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The Importance Of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small)

Photo: Sarah Gonzales for NPR


When someone close to you dies — maybe a parent, a spouse or a sibling — it’s a big loss. Those around you might acknowledge that loss by showing up with food, checking in or maybe sending a card. But what about when a neighbor dies? Or that long-awaited family reunion is cancelled? There’s a chance others might not acknowledge or recognize it as a loss — and you may even feel guilty for even feeling this way.

Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls this ‘disenfranchised grief’. He coined the term in 1989 to capture this feeling of loss that no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to. “Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,” he says.

Doka says disenfranchised grief doesn’t just occur when someone dies — it includes other losses that aren’t acknowledged: a pet dying, losing a job or missing out on milestone events like prom or a 50th birthday celebration. “The pandemic of COVID-19 will be followed by a pandemic of complicated grief, because so many losses are disenfranchised,” he says.

We spoke with Doka and therapist David Defoe about why it’s important to acknowledge, understand, and honor those losses while also adapting to a changed life.

Listen to the full conversation on Life Kit at the top of this page or here.

Know that these types of losses are valid, natural and normal

Some relationships, like an online friend, an ex-spouse or a godparent, aren’t the same for everyone. In many Hispanic families, Doka says, godparents are very significant. “We even called godparents ‘compadres’ and ‘comadres,’ which literally mean ‘to father with’ or ‘to mother with.’ But if a godparent dies, most of society will just shrug it off, ‘Well, OK, sorry, but what’s the big deal?”

You may be mourning your daily commute because it was time to be alone with your thoughts and decompress, you might miss social outings and the joy they brought, or you may miss being able to volunteer and feel a sense of purpose. All of that can create disenfranchised grief. “Grief is a reaction to a loss, not just a reaction to a death,” he says.

Don’t dismiss how you feel: acknowledging the loss and what it means to you is the first step.

Get to the root of the grief

You might mistake the grief you are feeling with depression and anxiety. Defoe says some of the symptoms are the same: numbness, trouble focusing, feelings of being overwhelmed. But he says your feelings of grief won’t go away unless you address them. “We say depression and anxiety are conditions of the mind, while grief is a condition of the heart. The grief that is associated with loss has to be dealt with on the emotional and the heart level. You can’t think your way into better grief,” says Defoe.

Even as more people are getting vaccinated and life is slowly returning to “normal,” Defoe says, it’s important to deal with these feelings, because they won’t go away. “They stay with us. When we don’t take the time to appropriately grieve our pain and our emotional stuff that we put aside, it comes out. We’ll get angry, we’ll get apathetic, we start realizing that there’s some things that used to not bother us, but now we’re easily triggered,” he says.

Talk to someone and tell them what you need

Talk to friends about how you are feeling. Let them know how they can support you in grief. You might find a therapist helpful. Finding community in support groups, whether in person or online, can also help you create connections and process the grief. There’s power in being with people who have an understanding of what you’re going through. “One of the least advantageous things that we can do is try to mourn by ourselves,” says Defoe.

Find a ritual to honor the loss

For losses associated with disenfranchised grief, there are no established, societally-approved rituals. “There’s no casket, there’s no burial. There’s nothing like that — you have to figure out how to navigate a new world without even a sense of conclusion,” says Defoe.

Create your own conclusionary rituals. It could be journaling, creating a piece of art, planting flowers, running a race or getting a tattoo. Remember, all grief is processed at a very personal, individual level, so rituals will be specific to you and how you are feeling. “We don’t get over losses,” says Defoe. “We have to then figure out a way to move beyond them.”


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.


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