De-stigmatizing Grief

Guest blog post by Kailey Roberts, a clinical psychology PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research and an NIH-supported pre-doctoral research fellow specializing in cancer and bereavement. She has worked as a researcher and clinician for 6 years supporting the psychosocial needs of individuals diagnosed with cancer and their family members.

Originally published on April 30, 2015, republished January 14, 2016.

When I was invited to contribute to this blog because of my professional and personal experiences with grief, I struggled with what to focus on. Grief is in many ways a ubiquitous experience but is also so diverse in the ways and reasons its felt that sometimes it can be seen as an untouchable set of emotions, even by some mental health professionals.  Further, as someone who is actively grieving, I understand that often there is nothing that can be said to help the pain; sometimes it is just about feeling the waves of pain.  However, through my professional experiences studying bereavement, I have picked up a number of important points that inform my own process of grieving as well as how I approach grief counseling that may be helpful to share:

11) Loss comes in many forms.
Grief can be experienced as a result of many different types of losses. While my professional experiences have primarily focused on grief as a result of death, I preface this all with the important acknowledgement that loss comes in many forms, whether it is loss of a limb, loss of a social role, loss of physical health, or loss of a relationship.

2) One loss may be the starting point for a series of losses.
When grieving the loss of an individual, a person may actually be grieving over many losses, not just of the individual. For example, parents who lose a child often not only grieve the loss of their child, but also the loss of what they knew as their role as parent.

3) Meaning reconstruction in the face of loss.
Central aspects of the grief experience can be a loss of meaning, reconnecting with meaning in life, and making sense of the loss itself.  

Loss of worldview assumptions. Death in itself may be a topic that a grieving person has not consciously thought about previously; beliefs about a just world may be challenged, or visions of what a “good death” looks like may be blown away.

Meaning-reconstruction. Grief can often involve feeling disconnected from and/or reconnecting to sources of meaning in life, as well as finding meaning in the deceased person’s life.  For many grieving individuals, finding meaning in life after a devastating loss can seem unthinkable but many find that reconnecting with sources of meaning can be a way of connecting with the deceased individual or with important aspects of one’s identity.

4) Grief is impacted by societal values.
As with any emotional experience, a person’s experience of grief is impacted by familial, cultural and societal beliefs about death and norms for mourning.  For some, these norms may be helpful but for others, these may not only be unhelpful, but detrimental, particularly if they lead to a lack of recognition of someone’s right to grieve or right to grieve in their own way.

5) Disenfranchised grief.
“Disenfranchised grief” is what the grief counseling world refers to as any experience of grief that is not recognized by the majority or that may be in some way negatively received if talked about.  Whether a person’s grief is “disenfranchised” might depend on the type of loss they experienced, their pre-existing experience(s) of marginalization, their social and workplace environment, or a combination.

a) Disenfranchised grief because of cause of death. Certain causes of death are stigmatized, such as suicide and HIV/AIDS-related deaths.  In the case of suicide, family members may feel they will be stigmatized because of assumptions about suicide and mental distress. 

b) Disenfranchised grief because of relationship to the deceased. Societal norms about what constitutes a meaningful relationship can dictate how bereaved individuals are treated and acknowledgement of grief.  On a policy level this can leave some grieving people without institutional support for their grief, as many institutional bereavement leave policies only acknowledge familial relationships, excluding bereaved friends or unmarried partners.  On a social level, certain losses may be assumed to be more meaningful than others so individuals may not feel supported in speaking about the loss or their grief to their social circle.

6) Talking about grief can be disempowering.
It can be difficult to find spaces where talking about grief is welcomed. Many people find it uncomfortable to hear about grief and death, even if they sincerely want to help. Additionally, though a person may be grieving for months and years after a loss, social norms for how to help generally involve a great deal of attention, practical and emotional support in the wake of the loss but these sources of support may taper off.  This can leave a grieving an individual wondering where and when it is appropriate to talk about their grief and potentially feeling ashamed, saddened, and/or isolated in their grief.

7) Talking about grief can be empowering.
Particularly in the case of disenfranchised experiences of grief, the act of talking about the loss in a safe space can be a way of reclaiming the right to grieve as well as asserting the value of the deceased individual’s life.  In the case of suicide, this can be particularly meaningful if the deceased individual was marginalized in life. While bereaved individuals often express disappointment in finding certain friends or family members are less supportive than they expected, it is also common to discover new sources of support or strengthened relationships.

A list of 7 points relevant to grief certainly does not do justice to the complex, unique, terrible, poignant and fluctuating experience that grief can be. However, it is my hope that in sharing this someone may feel a little less isolated for even a moment and validated in their experience of grief, and that this continues an open dialogue to de-stigmatize grief.

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Please visit and share the following list of resources:

Parachute NYC provides alternatives to hospitalization for people experiencing emotional crises.

The Support Line is a free and confidential phone service operated by peer staff that offers support and referral services to NYC individuals experiencing emotional distress: 646-741-HOPE.

1-800-LIFENET is a free, confidential, multi-lingual, mental health and substance abuse information, referral, and crisis prevention hotline available to anyone at any time.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

The Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a public-private partnership advancing the Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.

ManhattanAlternative.com is a network of therapeutic service providers in New York City who are sex-positive, affirmative, and have expertise related to issues that kink, poly, consensually non-monogamous, trans, gender non-conforming, and/or LGBQ-identified individuals face.

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Also see Learning the Language of Grief at DulcineaPitagora.com for an experiential account of a bereavement support group.   

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111 Rubin, J. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Conley, T. D. (2014). On the margins: Considering diversity among consensually non-monogamous relationships. Journal f

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