Childless Suffer ‘Disenfranchised Grief’

On a recent podcast, UK childlessness guru Jody Day and host Kathy Seppi talked about “disenfranchised grief.” We have talked a lot about grief here at Childless by Marriage, but something clicked in me when I heard that.

What is disenfranchised grief? Grief researcher Ken Doka defined it as “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Let me put it another way. You have suffered a loss, such as the chance to have children, but other people just don’t get why you’re hurting or acknowledge your right to grieve.

Seppi, whose Chasing Creation podcast focuses on infertility, said disenfranchised grief is “the feeling you have to prove how much it hurts.”

Jody Day, who is also a psychologist, added, “We want people to see our pain.” Grief changes a person, she says. Our lives might look completely the same from the outside, but grief changes how we feel about it from the inside.

At a site called whatsyourgrief.com, Litsa Williams lists 64 situations where people tend not to acknowledge the right to grieve. They include death of an ex, moving to a new place, losing a friend, and death of a dream. Losing the family you had expected to have certainly fits on that list of things we grieve but other people don’t understand why.

Not long ago, I sang at a funeral for my friend’s husband. I found myself in tears. Not only was I sad for her and missing her husband, who was also my friend, but I felt my own losses–my father, my mother, my husband. But most strongly, as I watched my friend’s adult daughter holding onto her, taking care of her, I kept thinking who will be there for me? Once again, I grieved the loss of the children I never had.

The grief is there. I will always be different from all those people at the funeral who have children. It’s not something I could speak of, certainly not that day, and not something that anyone would have thought about when they saw me trying to wipe away tears around my COVID mask.

I don’t look bereaved. You can’t tell from the outside. I’ve got a pretty good life. But still, that thing is there. Aug. 21, on the first anniversary of my father’s death, I posted a picture of him with me and my brother as babies on Facebook. No one will ever post a picture like that of me, and that hurts.

Childless grief is tricky. If you had a baby who died, you could hold a funeral. You could maybe dress in black and avoid society for a while. But grieving for something that never existed, for the lack of something you wanted with all your heart? People will say buck up, you’ve got a good life, look at all the freedom you have and all the money you’ll save. Right?

If you burst into tears at the office . . . well, you feel like you can’t. You mustn’t. And yet we do want people to see that we’re hurting and to offer comfort. Just like when we were little kids and skinned our knees, we want someone to hug us and bandage our wounds, to acknowledge that we are hurt.

With childlessness, it’s like we didn’t get that doll we saw on the TV commercial; what right do we have to cry and carry on? We want to be held. We want someone to stop the bleeding. We want someone to say we didn’t realize how much it hurt. Here is your doll. Now wash your face and we’ll go get ice cream cones. Isn’t that what we want? Of course it is.

You know what? I think it’s okay to express our grief right out loud. I wanted to have a baby. My heart hurts because I never did. Will you hold me and help me feel better? Let’s say it out loud.

COVID be damned, I want to hug all of you.

Please share your thoughts.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

6 thoughts on “Childless Suffer ‘Disenfranchised Grief’

  1. I didn’t have the happy childhood I wish I would have had. I was fed, clothed, I slept in a comfortable bed, my mother kept our home clean. We went out to dinner on Sundays. Sometimes Saturdays even. We went to church, we visited grandparents. I had fun cousins. My parents were strict but fair. Only when I had truly misbehaved was I punished. But they did not allow any nonsense so it was rare to get to that level. I was expected to do well in school ,but if I didn’t I wasn’t shamed.

    But the level of fear and sadness that existed in our home was overwhelming. And unwarranted. Very strange. And formal. And joyless. Not like my friends’ homes where there was always a dog barking, people draped on couches and laughing on the phone. Loud music playing from an older sibling’s room. Where moms have coffee with other moms and shoo us away. A dad grumbling about lighting up the grill but then cheerful as he sat on the patio with his beer manning the charcoal. A parent who would shove a $5 spot in our hands and make us run an errand, then tell us we can stop for ice cream after. Let us keep the change. Mixtures of real people expressing real emotions (sometimes loudly) with someone else in the family always being a voice of reason.

    There are far worse things in life to endure than what I did. But it profoundly molded me. It’s very hard for me to be impressed, satisfied, excited, even happy. I always seem to be worried about something. Or fearful of making the wrong decision. It’s difficult to find the confidence to host parties, take chances or even try to re-cover my own couch (Why, I don’t know. It’s my couch. I paid for it. If I botch it up while re-covering it – I will only have myself to deal with. For some reason, I feel like I’m “not allowed” to do what I want if it’s outside “the norm”.) I’m getting over all that, but it’s held me back from my career, my relationships, the success of my own home, and yes, starting a family.

    It’s hard to grieve this joyless existence, when one feels compelled to strive to be blessed to be fed, clothed and to have slept in that comfortable bed. Plus–I’m an adult now. I can do what I want. Well, not when you’ve been told your whole life that you can’t.

    I am getting there. The last couple of years have been exciting. I’m almost 50, and it’s finally just getting good. I can take trips I never took, I can blow money on a book collection and no one can stop me. I can go horseback riding, hop on a rollercoaster, or eat ice cream for dinner. But I’m too old to have a child. There never seems to be an appropriate time to grieve this.

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  2. I hear you, Sue, and I’m sending you a hug across the miles– I’m sorry for your loss.

    I first learned about disenfranchised grief from Jody a few years ago, and it was a light-bulb moment for me. It explained why I had learned to hide my grief, why mine was a secret sorrow.

    I became chronically ill a month before I turned 20 and never got to live the life I should have lived. Other people, including doctors, family and friends, have minimized my experiences. They have said things like “at least it’s nothing serious” or “stop being negative”. The tyranny of positive thinking means you can never speak your truth. They made me feel shame and guilt for reflecting upon or mourning my losses. They didn’t even see them as losses, especially the intangible ones like the career and family I never had because of my ill health. No one has ever said they were sorry, even when a second wave of illness struck me at 32 just when I was about to leave a childless relationship.

    As a child of divorce, I learned to hide my true feelings. Anything negative like anger or sadness was not tolerated. My dad would say to me, “Smile!” even if my expression was just neutral. It pains me that I have had to carry this forward into adulthood. The thing is, these feelings don’t go away. Hidden away, they have simply festered and eaten away at my spirit and my soul. I sought some professional help a couple of times over the years, but they just didn’t seem to “get’ it.”

    I’ve spent 25 years watching other people live the life I should have lived. It hurts that no one ever acknowledges the losses I have suffered, and yet I am expected to celebrate every success of theirs. It’s hard to carry this burden alone and in secret, and for so long with no end in sight.

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    • Oh Jo, I’m so sorry for your losses and your unacknowledged grief. In truth, we’re all carrying some kind of grief, but people don’t see it. It’s like you’re not hurt unless you’re visibly bleeding. Big hugs from all the way in Oregon.

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  3. Sue,
    Once again you pulled my card out of the deck. I remember years ago I was at a memorial service for a friend of mine. He was a Marine and had two tours in Vietnam. Sadly, he was sprayed with Agent Orange. It obliterated his endocrine system and he passed away. I remember seeing his daughter and son holding his wife comforting her. Sue, I somehow kept it together, but I was so envious. I felt like an unworthy loser. God that hurt !

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  4. AnonS

    I have never read anything that sums my life up better than your reply post. I quote:-

    “But the level of fear and sadness that existed in our home was overwhelming. And unwarranted. Very strange. And formal. And joyless.“

    This was my childhood home too. I am an only child. My parents were very religious evangelicals. Much to their disappointment I never embraced their faith. However in everything else I tried to please them. I felt I couldn’t have a normal relationship with a boyfriend because it would upset my parents and they would shame me. So I was always good and kept myself “tidy.”
    It was only after they had died that I had the freedom to form a relationship. I was 36 and he was 42. For the first time I had found a soul mate. However he already had two young girls and didn’t want to go through the whole children thing again. I had to choose. Should I risk ending the relationship and hoping another would come along quickly, and have the possibility of children? Or should I stay with this kind man? I chose the latter. One of my stepdaughters who has slight developmental issues has been such a challenge and at times very unkind.

    It is now 20 years later that I am beginning to acknowledge the grief I have for the child I never had. The pain never leaves me. It feels like someone is twisting and wringing out my guts.
    Am I the victim of circumstance, just unlucky or was it my parents? I realise I have to work through this grief and come to accept what is. I am lucky in so many other ways.

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