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  • Writer's pictureNoel Vickery

Ambiguous Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

All of us will experience grief and loss, as it is a guarantee of life. Despite this, it can feel isolating and cause people to feel disconnected from the world around them, their family, friends, and even themselves. What many people do not know or recognize is grief applies to much more than death-losses. “Symbolic loss, also known as a non-death loss, refers to an individual’s psycho-social losses” (Mitchell, 2017, p. 3; Rando, 1984). These losses often go unrecognized or unacknowledged for many people because they are not given the same significance or deemed as important as the experience of a death loss (Mitchell, 2017). This can result in ambiguous loss and/or disenfranchised grief.

Ambiguous Loss

There are two types of ambiguous loss: physical and psychological. Physical ambiguous loss is described as “gone, but not for sure.” This means the person is not physically present, but is still psychologically alive because there is no physical evidence of a permanent loss (i.e., death notice). Psychological ambiguous loss means the person is physically present, but psychologically missing. Families often describe this as “here, but not here.” When experiencing ambiguous loss, there is often no closure for family members. Society expects them to move on as normal without any finality in what they are experiencing. Then the grief often goes on unrecognized or unacknowledged (Boss, 2016).

Disenfranchised Grief

Without recognition of the loss or grief, people experience disenfranchised grief. “Disenfranchised grief can occur when (i) the loss is not acknowledged as significant (e.g., the loss of an animal/pet), (ii) the relationship is not recognized (e.g., the loss of a mistress), (iii) the griever is excluded (e.g., a child’s “inability” to grieve, (iv) the loss is disenfranchised (e.g., suicide), and (v) the grieving style is considered socially unacceptable (e.g., a female who is an instrumental griever)” (Mitchell, 2017, p. 4). Like many things in society, social rules have been set around grief, deeming what is appropriate and what is not. When a person does not follow these rules, many discount the grief experienced and the person is left to cope on their own (Doka, 1989).

When Can Ambiguous Loss or Disenfranchised Grief Be Experienced?

There are many ways and situations someone may experience ambiguous loss and/or disenfranchised grief. Some of these situations include, but are not limited to, miscarriage, separation from child(ren), children in foster care, singlehood, incarceration, loss of intimacy in a relationship, families experiencing a member transitioning, loss to suicide or homicide, and addiction. If you feel like this is a part of your story, please reach out to a therapist to help you acknowledge and work through your experiences. Remember, all of us will experience grief in our lifetime. No matter what type of grief it is, you are not alone.

By: Noel Vickery

Master of Social Work Intern

Park University


Boss, P. (2016). The context and process of theory development: The story of ambiguous loss. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(3), 269–286.

Doka, K. J. (1989b). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow (1st ed.) [Physical]. Lexington Books.

Mitchell, M. B. (2017). “No one acknowledged my loss and hurt”: Non-death loss, grief, and trauma in foster care. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 35(1), 1–9.

Rando, T. (1984). Grief, dying, and death: Clinical interventions for caregivers. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

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