Getting Real…

…On My Experience Disenfranchised Grief.

If you’re anything like me, you probably read the subheading and thought, ‘disenfranchised what?!’ But, if you’re also anything like me you’re probably curious as to what this loaded word actually means. Disenfranchised grief occurs when someone dies and society determines who gets to grieve and who is supported in their grief. It more accurately occurs when our relationship with the departed isn’t acknowledged and therefore the affect of that person’s death (whether it be a co-worker, ex-lover, or old childhood friend) on us isn’t validated. It can also be when the circumstances surrounding the death don’t warrant society’s pity ( drug/substance abuse, suicide, etc.). Grief becomes disenfranchised when we don’t receive society’s stamp of approval for our loss and an allotted time period for the grieving process. Since society says we shouldn’t be grieving, we feel like we can’t share our grief with others and therefore we feel isolated in our grief. A feeling I’ve come to know all too well.

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For me, the very experience I had with disenfranchised grief came amidst celebrating the birthday of my brother. My Mother, who attends mass every Saturday and sometimes Sunday, heard the mass was being celebrated in Birthday remembrance of an old friend of mine I grew up with. Like most, our closeness dwindled after high school but the reason was ultimately because my friend was going down a path I couldn’t follow. One of drugs. I’d seen that same old friend two years before I sat on that couch in disbelief at my Mother’s words. He had seen my now husband and I while we were engaged. He hugged and congratulated us and we’d both promised we’d get together soon. He looked happy, he looked healthy, his eyes looked so clear. I remember leaving that conversation feeling like I’d had my friend back, a bit more mature but wiser and stronger. Now as I sat there with Mother’s curious eyes upon me all I could think was: What went wrong?

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I remember reaching out to someone both my friend’s mother and I had worked with and it was through them that I received the news that my former friend had lost his battle against addiction. I instantly broke down and cried. I still remember standing in my parents’ kitchen looking out the back window with silent tears pouring down my face. Not only was my old friend dead, but he’d died just a little over a month after I’d gotten married without me even knowing until one year and one month later.

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I still remember my husband, walking in and being totally unsure of why I was even crying, “You haven’t spoken to him in years!” He’d told me and while he held and comforted me, I couldn’t help but feel my grief was deeply misunderstood. I spent many nights on the phone with this friend, sometimes till 3 AM. I’d lay in my backyard, sometimes in the humid summer heat or the bitter winter cold on my diving board under the stars and we’d talk about our hopes, dreams and people we liked and didn’t like. I can still hear his voice if I close my eyes-I hope I always remember it. We went to school together, shared a best friend together and shared a lot of good times and bad together.

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He was a beautiful soul-someone who could both frustrate and amuse me at the same time. We shared secrets and jokes, we went to prom in the same small group. He was at one point one of my best friends. While Tom wondered how I can grieve, I wondered, how could I not grieve? A loss is a loss.

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The fact that it was an old friend made me feel isolated enough in my grief, but when people learned the death was related to drugs? I adamantly felt like I would’ve gotten more sympathy from crabs on a deserted island than the family and friends around me. It was hard for me to say, my friend’s no longer here because he lost his battle with addiction because I felt a tremendous amount of guilt that I couldn’t be there for him at his lowest. I, who pride myself on giving the best advice and save everyone, could not save him. He fell into a bad crowd and bad habits which I had no wrap for and so I went on with my life, making new friends and soaking up the college experience for all it was worth. ‘He’d made his choice, I hope he gets the help he needs’ I remember thinking. I often prayed for his recovery, asked his Mother how he was doing through the years and thought back fondly on who he was before all this was the issue. When we were kids he, our mutual friend and I, were like the Three Musketeers but after a falling out with that mutual friend a few years prior to my friend’s death, I was the only one left standing. The one person who would understand, who shared the same fond memories of our departed friend was no longer a part of my life to lean on and grieve with.

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How long was my friend battling this inner demon? Was he alone when he died? Was he scared? Did he realize what was happening before it happened?

So many thoughts rushed through my head, so many moments where I’d find myself crying. I didn’t feel like I had anyone who understood me but I also knew my friend wouldn’t have wanted me to have our good memories tainted with sadness of his unfortunate and tragic end.

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I decided to honor his memory by accepting my grief is valid, my love for him was as real as my love for any of my other friends. I indulged in some of my favorite sweets, watched some of his and I’s favorite movies, and wrote a private letter to him that I burned in my fire pit after writing. I sent a card to his mother and reached out to people I knew wouldn’t judge my grief.

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Slowly, I am healing, but I know I’ll always love and miss the person he was and mourn the person he never got to grow up to be. This experience has also taught me a lot about society’s stigmatism on drugs, having also lost a close friend in middle school to leukemia. The sympathy and support I received was tremendous when I lost her compared to the callousness of losing him to drugs. I’m 28 years old and lost two very close friends: one to illness and one to addiction. My grief for one should never be more valid than the other.

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At the end of the day these are two young people who lost their lives much too soon. Society needs to realize that drugs kill more than automobile accidents and Breast Cancer combined. This is an epidemic. This is serious problem that requires society to re-think the lack of support for parents, friends (both current and former) , co-workers and most importantly family members left behind to pick up the pieces after a loved one loses their battle to addiction. Perhaps if so much stigmatism which results in disenfranchised grief wasn’t surrounding drug addiction and abuse, my friend would have gotten a proper send off and celebration of his life surrounded by everyone he knew and loved. Perhaps he wouldn’t have wanted that, perhaps I did more than anything because it would of given me the proper closure I received with my other friend who died at the tender age of 13.

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Out of respect for my friend and his wonderful family, I have chosen NOT to give any part of his name on here. It’s not my place to. It is my place though to say that as a society, we need to re-evaluate who gets to grieve and who gets support. People who lose love ones to addiction require just as much compassion as those who lose their loved ones to illness. Often times the people left behind have so much guilt, shame and profound sorrow.

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Those left behind feel like they didn’t do enough to save their loved one from the inevitable even though they actually did everything they possibly could. These people are parents, friends, co-workers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and family members that are affected each day by watching a loved one die or struggle with addiction. Addition doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter your religion or race. Addiction comes and it destroys both the people struggling with it and the people who love them that are watching them fight an often times losing battle. These people have stories about loved ones whose lives were so much more than just a ‘drug addict’.

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These ‘addicts’ were still just people with families and friends left with more questions than answers and nobody to talk to. I think it’s time as a society to honor these people’s dignities by allowing those who loved them to share stories and grieve. To be able to say ‘I’m here for you, I’m sorry for your loss and grief’ and genuinely mean it. If we can stop sweeping addiction and it’s victims under the rug, and support those left behind together we can raise awareness and put better support in place for those still battling and their families who feel so utterly lost in the wake of a loved one’s addiction. It’s up to us to be that change.

Recently, Chris Christie has been pushing for addiction to be recognized as an epidemic, I also have been seeing a lot of ads which are acknowledging opioid addiction is a real issue in this state and country.

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I think of my friend whenever I’m bombarded with these ads and commercials and wonder if something like this had been in place 10-15 years ago, would he still be here? I’d like to say that finding ways to deal with my disenfranchised grief helped me to heal completely but I can only say it helped and inspired me to write this. Dealing with disenfranchised grief made me sad, withdrawn and isolated from my current friends (who didn’t know my former friend) and family members. It made me lash out at others because I was hurting inside with no proper outlet, and nobody who understood.

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I’ve had way more good days in the last eight months but I still have bad days where I want to cry. The grief I feel is no different than losing anyone else that mattered to me-the effect is the same even though the circumstances were different and that’s my prerogative.

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If you or someone who you know is suffering from addiction please contract The Drug Abuse Hotline at 1-877-486-1655 today. You are not alone, you or your loved one’s life is precious. Please get help today.

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Love You. Mean It.

Brittany

Xoxo

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