Types of Grief Work: Anticipatory, Collective, and Disenfranchised

types of grief

In 2020, people worldwide expanded our vocabulary for describing and perhaps even experiencing grief. As COVID-19 spread globally—taking lives and radically altering the landscape of our daily lives—references to “anticipatory grief” and “collective grief” became far more common. Whereas “anticipatory grief” describes feelings of loss that precede an expected death, “collective grief” characterizes the shared emotional state of societies or groups when affected by a public trauma. 

A global pandemic of grief…

Both forms of grief—and grief more generally—have seemed far more pervasive since March 2020. Indeed, for the past year now, news and social-media headlines began alerting audiences to the possibility that the global pandemic might be triggering, well, grief. (For example, from a March 2020 headline from the Harvard Business Review: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief”). 

My own understanding and experience of grief—and my grief work with clients—has benefitted from familiarity with a third term: “disenfranchised grief.” First introduced in 1989 by Kenneth J. Doka, in his now out-of-print Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, disenfranchised grief is a “term for describing grief that is not acknowledged by society.” 

Exploring disenfranchised grief

Disenfranchised grief usefully describes any loss that may go unacknowledged because of social stigma—for example, the loss of a non-legal partner in a queer relationship. It also draws attention to losses that occur outside the status quo, such as the loss of a pet or a casual acquaintance. 

Disenfranchised grief is especially pernicious for sufferers because, by definition, it mostly occurs in the absence of rituals or support systems. So, since learning about it while completing my End-of-Life Doula certification, I’ve found it useful to ritualize seemingly trivial (or, put differently, unacknowledged) losses in small but meaningful ways. For example, I regularly light candles for losses that seem, to me, important and worthy of recognition—most recently, to make the birthday of a queer second-cousin of mine who died at 49. 

And, just as it has proven useful for so many to understand their difficulties at this time in terms of grief, I’ve found it helpful to attend to feelings of pain and sadness as potentially symptoms of disenfranchised grief – losses worthy of recognition, attention, ritual, and support.