his diagnosis. Hannah says that when she was later informed of her husband’s death, “I was surprised at the intensity of my pain. I had been so angry at him because of all that he had been putting [both me and our children] through, that I had forgotten about how much I truly loved him. I forgot about our happy times, our special memories, our dreams. I forgot about “us”. I was grieving for the loss of our life together as much as I was for the loss of him.”
After twenty years of marriage, my parents quite amicably divorced. Remaining good friends post-divorce, my father continued his regular presence at all family gatherings and when he remarried seven years after the divorce, his wife too was welcomed into our family.
Approximately two months after my husband passed away, my father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Along with the rest of our family, my mother was often at the hospital during his final weeks and when he died, she mourned my father’s passing just as much as the rest of our family.
About a month after my father’s death, while I was still reeling from losing both my husband and my father within four months of one another, my mother remarked to me, “I’m very surprised that I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling”. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “I didn’t expect to feel this level of sorrow. I mean, we were divorced for as long as we were married. I know he was the father of my children [my brother and I], but I honestly never expected to feel this huge sense of loss. I feel kind of silly in a way”.
Nanci C. and her older brother were only twenty months apart in age and grew up competitive in nature and quite different in personality. As they grew into adulthood, Nanci felt their relationship become very one-sided – when they spoke on the phone, he talked and she listened. Eventually, Nanci found herself going through an acrimonious divorce during which she received no emotional support or understanding from her brother. She withdrew from the relationship; saying, “I had just finally had enough”.
After a number of years had passed, Nanci and her brother mended their relationship, so much so that he became her “go-to guy” for encouragement. Tragically, it was not too long after they finally established a loving and mutual brother-sister relationship that her brother committed suicide. Nanci says, “I finally had my big brother and I felt an enormous sense of loss [when she received word of his death] due to a newfound relationship with someone I had virtually never gotten along with.”
Though different scenarios all, the emotional aftershocks involved with disenfranchised or estrangment grief share several common denominators; one of the most prevalent being guilt. Hannah shares, “I blamed myself for not answering [my ex-husband’s] last email. I felt like that if I had, he would still have the fight in him to keep going; that it was my fault that he died. It was my fault that our boys no longer had their father.” Nanci agrees, saying, “I felt guilty that though I knew [my brother] was desperate, I didn’t jump on a plane or throw him on one to get to me. I felt guilty I didn’t save him.”
Given the fact that we are largely a death-denying society, another unfortunate aspect of disenfranchised grief is the lack of understanding on the part of far too many. For example, Kym feels compelled to put on a front, saying, “My behavior is ‘scripted’ – I am after all, the [officer’s] wife. I am expected to behave within that decorum. Any other emotion; anger, frustration or ranting about [my husband] or the system is absolutely not allowed.” Hannah adds, “People acted like I didn’t have the right to grieve, so I downplayed how intensely I was hurting.”
So how do you cope with unexpected and often-unrecognized grief, especially if you are met with little sympathy or understanding?
Answer: Any way you wish.
Whether you are genuinely grieving the loss of someone from whom you were estranged (as were Kym and Hannah), or the loss of a person with whom you had re-built a relationship (as had Nanci), or your grief feels disproportionate to the relationship (as with my mother), you have every right to your feelings, any one and all of them. No one can tell you how to feel. No one can dictate feelings. How you feel is how you feel – period. In other words, honor the authenticity of your grief, regardless of any opinions that may surround you. Remember too that simply because few people discuss or even acknowledge disenfranchised grief does not mean that it does not exist or that it is not real – and it certainly does not mean that you are not entitled to discuss it in any context that you wish.
I believe that no one can provide better direction than those who have lived the experience:
Kym: “This journey is a crucible, burning away what I no longer want or need; rediscovering the person I was and choosing who I want to be going forward. The journey is different for everyone; not one of us has lived the same story. No one can walk it for us, nor should they be permitted to influence the pace or the route. If someone is pressuring you towards their goals, walk away, at least temporarily.”
Hannah: “Do not allow [others’] opinions to influence what you do with your life. Once you remember the love you had for the person you lost, you will remember the good times, the joys, the special memories and you WILL be able to smile. I remember our happy times and the reason we fell in love. I look at our two boys and know that my husband and I did something right.”
Nanci C: “Extend grace to yourself. If you don’t endorse your true feelings, it is difficult to come to terms with the truth. Make sure to have someone who will openly listen to you express your feelings, should you need someone to listen. And if you are at peace with your response to your person’s passing, accept that too. Realize that this is how wisdom is gained … through circumstances that both challenge us and enable us to reach out to others with renewed compassion.”
And from yours truly: Remember that no matter the terminology or any clinical definitions attached to that terminology, grief is grief. You are fully entitled to grieve that which has left a hole in your soul and embrace that which will help you heal.
*Special thanks to all who contributed to this story
**Names changed at the contributor’s request in the interest of privacy. Bracketed additions included for privacy, clarity and/or continuity
Carole Brody Fleet is the award-winning author of the #1 ranked new release in its genre, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Women…” (Viva Editions, April 12, 2016). She is also the author of “Happily EVEN After… “(Viva Editions); winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award, one of the top national awards in publishing; as well as the critically praised, national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…” (New Horizon Press). A contributor to the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul series, Ms. Fleet regularly appears as a media expert on numerous television and radio programs nationally and internationally as well as in national and international print media. To learn more, please visit www.carolefleetspeaker.com and www.widowswearstilettos.com