Disenfranchised Grief: How the Passing of My Cat Made Me a Better Therapist
We all grieve at some point in our lives. Some of us have had too many opportunities to grieve while others may have experienced grief once or twice. The sources of our grief are as varied as the personalities of humans and how we grieve varies just as much. Sometimes, however, we experience disenfranchised grief when we do not give ourselves permission to grieve in the way we need to grieve. Read on to learn how CFR Staff Therapist Bianca Williams channeled the loss of her cat, Jerry Cat, and her subsequent grief process to become not only a better therapist but also a better person.
- Loss and grief go together.
- What are the stages of grief?
- What is disenfranchised grief?
Loss and Grief Go Together
As a therapist, I talk with clients about various forms of loss, how they understand loss in general, and how their loss is being received by others. But recently, the shoe was on the other foot, as I experienced the loss of my best little guy, my furry baby, Jerry Cat. Jerry was the sweetest and quietest, yet funniest cat I ever knew (mind you: I only had one other cat). I even have a video clip of Jerry laughing at me!
Almost immediately after Jerry was gone, I found myself looking for reasons to feel guilty. I questioned why he became ill and whether he experienced discomfort. Once I had time to assuage my concerns, I soon realized that I immediately needed all of Jerry Cat’s belongings out of my life. It all needed to be either hidden, or thrown out at once, and on top of that, everything within reach had to be placed in its specific, proper place.
In the midst of my apparent grief and loss, I thought, Wow! There is a phenomenon of some kind happening here that I must investigate. That is when I began to see it; it hit me as plain as the nose on my face: I was going through the stages of grief.
What are the stages of grief?
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model for medical students in the 1960s for how to deal with terminally ill patients and their families. Kubler-Ross’s model became known as the stages of grief. The following are those five stages:
It is imperative to note (as I can personally attest), that these stages do not take place in any absolute order.
Some may think while reading this: “Sure, Bianca, losing a pet hurts…but it was just a pet.” Too many in our society, perhaps even our own loved ones, are quick to dismiss the loss and grief felt by someone who loses a pet…or even another loved one. I’m not excluding myself from this misplaced assumption.
While watching a news story where a journalist was interviewing a parent who recently lost their child, I caught myself wondering, how can they speak of their deceased child so calmly, so matter-of-factly, and with so little emotion? In essence, I was making an assumption about whether or not the parent was adequately grieving for their lost child. I was dismissing the fact that they were in the middle of their grieving process and that the five stages of grief look different for different people.
What is disenfranchised grief?
After much reflection, I realized I was dismissing my own grief for the loss of Jerry Cat. Specifically, I was experiencing what is known as disenfranchised grief.
Disenfranchised grief is when one feels as though they cannot truly express themselves to others because what they are grieving is considered by society as over-dramatized, judged harshly, or simply misunderstood. Common examples of events that often illicit feelings of disenfranchised grief can range anywhere from the loss of a pet, to the loss of a limb, to even the loss of a person you once knew suffering from dementia.
In my case, I recognized that I was falling into the trap of disenfranchising my own grief, which was triggered by my assumptions about how others would perceive my grief process for Jerry Cat, as opposed to just letting myself be. We must allow ourselves to uniquely grieve. We must strive to get to a place where we accept that our own experiences with the five stages of grief are unique and valid.
When my clients are experiencing grief, I have found support groups are particularly helpful in their journeys toward self-validation and acceptance. I also encourage my clients to talk about how they feel with someone they trust. Safety is key. If you feel as if you are not well received, take solace in knowing that you gained insight for the future whilst also giving yourself the chance to express a part of yourself that should never have been denied in the first place.
– In loving memory of Jerry Cat –
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