Disenfranchised Grief: What Stepmoms Need to Know

I couldn’t stop crying. My whole body was wracked by sobs. I couldn’t eat. I had a sick, gnawing feeling in my stomach. After sleeping for a few hours, I would wake up, and remember what happened. I kept thinking that I would wake up from this nightmare, and he would be here again.

When we had to say goodbye to our beloved cat Garfunkel earlier this month, I was inconsolable. As far as I knew, he was a perfectly healthy eight-year- old cat until I found him on the kitchen rug one morning, unable to walk and in a great deal of pain. After emergency vet visits, we learned that he had a rare, untreatable illness. Then we had to do the unthinkable. We had to make the decision to say goodbye to him.

I was unprepared for the waves of grief that followed his death: guilt over the euthanasia, pain over losing him, and a feeling that our family was no longer whole. Some may say, “He was just a cat.” However, in my case, Garfunkel was part of our family, our everyday routines, and our lives. So, to me, he was much more than “just a cat” but it was hard for me to share how difficult it was to lose him when others have lost a child, sibling, or parent. When we can’t express our grief, this leads to a more complicated form of grief. And this is where disenfranchised grief comes in.

What is disenfranchised grief?

Disenfranchised grief is a term that was coined by Kenneth Doka, a leading expert on grief counseling. He defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that people experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Disenfranchised grief occurs frequently with pet loss because society as a whole doesn’t recognize the pain that pet owners experience when they lose their fur babies. Some other examples of situations that lead to disenfranchised grief are transformational losses, such as the loss of a job or divorce, the loss of community when moving, and the loss of identity. When these losses are minimized by society, the griever may feel a sense of shame or guilt about grieving because they believe their grief is not valid. As a stepmom, you are probably not a stranger to disenfranchised grief.

Transformational loss

I had my first experience with disenfranchised grief six years ago, when we first got married. Naturally, this was a happy time in my life. I was moving in with the love of my life, and I was beginning my new life as a wife and stepmom. When we were getting ready to sell my house, the realtor came over to take pictures and get more information for the listing. After he left, I couldn’t stop crying. I was just as surprised by these waves of emotion as my husband was.

Even though I was excited about moving in with my husband and stepdaughter, I was also sad about selling my first house. I had lots of memories of my family and friends staying there. My parents had helped me with projects around the house. We repainted the inside, built a new gate, and put fresh rock down outside. My house was my sanctuary and it truly felt like home to me. I was selling it, and moving into a house that didn’t feel like mine. (Tips for second wives who are moving into their new husband’s home here.)

I didn’t feel like I could openly express my grief because who would understand it? I mean, I was moving into a bigger house, and I would no longer be living alone. Who in their right mind would be crying about that? I thought to myself. Clearly, I was experiencing disenfranchised grief.

Loss of Identity

I was also adjusting to becoming an instant stepmom. I had been single for 33 years, spending part of that time traveling around the world, so the transition into my new role was rocky for me. Even though I had spent time with my husband and stepdaughter, those times were more like “dates”—playing in the park, carving pumpkins for Halloween, flying a kite on a rare windy day.

Now, I was picking my stepdaughter up from school, helping her with homework, and making sure that she brushed her teeth, all of the mundane things that aren’t so glamorous but a part of our daily lives. Suddenly, I felt the burden of being the best stepmother I could be. I felt guilty if I left my husband and stepdaughter alone, so I stopped going to my Monday night Zumba class.

After being independent for so long and doing whatever I wanted, I was struggling with trying to fit into the new role I thought I had been assigned. I also felt like I had lost myself by not doing the things that I enjoyed and made me “me.” As a result, I felt weepy and emotional at home, not at all like my usual upbeat self. I couldn’t talk to my husband about this because I didn’t want him to see me as a failure, so I decided to go to a counselor.

My counselor helped me by listening to all of my doubts and fears about becoming a new stepmother and wife. She explained that I was grieving the loss of the person that I had been for 33 years, and even though getting married was a happy event, it was still a big transition in my life. I was adjusting to the changes in my life.

What are the symptoms of disenfranchised grief?

What I experienced with disenfranchised grief is completely normal, and it can affect people in different ways. These are some of the most common symptoms, according to Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, a licensed counselor:

  • Physical: Headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia
  • Emotional: Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety or guilt
  • Cognitive: Ruminating, inability to focus, upsetting dreams
  • Behavioral: Crying, avoiding others, withdrawing socially

If you notice that you’re experiencing some of the symptoms, it’s important to take steps to recognize and manage your disenfranchised grief.

How can I manage disenfranchised grief?

Acknowledge the losses. Whatever you might be feeling, recognize that it’s a valid feeling you need to process and work through in order to feel better. Name your feeling, consider it, and then accept it. You can identify your feeling by finishing the sentence “I feel…” In my case, I could say, I feel sad about losing the familiarity of my home. Give yourself a moment to consider how you’re feeling and then accept it. If you allow yourself to process these feelings, you can work your way through them. 

Uncover self-criticism. Acknowledge that these are valid feelings, you’re in a difficult situation, and you’re doing the best you can. Don’t indulge in negative self-talk or beat yourself up, which will only result in more bottled-up feelings. One of the most destructive statements you can tell yourself is you knew what you were signing up for. Clearly, you didn’t know how you would feel after getting married, and no one can predict the myriad of situations that occur in stepfamilies. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself.

Surround yourself with people who understand. Whether you are grieving the loss of your pet or the loss of your identity, share your feelings with those who will be able to understand and validate your feelings. Maybe they have had similar experiences or they can relate to how you’re feeling. Talk to them! You can also work with a counselor or a therapist to help you cope with your feelings.

Grieve in your own way. There is no timeline or protocol for grief. Give yourself permission to grieve in a way that feels comfortable to you.  

Honor the loss through a ritual. This can be an informal ritual, where you take time to reflect on the losses, but also on the gains. Instead of trying to “let go” of those those losses, you can bring pieces of them forward with all of the positives. In my case, I lost my first house, but I gained a new home with my family. Together, we made some changes to our new home, such as painting and moving rooms, that helped all of us adjust to our new living arrangements.

Take the first step

The worst thing you can do is try to avoid or bottle up your feelings. Cath Duncan, grief educator and coach, explains, “When we resist emotions, they’re forced into unconscious expression, giving them greater power over us and leaving us feeling even more out of control, stuck, and afraid in our grief.” That’s why it’s important for you to take the first step towards healing. You will emerge as a stronger, more resilient person.