Published April 27, 2021
Who am I to grieve?
This question has surfaced over and over while hosting facilitated conversations with athletes, coaches, sport leaders, and others.
My response … who are you not to?
Meeting people’s question with a question often leads to frustration … but in this case, the look of relief that washes over their faces speaks a thousand words.
The thanatological term for this experience is disenfranchised grief. Kenneth Doka is the one who pioneered this work in the 80s, bringing much-needed light to a complex topic, defining it as the grief response when a person feels that society has denied their ‘need, right, role, or capacity to grieve’. Essentially, people become disenfranchised when they don’t have society’s validation of loss. So instead of reaching out for support, talking about it, and working through your grief, you end up shutting down, compartmentalizing your experience, and shaming yourself into silence.
Traditionally, disenfranchised losses included relationships that are deemed unimportant (death of pets, ex-spouse, co-worker, online friend, step-family, neighbors, or other non-blood relatives), death stigmatized by society (death by suicide, accidental drug overdose, abortion, or death due to HIV/AIDS, to name but a few), relationships that are stigmatized (extramarital affairs, same-sex partner, polyamorous relationships) or the loss itself isn’t recognized as grief-worthy (dementia, mental illness, infertility, adoption, moving, empty nest, retirement, and other life transitions). Anyone interested in learning more about this can read his book, but for those looking to understand more how this might play out in sport, read on.
Early in the pandemic, the Sport Law's Leadership Coaches were invited to facilitate group sessions to support participants in processing the abrupt ending of their season, the postponement of the Paralympics/ Olympics, the cancellation of tournaments, and events, and the shift to work-from-home. Participants were often tongue-tied, emotional, and confused, trying to find the ‘right words’ to convey the deep sense of sadness that they were feeling. There was a poignant moment for a parent who had joined a call, as she was deeply worried about her daughter’s state of mind, recalling that she did not know that the last time she laced up her skates would be her last time as a member of the national team.
Heartbroken. Gutted. Lost. Guilty. Angry. Sad. Confused. Hopeless. Those were the words that many shared when asked how they felt about the impact the pandemic has had on their athletic careers. I remember one athlete having to make the tough decision between choosing to ‘stay in another year and pray we can compete’ or head to medical school as previously planned. Another athlete had plans to get married and begin university. Coaches too were wondering how they were going to stay connected to their athletes and help them get ‘Games ready’. And while all of this was affecting national-level athletes, there were tens of thousands of young athletes who were unable to connect with their teammates in rinks, pools, and pitches across the country. They too are part of the disenfranchised grievers whose experience over the last year has not been publicly recognized or supported.
I was struck when one participant whispered during one of our sessions … ‘who am I to be sad. I haven’t lost anyone to COVID?’ And there you have it. We tend to compete with our grief experience as though there is a hierarchy to grief. Just ask any parent, they will tell you that the death of a child is the worst possible death to suffer through. My question to the bereaved people I support is how does comparing your grief to others support you now, in this moment, with this current loss. The answer is always the same. It doesn’t.
Disenfranchised grievers feel they don’t have the ‘right to grieve’ so displace their grief and instead, move into a ‘stoic way of grieving’. I’ve written about grieving stoically in another blog, but for today’s purpose, I am inviting sport leaders to consider how you have been processing the losses you have accumulated during the pandemic as you continue to work through this extraordinary experience.
In bereavement theory, we speak about the important function of grief as an embodied experience that allows the bereaved to pause, be with their pain, acknowledge the experience, so they can in turn process the impact of the loss. For some, they have the capacity to move through this faster, perhaps because their window of tolerance is greater or perhaps because the nature of the relationship with what they have lost is less impactful. That is the thing about grief … it is so unique to the individual. Once we get that, we are better able to provide meaningful support to the bereaved person. This form of support is called companionship and we have been teaching people how to build their companioning muscles in support of self and others over the past few years. Nothing revolutionary here … keeping an open mind, listening generously, expressing compassion, and showing up … choosing not to avert our gaze.
As you look ahead, and beyond the pandemic, we offer the following companioning tips to bring hope and comfort to the disenfranchised: We see your grief. You have the right to grieve. And, you are not alone.