I feel like this is a word that so many of us know, and know we experience it, but maybe we don’t all know the intricacies of what grief means, how it operates in our brain, and how it specifically applies to estrangement.
What is grief?
Grief is most commonly caused by loss, usually assumed to be the death of a loved one, but there are many different types of grief. These include:
Uncomplicated grief: this is what ‘normal’ grief is, where symptoms are most intense for the first six months after a loss and they lesson with time.
Anticipatory grief: experiencing loss before it occurs (a loved one getting a terminal illness, etc).
Inhibited grief: when you don’t take time to recognize or process your feelings of grief. This can lead to physical problems such as trouble sleeping or panic attacks.
Complicated grief/ prolonged grief disorder: grief that doesn’t get better, when you are not able to accept the loss.
Delayed grief: when you process your feelings of the loss weeks, months, or even years later. This can be caused by the shock of the loss or being too busy with practical matters that you don’t have time or space to grieve until later.
Absent grief: when you don’t have outward signs of grieving, but are working through complex emotions internally.
Cumulative grief: when you process multiple losses at once (like losing a job and a marriage at the same time).
Traumatic grief: when you have prolonged difficulties after a loss, making everyday life challenging. It can also make it hard to have any positive memories of the loved one you lost. When this happens to children it’s called Childhood Traumatic Grief.
Collective grief: grieving far-reaching losses as part of a group (natural disasters, pandemics, etc).
While this is a general list, it brings to light the complexities of grief and their different types. Reading through this list, I can identify a few that I feel I experienced due to my estrangement:
Anticipatory grief through the many years of wondering when I’d finally say ‘enough’ and leave my family, and when I finally decided to leave, waiting for the right moment to escape. Delayed grief when I left and had to find a safe place to live, get a job, and figure out the basic necessities for me to survive. I didn’t have time or space to process my grief when I first left my family, I had to get my needs met first. Cumulative grief of processing the loss of multiple family members, my extended family and family friends, and even the loss of the person that I was with all of them. I had to grieve the loss of the life I thought I was going to have.
Of course, there is more complexity than even the list above, especially when exploring grief around estrangement.
Many people who haven’t experienced estrangement themselves don’t seem to really understand that grieving can even be part of our experience. “You’re free from them, you must feel so happy,” some might say, “I bet it is such a relief.” Others maybe don’t consider it grief because they aren’t dead, right? Or maybe because it was my decision, I must just feel better now.
I was even surprised with how much grief I experienced when I left my family. I hadn’t really considered how much loss I was actually taking on. I was just so ready to leave. Once I realized how intense the grief was, it became even more clear that others hadn’t considered how much grief I was processing due to my estrangement. I felt very alone in the experience. It seemed people had bigger expectations of me to handle life and move forward that I didn’t think they would have if my entire family would have actually died.
They didn’t seem to understand how hard going to holiday parties would be, how I might be overwhelmed by big crowds or intense situations, or that I might need more rest or take time off of work. I think people thought I could handle more, because they didn’t see how real the loss and grief was for me. This led me to some research on estrangement and grief.
This is when I came across the term “disenfranchised grief.”
Disenfranchised grief is known as hidden grief. It is a type of grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. It is minimized or not understood by others, making it challenging to work through. Estrangement loss is just one type of disenfranchised grief. Knowing this term gave me a lot of validation though.
Disenfranchised grief can also have its own list of symptoms. This includes insomnia, anxiety, depression, physical pain and symptoms, diminished self esteem, shame, relationship problems, trouble focusing, emotional overwhelm, mood swings, and more.
People who might not expect you to grieve have a hard time supporting you. It can also make it hard to take needed time away from work or school. These ideas that you ‘shouldn’t be sad’ can also be internalized which can lead to doubt and guilt around your ‘inappropriate’ reaction. It can cause increased difficulty working through distress, and difficulty coping with future losses.
Until I learned about this term and met others through Together Estranged, I think I was really hard on myself and how I was processing my estrangement. I had also put more expectations on myself to ‘handle it better.’ But, I would try to compare what expectations I would have for someone if their entire family died in some sort of accident. I would expect them to take time off work, maybe skip some social events, and have some sad days where they wouldn’t want to get out of bed. I tried to give myself that space, because, in a way, my experience wasn’t any less valid than what theirs would have been.
Grieving takes time and there is value in knowing how it can impact us. Grief can turn the intensity of all emotions up, anger, sadness, confusion… Grief is tied to all sorts of brain functions. This includes recalling memories, taking perspectives of another person, regulating our heart rate, and how we experience pain. There are many different parts of the brain that are creating the experience that we know as grief.
So how do we navigate grief?
Make sure you validate and honor your feelings. The emotions you feel are real and appropriate. You do not have to explain them to others and you don’t need permission to feel them.
Just because you feel negative feelings, it does not mean you need to act differently. You can acknowledge those feelings, but try not to gaslight yourself into thinking it was your fault or you should have done something different.
Find people who understand. Talk with trusted friends and loved ones who validate your experience. Talk with a therapist if you are able. Even connect with Together Estranged! You are not alone in your grief.
Grief is like riding a wave. It is not constant – it ebbs and flows. Some days the water is still and you feel content, other times the wave swells and everything can feel more intense. But it passes and calm waters will return.
Article by Em, Together Estranged Newsletter Coordinator
***Disclaimer: Em is not a certified mental health professional. This article is written as peer-to-peer support for the Together Estranged Community. If you are having a psychiatric emergency, please seek professional help.