We recently spoke to Doka about how disenfranchised grief may be experienced by individuals with losses related to genetic identity, family separation, and family secrets. You may be vulnerable to it, he says, if, for example, you:
- find out that a family member is not genetically connected to you;
- discover the identity of your biological father only to find that he’s deceased;
- search for and find biological family members but are rejected by them; or
- you learn of the death of a biological family member who refused contact with you
In each of these cases, Doka observes, you’ve lost a relationship. “It may not be a relationship that you ever had, but you may have lost a fantasy of a relationship you wanted to have.” And when kinship roles are not recognized, he adds, the right to grieve is also not recognized.
Disenfranchised grief also comes into play when secrets prevent open communication, observes Kathleen R. Gilbert, PhD, professor emerita in the department of applied health science, Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington and an Association for Death Education and Counseling Fellow in Thanatology (FT). Furthermore, adoptees, donor conceived people, and NPEs (not parent expected or nonparental event) individuals often have fantasies of reconciliation and a desire to understand their origin stories. When they search and find that their biological parents have died or they contact living relatives who are nonresponsive, there’s a lot of grief involved. “A piece of what they need to know is not available,” says Doka. “We like to create stories about ourselves. We want to know where we were born and who raised us, but in some situations the narrative is incomplete.” When you don’t know how you began, he adds, it influences your sense of self, and there’s grief over the loss of identity.
For all these types of losses, it’s a good bet that few will stand with you in any rituals of mourning, because in many cases there are no such rituals. And when there are, such as the funeral of a birthparent with whom you had not reunited—the man who, while married, had an affair with your mother and later ignored your attempt to connect—you may be excluded or made to feel unwelcome. And if the birthfather you never had the opportunity to meet died, it’s not likely friends will acknowledge that you have cause to mourn, let alone send Hallmark cards or drop by with casseroles. It’s even less likely if you’ve only just discovered—at the same time you learned who your birthfather was—that he died some time ago. And there are no rituals for adoptees who mourn the parents they’ve never known and may never know or for donor conceived individuals who can’t locate their donors. In all of these situations, others may never understand your sadness and your sense of loss over someone you didn’t know and something that happened long ago.
You—and those around you—may not believe you have the need or right to grieve for a relationship that never existed, but the loss of the idea, the wish, the hope for a relationship is as painful as the actual loss of a loved one.
“There are losses here,” Gilbert agrees. If you were adopted, for example, she says, “You didn’t have just one loss, you had layer upon layer of losses.” About this grief you experience over not having known your biological family, she says, “You own it, you know it, you feel it. And then you have this social surround—all the people around you looking at you and saying, ‘I know it’s hard, but you should be grateful for everything you have, for having the knowledge you have.” While there’s no reason for adopted individuals to feel gratitude, it’s not only expected but is also believed to erase any pain associated with the adoption experience. “And the thing is,” says Gilbert, “you may be very grateful, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t have a loss.”
Adoptees, furthermore, “are often told how lucky they were to get adopted, so they may feel disenfranchised from being able to mourn the loss of their birth/first parents,” adds JaeRan Kim, PhD, MSW, assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington Tacoma. And the feelings of donor conceived individuals may similarly be disrespected by those who suggest they not only should not feel loss but should consider themselves fortunate merely to exist.
What does it matter if others don’t understand? Social acknowledgement of losses is important, Gilbert says, because as social animals we require it. “It may be hard-wired into us to have those who support and care for us confirm the reality we’re trying to construct.” We don’t make sense of things ourselves, she explains. “We make sense in a social context. We play off of other people. We think about things and look at other people and see how they react to us.”