WW107 August 4, 2021 – Unrecognized Grievers: Companies Must Validate Survivors Who Otherwise Go Unseen

Wednesday Wisdom Series August 4, 2021
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August 4, 2021

Following is the latest Wednesday Wisdom article from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Unrecognized Grievers: Companies Must Validate Survivors Who Otherwise Go Unseen

Grief is disenfranchised when others avoid talking to someone about a painful loss or use a cliché that minimizes that loss.

-Lisa S. Zoll, LCSW

    The Foundation's upcoming Member-Partner Meeting will cover timeless and universal topics of interest to all who attend, whether in person or through live-streaming. Missy Jones’ presentation is an example where family members are further harmed when they are overlooked by those providing family assistance. Missy’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Gordon went missing in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig along with ten others, April 20, 2010. Missy’s story provides an example of what psychologists call disenfranchised grief.


What is disenfranchised grief?

    Disenfranchised grief is a topic presented in Human Services Response™ Training to remind Care and Special Team Members of the need to recognize and validate all who are connected to a traumatic loss. Whether the trauma results in death, or physical and emotional injuries—there are always losses associated with trauma that must be recognized and validated for survivors to heal.

    When psychologist Dr. Kenneth Doka coined the term disenfranchised grief in 1985, he described it as grief that may not be acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly supported by society. The traditional interpretation of disenfranchised grief refers to three general groups. First, relationships that are not recognized, such as same-sex relationships, lovers, and relationships that are unknown, stigmatized, or otherwise "unaccepted" by society. Two, losses that are regarded as “not worthy” of grief due to stigma. Examples might include death by suicide, drug overdose, intentional or not and losses, unrelated to death, such as loss of independence, self-esteem, and often losses known only to that person. The third type of disenfranchised grief pertains to a griever who goes unrecognized and ignored by others who offer condolences and support to the grieving ones they see. For organizations responding to a trauma in their workplace, many survivors are excluded in services provided in the aftermath of the tragedy.

    The ripple of survivors from traumatic loss in the workplace may include all the above types of disenfranchised grief and grievers. The company experiencing the loss will have no way of knowing all the survivors who may feel unrecognized or invalidated—but when they become aware of anyone who might fit one of the categories, they must be included in whatever support possible. Unfortunately, many companies offer help only to those considered the legal next-of-kin, thereby overlooking other close family members who feel invalidated and disenfranchised.

Examples of disenfranchised grievers may include stepchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others who have no legal claim to file.

    Foundation case study research contains many examples of overlooked grievers, including stepchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many others whose relationship to the deceased is recognized by many—but not by the company in their family assistance plan. Often a company’s plan includes only those who have a legal claim. Feeling left out and overlooked, the resolution of these grievers becomes complicated and more difficult to heal over time. While the organizations assisting survivors may have limitations on their budgets and may not extend the same courtesies to everyone, many companies will be as generous as their budgets allow.

When my father died in an airline accident, the Care Team came to our house. They introduced themselves to my stepmother. However, they did not acknowledge my siblings and me.

-Eighteen-year-old girl whose father died in an airline crash


    In Human Services Response™ Training, we use examples like the one above to point out that while there is usually one primary point of contact for business purposes, it is essential to acknowledge all family members when meeting a family. In the above example, the Care Team never introduced themselves to the deceased passenger’s children, leaving them feeling invisible. This invalidation contributed to feelings of anger toward the airline. While they understood that their stepmother was the primary next-of-kin as his wife, they did not understand why the Care Team repeatedly ignored them.  At the Foundation, we do not believe that budgets should prevent organizations from acknowledging stepchildren, mothers, fathers, siblings, fiancés, and other immediate family members since lack of validation and acknowledgment of a loss are critical components to disenfranchised grief.

    Validating all survivors is crucial by everyone who represents the company where a traumatic loss has occurred, and no one’s words and behaviors are more important than those in leadership positions. Public and private statements made from those at the top set the tone for

the entire organization and go a long way in modeling for all employees the importance of recognizing and validating all survivors.


Member-Partner Meeting, September 29-30, 2021, Boise, ID

    Those who hear Missy's presentation will receive insight into what caused her to feel overlooked by the organization and others involved in the response to family survivors of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Missy will provide examples of others within her family who felt invalidated during the response. Finally, she will offer suggestions about how similar situations in the future might be improved. While we cannot make the loss of a family member like her youngest son Gordon better, with education and awareness, we can prevent the second assaults that cause unnecessary suffering, as in the case of disenfranchised grief.


For more information about the program and details for registration, contact Cheri Johnson at cheri.johnson@fafonline.org

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