When you're in mourning, it's easy to feel that nobody understands what you're going through. And this is particularly true with "disenfranchised grief"—the pain of a significant loss that is not openly acknowledged or socially supported. Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in New York, who coined the term in 1985, says disenfranchised grief can result from a number of situations. "Your ex-husband passes away, for example, and your friends don't see why it matters." Or an executive is having a serious affair with her married co-worker. The guy dies, and she can't say, "He was the love of my life." Or a gay person's partner becomes ill, but they've never been open about their relationship. In some cases, society doesn't consider the loss a tragedy (a beloved pet is killed, an adult sibling dies); in other cases, it's unacceptable for you to do so (your child is diagnosed with a mental disability and you're not supposed to vocalize any disappointment). Disenfranchised grief can also occur when a death feels shameful (a family member commits suicide or dies of AIDS) and the fear of judgment by others stops you from sharing your feelings.
The problem with suffering in silence is that you don't have support when you need it most, says Mary McCambridge, a New York–based grief counselor and founder of the Foundation for Grieving Children. Bottling up intense feelings often leads to deep resentment, she adds, and is stressful on the body, which can make you more vulnerable to illness.
It's much healthier, McCambridge and Doka agree, to claim your right to grieve:
1. Recognize that there is nothing wrong with you. Whatever your feelings are, they're legitimate.
2. Find people who will understand. Search online—there are bereavement support groups for just about any type of loss.
3. Be honest about how you feel. If a well-meaning friend cracks a joke about your deceased ex-husband, says Doka, soberly explain that this loss is painful for you.
4. Develop a ritual or ceremony to commemorate the person's passing. Visit the grave after the funeral—or hold a private one—when you can take as much time as you need to express your anguish.
From the February 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.