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Healing the Ache of Alienation

Reece’s friend Jeremy was murdered when he was out of state visiting a relative. The circumstances surrounding his death are still somewhat unclear; there are no suspects. She wasn’t even informed about his death until a few days after the funeral. You might imagine that Reece’s grief fluctuated between shock, rage and profound sadness for quite some time. She tried to find out more information about his death but could find little more than the details printed in the newspaper. Jeremy’s family didn’t approve of their relationship and Reece’s family didn’t even know about Jeremy. It wasn’t as if she was trying to hide him from them, it was just that she never really knew how to explain who he was to her. The truth of the matter was, Reece had a hard time defining the relationship, herself. Reece and Jeremy had known each other for more than ten years. At first they were just friends, but over time their relationship evolved into much more than that. Because work required that they lived in different cities, they never really got around to defining their relationship.

A few months after his death, the attorney handling Jeremy’s estate contacted Reece and gave her an envelope containing a letter and a diamond ring. The attorney explained that Jeremy must have had some kind of premonition because before he left for his trip, he had written a Will and, in the event of his death, arranged for Reece to have the ring. The letter explained that he had purchased the diamond a few years back in the hopes of one day asking her to marry him, but life never seemed to provide the right opportunity to pop the question. Ironically, he had finally expressed his undying love for her and he begged her for forgiveness for not acting sooner.

Reece had been having a hard time dealing with her grief before she received the letter and was now completely devastated. Although she had secretly hoped he would propose, now that he had finally expressed the depth of his feelings for her it was too late. She felt like a widow, but no one would be granting her that title. She chastised herself over missed opportunities and words unsaid. She struggled with the murder, the unanswered questions, and the open-ended injustice of it all. She grieved for a future life together that would never come to pass, but the deepest wound of all was the fact that nobody could really acknowledge her loss.

Of course Reece and Jeremy are not their real names and a few details have been changed or omitted to protect their identities but their story is true. Having experienced your own loss, I am sure you can sense just how complicated her situation is and I trust that your heart reaches out to her with compassion. Reece could be the poster child of what grief counselors describe as disenfranchised grief. The term was coined in 1989 by Dr. Ken Doka, Ph.D., and he defines it as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” He suggests disenfranchised mourners fall into one or more of the following scenarios:

  1. When the relationship is not recognized
  2. When the loss is not acknowledged
  3. When the griever is excluded
  4. When the circumstances of the death are troubling
  5. When the way the individual expresses their grief is not valued

Dr. Doka says that in every society there are unspoken rules that specify who, when, why, how, how long and for whom a person should grieve. When these conditions are not met, the bereaved person is often left to mourn silently or alone.

Relationships that are not based on kinship ties are seldom acknowledged publicly at funerals or in obituaries. Consequently friends, neighbors, co-workers and roommates are often not even counted among the bereaved. Persons in second degree relationships such as siblings, grandparents, cousins, foster-parents, former spouses, in-laws or step-relationships also grieve but are often not extended the same consideration as first degree relationships. Even today, non-traditional families, such as cohabitating couples and life-partners, gay or straight, are often not afforded the same support as legally married surviving spouses.