Turning The Tables On Disenfranchised Grief

By Kenneth Gaughran 09/09/14

This becomes toxic when our own genuine feelings are not only devalued but we have this cultural collective consciousness that wants us to feel shame or guilt.


Have you ever had a loved one die and encountered statements like “he is in a better place” or “her suffering is over” or my favorite one is: “he or she is at peace." Regardless of whether it involves a centurion death, an accident or a premature death due to chronic illness - these responses are very wrong and often hurtful. While we all have been guilty of making these statements with good intentions, we are playing god by assuming: that our feelings are the same as the bereaved party. This becomes detrimental in situations where the despondent is having a myriad of emotions, such as guilt, shame or some other feeling that is personal to them. We should not be mind readers at this point; the only appropriate response is can I help you in any way, PERIOD! This is a good protocol to follow, especially when dealing with parents of loved ones lost to drug overdoses, where guilt and shame are heightened by what is called “disenfranchised guilt."

Disenfranchised guilt is a phenomenon that is both unconscious and overt, where our belief system is conditioned by ways in which society or the media instructs us on how to grieve; it is a cookie cutter set of pseudo-scientific rules about how we are supposed to lament. Classifications such as stages of grief or indolent patterns of grief might be good for John or Jane Doe but do not apply to your individual situation. Bereavement comes in all shapes and sizes and ultimately it comes down to how you process the loss.

Unfortunately it isn’t as simple as that; our unconscious has been brainwashed by many falsities and attitudes about grieving going back to childhood. In short, society understands very little about mourning (including academia) but our minds have been hijacked by false gurus and media outlets that tell us how we should do it! This is preposterous at best, but because we are social creatures we buy into their ideas and our mind goes along with it, even though it is irrational. Consequently, disenfranchised grief is kind of like “big brother” influencing how we grieve, and thus we are deprived of our individual feelings. This becomes toxic when our own genuine feelings are not only devalued but we have this cultural collective consciousness that wants us to feel shame or guilt.

Nowhere is this more tragic then in the parents of drug overdose victims! When a loved one dies from a drug overdose our irrational brain buys into the internalized cascading notion that since drugs are bad, we must be bad and therefore our kids were bad. We then experience shame and forget that drug addiction is a disease just like cancer. And adding insult to injury, there are throngs of uneducated people who will never get this and they poison many people into stigma beliefs that further marginalize despair.

An even greater concern is the deepening dysphoria that the parents feel for thinking that somehow they could have stopped their children. Overdose is unlike death from an accident or traditional illness, where parents can more readily accept that it was not their fault and can grieve in a more integrated way. However, the parents of a fatal drug overdose tend to have their feelings spinning out of control and that puts them in a toxic fight or flight mode.

Our adrenal glands were originally designed to protect us by providing adrenaline to deal with life and death situations such as being attacked by a lion. Consequently, our ancestors would either run away, kill the lion or get eaten by the lion. Assuming they lived, their automatic nervous system (or automatic brain) would return to a homeostatic level quickly. Unfortunately, we do not live in a black and white world today, and we are constantly getting stressed with no immediate relief, only longitudinal solutions. The “only if” inner dialogue gets further convoluted when we let shame, our inner response to outward perceived values, mix with our own internal guilt mechanism. This leads to a relentless assault on our nervous system, and we are constantly “stressed out."

Thankfully this does not have to be a long lasting state. The easiest and most proven method is just to surrender and in 12-step parlance: “accept that you are powerless over a solution." This will remove you from your internal devil’s workshop and if you keep repeating “IT WASN’T MY FAULT” you have taken the first step in moving away from the torment and moving towards hopefulness. The amazing part of all this is that once you stop fighting and admit defeat, you will have emotionally and spiritually cleansed yourself. This can be a transcendental moment, when you realize you no longer have to be in that cavernous abyss of fight or flight.

Equally satisfying once you have regained some comfort is to start surrounding yourself with only positive people and stop reading or watching things that are negative. Your brain is only a computer and your hypothalamus is the "Windows" or software for your brain; if you only put positive things in there you are going to have only uplifting thoughts.

Finally, as a counselor and recovering addict I can tell you unequivocally that group therapy is very powerful; however, I can’t tell you why it works. But while the operating dynamics are unimportant, what does matter is that it has helped billions of people for as far back as any historian can go. Attendance at such groups as Dan’s Foundation or any group that is compassionate and empathetic is magical. Consequently, one of my favorite prayers (a GA prayer) sums it up best:

I sought my soul but could not see;
I sought my god but he eluded me;
I sought my brothers and sisters and found all three.

WE NEED YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kenneth Gaughran is recovering cross-addicted addict who is also a drug counselor and freelance writer.

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