If you were to walk into a Hallmark store, more than likely you would look in vain for a card that says, “Expressing sympathy as you put your parent in a nursing home,” or “I regret you had to close down the family farm which your grandfather homesteaded.” Instead, you would discover cards that address the death of a person, a pet, or maybe a relationship. In the psychological discipline of loss and grief, the former illustrates what is referred to as disenfranchised grief, which means a society does not acknowledge certain types of losses and the resulting grief. In regular grief, culture as a whole usually recognizes some losses by its provisions for various rituals, ceremonies, and customs to express the grief. However, in disenfranchised grief, culture fails to stipulate societal avenues that normalize and validate particular kinds of losses. That is to say, people do not generally bring casseroles to the family when one experiences these unrecognized losses. There are no rituals that normalize a family’s loss as the parent transitions to being more like the child and the child operates more like the parent. Other examples of disenfranchised grief include a death of dream, unemployment, bankruptcy, or even suicide. Thus, while grief is naturally a lonely experience, the disenfranchised griever is even more alone in her grief because she literally grieves alone.
I am realizing how much my current experience of loss and grief is what I would call disenfranchised. Within the last three weeks my father transitioned from living independently on the farm on which he was born to a facility in a nearby town. This transition portrays that I have now become more of a caregiver for a parent, and my strong father has become more dependent on me for that care. Since my father is no longer on the family farm, the place I have seen as home even though I have not lived there for thirty years, is home no longer. Oh, please do not misunderstand me. The house still stands. The family still owns the property. It is still our farm. However, due to my father’s absence, it is no longer home. It is now a place I used to call “home.” Our family is intimately connected to this land. It is ours. It has forged our identity. It has generated security, a secure base that we identify as home. Family members lived and died on this land. We worked the soil. We grew the crops. It is the place where my family has had its roots for over one hundred years.
Unfortunately, the closing up of the family farm is not a recognized loss in our culture. Our contemporary American culture is a transient one. Today Americans change careers, jobs, and locations at what seems to me to be at an unprecedented rate. The days have long passed when an American stayed at one home and one job for most of his life. My husband and I are no exception to this trend for in thirty years of marriage, we have moved fifteen times and had several careers and places of employment. Thus, it is understandable why society does not acknowledge the loss of closing down a family farm, a place where my father has gazed at the same horizon for all but one summer of his 87 years.
American culture also neglects to normalize the losses experienced through the aging process. I would suggest that to acknowledge these kinds of losses is counter-cultural. I invite the reader to consider how advertising encourages us to look younger whether it is through plastic surgery or a cream that “can make you look younger, too.” My husband has even discovered that when he voices his own grief concerning his experiences with aging, someone invariably states, “Oh, you are only as young as you feel,” disenfranchising his grief. When we consider the American tendency to fervently ignore death by extending life by any means and by refusing to discuss end of life issues, grief itself seems to be a taboo subject. I have heard many bereaved people say they encounter a common expectation from others that after a funeral their life is to continue as normal when acquaintances, friends, and family avoid discussing grief. Thus, it seems that Americans have an aversion not only to disenfranchised grief but also grief in general.
As I reflect on my own current loss and grief, I ponder turning to a place where one expects to find comfort and support, which is my own church tradition. I belong to a pentecostal tradition which is inclined to center on having victory over circumstances through its focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, pentecostals tend to disenfranchise the sufferer by diminishing, if not completely denying, pain. In other words, there is a propensity in my Christian tradition to not speak about the entire, human experience that involves both healing and suffering. Furthermore, some pentecostals believe that to speak of one’s suffering is to demonstrate a lack of faith and limiting God’s ability to intervene by delivering the person from her suffering. As a result, I perceive I am also a disenfranchised griever in my own faith tradition, and this serves to increase my loneliness.
As I ponder theologically on disenfranchised grief, I recognize my need for connection, normalization, and validation which theologically occur as I am in Christ. That is to say, as I am in Christ and Christ is in me, Jesus Christ is present to my grief. I view presence as an intervention in itself, defying the conception that being present is doing nothing. Being present to someone in the way Jesus Christ is present is very difficult but empowering and healing. Thus, by naming my disenfranchised grief through these words, I am acknowledging it, and in so doing, I am refusing to disenfranchise my own disenfranchised grief but embrace it as an experience that I am having. As I do this, I am being present to my disenfranchised grief in the same way Jesus Christ is present to me as I am grieving. Thus, by being with me, I am participating in Jesus Christ’s acts of ministry to me through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit and experience God’s healing.
So while American culture and my faith tradition discourage me from speaking of my current loss and grief, I am finding my own voice and experiencing divine healing. While my own faith tradition implies such expression is not a demonstration of faith in God, I am discovering the freedom to lament because communication of grief is an expression of trust. By conveying my grief, I am acknowledging Christ’s presence to me in my loss and grief while clinging to the security I have in Christ. Jesus Christ remains present to me in all of my expressions of grief: Sometimes grief is manifested as tear-filled audible cries; occasionally they are experienced as anxiety for my father; sometimes I feel as if I am going crazy; periodically it appears as depression; once in a while it surfaces as denial or anger; and sometimes it is relief. There are occasions where I express my grief instrumentally, such as writing this blog or cleaning out my father’s house, but on other occasions, I express it intuitively by verbalizing my emotions. In all of these methods of communicating grief, I have a peace that Christ is present; thus, it is unnecessary to work up my faith while simultaneously diminishing my sorrow because I am at this moment in the very being of God through Christ, and it is Jesus Christ who completes my expression of trust for he is the complete human response to God.
Now the invitation is extended to me to be present to my father as Jesus is also present to him during my dad’s disenfranchised grief. While I am unable to completely comprehend my father’s experience, I am through the power of the Spirit able to participate in Christ’s ministry to my father by being present to him as Christ is present both to him and me. Thus, this is a reminder to me that when my father says his meal is not like eating at home, Jesus Christ weeps with him. In the same way Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, he weeps with my father, who, too, is experiencing the process of dying as evidenced by my Dad’s need to receive extra care as he slowly declines. So, as I tell my father that I too weep during this difficult transition, I am participating in Christ’s ministry by being present to my Dad and thereby normalizing his own disenfranchised grief. Such presence is a reminder to all of us that Christ is proleptically present with us for his presence in the here and now points to a day when God’s presence will be all in all and when, to borrow from John Donne, death will be no more … death, you shall surely die.