As a society, we think we know what loss is: the death of a parent, partner or child; the destruction of a home through disaster; the shattering of finances through bankruptcy. These are tangible, recognized — sanctioned, if you will — losses. But counselors know that in reality, life brings myriad losses, many of which go unrecognized, unacknowledged and, most importantly, unmourned. The damage caused by these accumulated losses — sometimes referred to in the popular lexicon as “emotional baggage” — often brings clients to counselors’ doors wondering why they’re in so much pain.
In 1989, American Counseling Association member Kenneth Doka, who has written numerous books on grief and loss, established the phrase disenfranchised grief, which he defines as grief that is experienced by those who incur a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported. Disenfranchised grief may result from the loss of a relationship, the loss of identity or ability, pet loss, or even the loss of “giving up” an addiction.
“This unrecognized loss can be happening all around us but, because of the lack of acknowledgment and support, we wouldn’t know about it,” says ACA member Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, a licensed professional counselor in Littleton, Colorado, whose practice specializes in grief and loss.
She gives the hypothetical example of a woman who is about to move to a thriving new town to start a higher paying job with great benefits. The woman has spent the past 20 years raising her family and creating a great life for her children, but now she is ready to move on. She is excited about entering this new phase in her life and meeting new people. At the same time, the woman is experiencing a lingering and persistent sense of sadness that she can’t explain.
What the woman is experiencing, Sheehan-Zeidler explains, is disenfranchised grief, which can affect clients in numerous ways:
- Physically: Headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, pain and other physical symptoms
- Emotionally: Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety or guilt
- Cognitively: Obsessive thinking, inability to concentrate, distressing dreams
- Behaviorally: Crying, avoiding others, withdrawing socially
- Spiritually: Searching for meaning or pursuing changes in spiritual practice
In the example, the woman was not recognizing the losses of community, familiarity, social status and spiritual support from her local church that would come with moving, Sheehan-Zeidler explains. Once the woman actually identified and named those things as losses, the counselor was able to validate and explain her symptoms of insomnia, guilt, absent-mindedness, crying, indecisiveness, pervasive sadness and avoidance of social situations. This allowed the woman to grieve her losses and settle into her new life, Sheehan-Zeidler says.
“When we do not process unrecognized or disenfranchised losses, we run the risk of creating a narrative that is tainted with unprocessed feelings and unresolved grief,” she says. “Their Weltanschauung, a German word for worldview, is corrupted with an emotional burden that influences their beliefs and ability to connect. Consequently, they may be limited in projecting self-confidence needed to secure a new job or challenged to join a new social circle due to feelings of depression or unworthiness.” Unrecognized grief from the loss of a job, health or lifestyle can also cause secondary losses, such as damage to one’s self-esteem, a sense of shattered dreams, and lost community, she adds.
Sheehan-Zeidler helps clients process their grief through a variety of rituals. “I invite clients to create a special time, maybe 5 to 15 minutes daily, for the purpose of ‘being with’ their emotions and thoughts,” she says. “During this dedicated time, I suggest clients find a comfortable and private place to sit, journal their feelings and thoughts, light a candle, have soothing music, enjoy a cup of tea, and maybe have a special shawl or blanket to be used during these ‘time-to-mourn’ moments. Or maybe the client is more active, in which case I’d invite them to mindfully walk in a calming place where they can be with their thoughts and feelings as they reflect on their loss.
“The purpose of this time-to-mourn ritual is to create comfort around you and encourage the feelings to come forward in a planned way so we lead the dance with grief and mourning, and not the other way around. Additionally, as grief can come in unexpected waves, if we have a ritual in place, then we can put the ‘surprise’ grief aside, noting that we will visit with it the next time we are sitting or walking in our special place dedicated to honoring and processing the grief and mourning.”
Sheehan-Zeidler also recommends that clients drink plenty of water and get adequate sleep — taking naps if needed — as their minds and bodies process the loss. Finally, she reminds clients that their grieving process will include bad days, but also good ones.
Losing my addiction
“Put simply, disenfranchised grief is grief that is not acknowledged or valued by society,” says Julie Bates-Maves, an ACA member and a former addictions counselor. “Losses that are not seen as legitimate or worthy of our sadness or grief fit here.”
Addiction may be the king (or queen) of losses that are not typically viewed as legitimate or worthy. “Some people … don’t think that losing something ‘bad’ should hurt, but it does,” Bates-Maves says. “If we think about the functions of an addiction — that is, what they can provide for people — you start to see how hard they would be to give up.”
Bates-Maves notes all the ways in which addictions can fulfill people’s needs, albeit in unhealthy ways. “Addictive patterns often bring pain, but it’s a pain that’s familiar,” she notes. “They bring routine, even if it’s an unhealthy one. [It’s] the illusion of power and control over one’s body and mind: ‘I want to feel or think differently, and I know how to accomplish that.’”
Addiction can also provide companionship or escape from a sense of loneliness, whether through friends who also use, through distraction, through numbing (both physically and emotionally), or through the sense of energy and excitement that using substances can provide, Bates-Maves explains. “Losing any of that would be, at best, uncomfortable [and], at worst, unbearable,” she asserts.
“In my own clinical work and in speaking to other counseling professionals and clients, I have noted little discomfort or objection to exploring the negatives of an addiction with clients,” Bates-Maves says. “Notably, I have encountered hesitation or overt avoidance of the ‘positives’ of addiction, [such as] ‘don’t speak of the glory days’ or ‘don’t encourage clients to focus on what they miss; instead focus on what they have to look forward to in recovery.’ Consider this though — what if the ‘glory days’ are the only time the client felt powerful, or safe, or noticed, or admired, or skillful?”
When entering recovery, clients not only contend with the addition of a new set of behaviors, thoughts and feelings, but also an absence of “glory,” Bates-Maves continues. She believes that talking about the “positives” of addiction can help clients in recovery tackle challenges such as reestablishing a sense of their own identity, learning how to connect with others, and filling in any social skill deficits.
“Inviting reflection on the ‘glory’ of it all is a chance to observe a client reminisce about a time when they felt more worthy,” she explains. “If self-worth is centered on the addiction or a component of it, we need to know so we can help them redefine and reconstruct who they are, not just what they do. Losing an addiction is not simply losing a substance or behavior. It’s losing a way of surviving that our body and mind have become settled in. It can be a tremendous loss.”
As Bates-Maves points out, losses can occur anywhere along the addiction and recovery spectrum: prior to addiction; during addiction; during detoxification, treatment, initial, mid- or advanced recovery; prior to a lapse or relapse; and after a lapse or relapse. Some losses, such as a negative alteration in personal appearance or losing custody of children, may be the direct result of the person’s addiction. Other losses, such as the death of a parent, may happen separately from the person’s addiction but will still affect a client’s addiction or recovery, Bates-Maves emphasizes.
Other experiences common to people working to move from addiction to recovery include:
- Loss of comfort: The person can no longer rely on his or her addictive pattern as a coping mechanism.
- Loss of power: Choices are often restricted in recovery, and it’s not always OK to make a “bad” choice.
- Loss of identity: The person may wrestle with the question, “If I’m not an addict, who am I?”
- Loss of pain relief: The person may ask, “How am I supposed to manage my pain now? I don’t know any other ways that work as well as _________ does.”
- Loss of perceived choice: Because substance use is no longer an option, the person has to find another way to live, cope and function.
“It can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, and some can flounder in the absence of the structure of an addiction,” Bates-Maves says.
“Also consider the more commonly talked about losses, like loss of lifestyle or [loss of] ‘using’ friends,” she adds. “While it may be healthy to move away from people who remain stuck in unhealthy patterns, it’s certainly not easy. As a counselor, I believe that people have a ton of worth, even in the presence of an addiction or negative behaviors. If I’m told to walk away from the positives of a relationship because there are also negative behaviors, I’d struggle. Clients deserve to struggle with that too. Health and happiness are not always the same thing. If I have the choice to be alone and healthy or to be in the company of others and unhealthy, I’d waiver — particularly if others forced me in one direction or another.
“I think it’s important that counselors really sit with what’s being asked of someone when they’re told they must now avoid people who are still using. Allow for the struggle and encourage clients to grieve the loss of good people who are still stuck. Don’t lose sight of the loss and grief there. Value what’s being lost or taken away instead of encouraging — or sometimes mandating — the death of a relationship. And talk about it. Balance is key. Talk about why some losses are needed, and validate that they’re painful. Allow the pain, allow the struggle, and help clients to cope with them as they move toward something different.”
Losses that are controllable — meaning that clients have some say over their occurrence — can actually foster hope in clients that there will be a chance for repair or course correction once they have adopted a new way of living, Bates-Maves says. Examples of losses that might be controllable include legal problems or convictions, family ruptures, loss of employment and financial problems.
However, even with new skills and hope, there is no guarantee that clients in recovery will be able to fix or recoup all that they have lost, she cautions. For that reason, counselors need to help these clients “sit with that and explore both options: How can I learn to be OK and heal if this is changed or fixed? And how can I learn to be OK and heal if this stays broken or less than I hope?”
“The key lesson there is that clients can reconstruct a meaningful life in recovery, even if some components never return to what they once were,” Bates-Maves says. “It’s about moving ahead and grieving what doesn’t move with you. Again, balance. Growth is often painful, and we want to value the pain and loss that come with growth. Knowing that some relationships have been damaged beyond repair might be very painful and a point of personal despair, but it can also be framed as a powerful motivator. We can mourn the past and work to repair the damage that’s done, and we can work to not repeat it. I think our main task as counselors is to help frame the pain as useful and informative. What people hurt about reveals what they value. It also reveals what they don’t want to repeat. Both elements are quite useful to a counselor in helping a client figure out where they want to go and how to start getting there.”
“I think the most important thing for counselors to remember is that change is really hard,” she emphasizes. “That may seem obvious, but consider how often we forget it. Sometimes clients are kicked out of treatment because they’ve lapsed or relapsed. Other times there are mandates about [whom] one can spend time with and [whom] one cannot, requirements for employment, etc.”
Continuing not to engage in addictive behavior, forging relationships with people who don’t use substances, and gaining and maintaining employment are all healthy goals. However, clients need to process many of their losses — particularly those connected to self-worth and self-efficacy — before it is possible for them to achieve those goals, Bates-Maves says.
“Give people credit for the pain that comes with change, and give them space to talk about it,” she urges. “Talk about how health and happiness aren’t the same thing [but] that the work of counseling is to make them closer. Talk about how in order to move forward, we often have to let go and how hard that is, even when we’re letting go of ‘bad’ things. Focus on where someone is and not only where we/they/you want them to be. If we want to help people move forward, we have to understand what’s keeping them where they are currently. But mostly, give people credit for the pain that comes with change, talk about it, and help them grieve.”
A question of identity
As a certified rehabilitation counselor and someone who sustained a spinal cord injury more than 30 years ago, ACA member Susan Stuntzner knows a lot about the losses and grief that come with disability.
“At the time, I was paralyzed from the waist down, but within two months, I achieved some mobility and enough to walk with below-the-knee ankle-foot-orthotics [AFOs],” she recounts. “While learning to walk was a fantastic high point of the rehabilitation process, an equally important aspect was figuring out my new or different capabilities. More specifically, I learned I could not run, which is something I used to enjoy; lift more than 25-30 pounds; and that I had to push or pull things rather than lift as a means to move objects. I learned it was probably not a good idea to stand indefinitely and the importance of recognizing and honoring what my
body could do rather than expect me to do things in exactly the same way as I could before.”
Stuntzner also grappled with an issue that is particularly common among women with disabilities whose physical appearance is altered, either through injury or a disability present at birth: body image and attractiveness.
“Again, going back to my own experience, while muscles in my thighs worked, those below my knees did not. This meant my feet and ankles did not either,” she says. “Thus, there was a change in how I initially saw myself and my calves, as these did not have muscle return but they were an attached part of my body. Changing the way I viewed myself was difficult and a form of loss, as I was 19 years of age and highly conscious of fashion and, in particular, shoes. In short, I loved cool shoes and I still do. However, the partial paralysis below my knees meant I now had to wear AFOs and could no longer wear the stylish shoes I had so loved. While some of this may sound trivial, fashion and shoes — again, I was 19 years of age — was important to me, and this change represented a form of loss, along with the attention that my AFOs brought to the stranger passing by.”
“My own story is only one of many, as each person who lives with a disability — visible or invisible — has a story or set of experiences,” Stuntzner says. “For some, it may be cognitive changes [such as] memory, learning, recall, traumatic brain injury. For others, it may be health conditions [such as] irritable bowel syndrome, heart conditions [or] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that disrupt daily activities and events. Other people live with sensory disabilities — loss of vision or hard of hearing. People who are hard of hearing but not deaf face challenges because people sometimes report not feeling as if they fit anywhere; they are not deaf, nor are they a part of the ‘hearing’ sector due to some of the limitations they experience.”
Regardless of a person’s specific set of circumstances, it is important that the person views themselves as a “whole” person, recognizes their assets and strengths, and builds upon those assets and strengths, Stuntzner says. Identifying one’s abilities, strengths and talents regardless of disability and functional limitations is a key part of what rehabilitation counselors help people do, she adds.
Counselors can help these clients grieve by listening and supporting them emotionally and psychologically as they work through the changes brought about by their disability, Stuntzner says. Counselors should understand that adjustment and grief are individualized processes and that two people with very similar conditions and functional changes may cope and adapt very differently, she notes. They also may require different therapeutic approaches to help them move forward. One size does not fit all based on disability type, Stuntzner emphasizes. It is important to view the person as a whole individual and to help people learn to see themselves as capable individuals comprising many different aspects and interests.
“Another key component of working through loss is helping people work through their negative thoughts and feelings, and experience successes, while living with a disability so they develop a strong internal locus of control and a sense that they can effect change in their life and create the life they seek,” Stuntzner says. “In short, it is about empowering people to discover who they are or who they can be in spite of the disability. As people become empowered, they learn to find their voice and own it and use it to help themselves and others. It is through this process that people oftentimes heal and learn to see the bright side of living with a disability.
“By bright side, I mean they learn to see the positive ways their life has changed or can change, and many find a higher purpose through the experience of living with a disability. However, this is a process, one that may begin with grief and loss, then morph into a personal and/or spiritual journey where people discover ways to grow and sometimes access their higher purpose or sense of self. It is on this journey that people find healing.”
Not just a pet
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, at the end of 2016 (the latest year for which statistics were available), nearly 57 percent of American households had pets. Surveys have shown that the majority of people among that 57 percent also view their pets as part of the family. Yet many people do not regard the death of a pet as a “legitimate” loss. Indeed, those who have suffered the loss of a pet may not recognize their own grief, says licensed clinical professional counselor Cheryl Fisher, an ACA member whose counseling specialties include grief and loss.
In Fisher’s experience, it is not unusual for new clients to present with issues such as depression, anxiety or stress, and when talking about why they are seeking therapy, mention — almost as if it were a side note — “By the way, I just lost my cat.”
Fisher recalls a client who had come to her for grief counseling after the death of a relative. As Fisher listened, she realized that the client’s loss extended beyond that one death and that she was experiencing complicated grief.
The woman mentioned in passing that she rescued feral cats, two of which had died recently. These street felines were not easily domesticated, so the woman’s interactions with them had mainly been restricted to feeding them, Fisher notes. Yet the woman kept collecting them.
The client was very isolated. In fact, the recently deceased relative had been her only remaining family member. Except for the cats. As limited as her relationship was with them, the feral cats were her family, and she was grieving those losses as well.
“People are sheepish about sharing their grief, but our animals are the most vulnerable members of our families and also the most unconditional and accepting,” says Fisher, who shared the experience of losing her beloved dog Lily in her CT Online column, The Counseling Connoisseur (“Pet loss: Lessons in grief,” April 2017).
As she tells clients who are grieving (sheepishly or not), the relationships that people have with their pets — whether dogs, cats, fish or fowl — are strong not just emotionally but biochemically. In interacting with their pets, people feel a release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of closeness and attachment.
Fisher also asks these clients to tell their “pet story.” She begins by asking how they met their pets. Fisher says the adoption or birthing story is very significant to the pet–human bond, and when clients start to recount it, they get very passionate as they open up to those memories.
“I always want to know the pet’s name, what kind [of animal it was], what the client liked to do with them and if they have pictures,” Fisher says. “It’s like traditional grief therapy — I’m helping them talk about their loved one.”
As clients talk, Fisher will say things that highlight the significance of their relationship with their pet. For example, she might say, “It sounds like Sadie stood right by you through the divorce.”
Fisher says she can almost see clients exhale: “You get it. I didn’t realize this was so important. She wasn’t just a cat!’”
Fisher also helps clients find ways to stay connected to their pet by giving examples of rituals that others have used. She urges clients to think about their relationship with their pet and the type of remembrance that would fit that bond.
For Fisher and her husband, it was taking Lily’s ashes to the beach where they and their goldendoodle had so often visited and played. “She loved the beach,” Fisher notes.
Some clients create scrapbooks with items such as their pet’s adoption papers and first pictures. Fisher included all the condolence cards she and her husband received in the wake of Lily’s death.
One of Fisher’s clients honored her cat, who loved to look out the window at birds, by constructing a special birdhouse that held pride of place next to the pet’s perch.
Fisher also mentions a video she saw at a conference on children and grief. It was called “Bridget’s Loss,” and in it, a little girl says goodbye to her fish in a “ritual flush.”
Fisher describes the scene: The mother, who filmed the video, asks her daughter if there is anything she wants to say before flushing the fish. The girl says, “Sammy, you were a good fish. You always did good fish things, and now you will be able to go with all the other fish, and I will see you in another time in heaven or wherever.”
The key to grieving pet loss is to have some kind of goodbye ritual, Fisher says, even if it is something completely private that involves only clients and their pet.
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “An Overview of Military Service Members and Their Families: How Mental Health Professionals Can Best Serve This Population” with John P. Duggan and Odis McKinzie (WEB17002)
- “When Grief Becomes Complicated” with Antoinetta Corvasce (ACA252)
- “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone (ACA231)
- “Disability Awareness” with Robbin Miller (ACA196)
- “Counseling Military Families” (ACA139)
ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.