Loss is a universal hurt that we all experience during their lives, yet society often tries to prescribe whose loss is more worthy of grieving; whose pain is more ‘valid;’ who has the right to sympathy and who should simply carry on as normal. People experience grief in countless different ways, for countless different reasons, and for countless different things, but in many cases the griever can feel misunderstood in their sadness, especially when the loss is not recognised as significant by society. As an answer, the concept of disenfranchised grief seeks to give voice to those who feel disempowered in their mourning.
To disenfranchise is to deprive someone of their rights, hence ‘disenfranchised grief’ can be defined as ‘the grief experienced by those who incur a loss that is not, or cannot be, openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported’ (Doka 1999:37). The term was first coined in 1989 by Dr. Kenneth Doka, and it has since become widely acknowledged in the counselling world. At its core is a questioning of society’s use of ‘grieving rules’ that attempt to define who should be allowed to grieve, under what circumstances, for what duration, and so on (Doka 1999). Crucially, the grieving does not necessarily have to be in relation to a physical death – more intangible losses are given equal credence (Harju 2014). Just a few examples of situations in which a person’s sense of loss may be tip-toed around or not properly acknowledged include miscarriages, the death of a pet, watching a loved one succumb to a transformative illness such as Alzheimer’s, and the end of a clandestine relationship such as an extra-marital affair or closeted gay union (Doka 1999; Harju 2014). To this list, I would like to add the grief of the music fan upon the death of an idol.
As well-reported by the media throughout the year, 2016 saw an unusually high number of high-profile celebrity deaths, from musicians such as Leonard Cohen and George Michael to beloved actors and entertainers like Carrie Fisher, Victoria Wood and Alan Rickman. Two of these had a particular resonance for me – firstly, David Bowie (January 10), and then Prince (April 21). Music is a very important part of my life, and I would liken many a song or album to a dear friend, as opposed to mere background noise. Myself and others frequently refer to our musical heroes on a first name basis, as if we know them intimately, but the fact remains that no matter how many albums we collect, interviews we read or concerts we attend, we don’t actually know them. And yet they permeate our lives and have touched something in us on such a deep level that it feels like we do, with the power of the music and words, as well as what the artist represents to the listener, compensating for the lack of direct contact. I have had relationships with David Bowie and Prince, through their music, for about 15 years – years filled with personal joys and struggles that they have helped soundtrack and document in my mind. Discovering these two sexuality renegades at a time when I was unsure of what kind of man I was or wanted to be proved an invaluable stepping stone towards authenticity – they started off as musicians, transformed into role models and finally became like old friends. They were unwitting but unwavering champions of my cause, providing solace, empathy and support, as well as lots of fun on the way. And though the world as a whole reacted with shock to their deaths, the loss will undoubtedly have been experienced more deeply by those of us who felt that special connection to them. It is at this point that disenfranchised grief comes into play.
The ‘grieving rules’ of society as outlined by Doka are not readily embracing of non-traditional losses, so I would say it’s unlikely that an employer, for example, would accept the mourning of a rock star as a valid reason for time off or for being distracted at work. As such, the true extent of the loss for fans of Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, etc. may have been suppressed at the time – given the physically distant relationship to the object of mourning, many fans assume that others will view them as silly for experiencing an ‘abnormal’ emotional response (Harju 2014). They may therefore put a cap on their feelings, or if they do show their true state, they may feel alone/misunderstood in their grief. A Prince fan called Susana (Lopes-Snarey 2016) describes this very well: ‘I have honestly struggled with overwhelming grief since his passing, and I know there are a few people who have looked at me thinking, “Oh my God… she’s lost it, she is really completely bonkers”. But I don’t care, that’s their issue, not mine. He is like family to me.’
Similarly, for many disenfranchised grievers there is no opportunity to engage in a ritual which may validate the loss and help towards healing (Doka 1999). Many Bowie and Prince fans in big cities across the world had the opportunity to attend tribute events like street parties in the aftermath of their deaths, but many more did not. Such events provide a sense of communal mourning akin to a wake or funeral, and provide the griever with legitimacy for their sense of loss. Many of those unable to physically participate will have found solace in online fan communities that also give the griever a platform to share their loss with others who will empathise with and support them (Harju 2014).
For me, there was something particularly powerful about watching the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards in June 2016, where the majority of live performances were Prince tributes by soul and RnB royalty such as Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu and Sheila E. The latter’s epic closing performance seemed to have the entire audience on their feet in a joyous commune of celebration and mourning, and I’m sure there were plenty of quiet tears (yes, me included!) shed at the culmination, with the triumphant lifting of one of his signature guitars into the air in reverence. The thunderous applause that followed spoke volumes. It is fitting, then, that Prince himself was personally aware of the effect an idol’s death can have on the fan, and his words below (cited in Lopes-Snarey 2016) seem the most appropriate to finish this post with. He is basically saying, ‘I get it – I get why you’re so upset’ – and that’s often all the disenfranchised griever needs to start the healing.
For people who don’t understand why others mourn the death of artists, you need to understand that these people have been a shoulder to cry on. Our rock.
They’ve been family, friends, leaders, teachers and role models.
Many have taught us what we need to know and what to do when times get rough.
They’ve helped us to move on.
They’ve pushed us out of bed.
They’ve helped us to live when nobody else had the time to.
Artists have inspired us in endless ways and have been with us through stages in our lives.
We’ve made memories with them.
So when they die, a part of us dies.
Doka, K.J. (1999). ‘Disenfranchised grief’. Bereavement Care 18 (3).
Harju, A. (2014). ‘Socially shared mourning: Construction and consumption of collective memory’. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/8825964/Socially_Shared_Mourning_Construction_and_Consumption_of_Collective_Memory
Lopes-Snarey (2016). Prince: 1958-2016.http://www.susanalopessnarey.com/prince-1958-2016/
Simon Forsyth is a counsellor (and music fan) based in Dublin 7, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality issues. A former languages lecturer in DCU, he is currently teaching with PCI College, of which he is a graduate. His final year thesis, ‘Coming Out or Staying In?: The Persona and Shadow of being Gay, and its Relevance to Psychotherapy in Modern Ireland,’ was awarded the College's annual Martin Kitterick Award for 2016. He can be contacted at email@example.com.