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Intimate Partner Violence and Disenfranchised Grief — Unrecognized Loss


By Lisa S. Zoll, MSW, LCSW

In 1989, Kenneth Doka introduced the concept of “disenfranchised grief,” which he defined as grief that either is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly supported (Corr, 1998; Doka, 2002). Examples of disenfranchised grief include death and nondeath losses such as loss of a pet, perinatal losses, some elective abortions, loss of health, loss of stability, loss of innocence from abuse and neglect, infertility, grief experienced by children, suicide, murder, unintended drug overdoses, and loss of a relationship with a loved one who is not blood related (e.g., a boyfriend/girlfriend, extramarital lover, in-laws, or failed adoptions) (Gilbert, 2007).

As defined, disenfranchised grief can be closely linked to the losses related to intimate partner violence (IPV) that go largely unrecognized, unsupported, and unacknowledged. Victims’ grief is often kept invisible as they try to keep the abuse hidden. If we want to transform the social norms at the root of violence, we need to talk about it. According to Jennie Willoughby, “Society as a whole has a fear of addressing our worst secrets … Society as a whole doesn’t acknowledge the reality of abuse.” If the reality of IPV is not publicly supported, any losses created by the abuse are certainly not being acknowledged at the micro, mezzo, or macro levels of society (Hugstad, 2017).

Loss, in this article, is defined as the disappearance of something cherished such as a person or possession to which there is an emotional attachment or bond (Zoll & Shiner, 2017). Victims of IPV often experience numerous nondeath related losses including marriage, relationship, and change of home. Domestic violence (or IPV) as defined by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional/psychological abuse” (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015). Patterns of abuse, behaviors, and the frequency and severity of incidents may vary among abusers. Abusers use intimidation, power, and control over victims as they seek to instill a sense of fear that disempowers the victim.

A Survivor’s Story
Lynn Shiner, former director of the Pennsylvania Office of Victims’ Services, where she oversaw the distribution of state and federal funding to meet the needs of crime victims throughout the Commonwealth, contributes her 37 years of expertise on this topic in this article. Shiner herself was a victim of IPV. Incidents of IPV were woven throughout Shiner’s marriage. Feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, vulnerability, fear, humiliation, worthlessness, and financial dependency on the abuser prevented her from speaking out about her experiences. Shiner lived with losses that accumulated over time. She silently grieved the loss of support from family and friends because she told no one about the abuse at first—the loss of self-esteem, the loss of a sense of safety and security, the loss of independence, and the loss of the ability to trust both herself and others—and she slowly lost hope for her future. These disenfranchised losses went largely unacknowledged and unsupported because Shiner’s feelings of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment kept her from sharing her experiences of abuse and loss with family and friends. The mental abuse started with her ex-husband making demeaning comments about her appearance: “At 125 pounds … I was fat, I was ugly, I should be grateful to him for marrying me.” The abuse slowly turned physical. The physical abuse started with pushing, shoving, and hair pulling. Shiner reports, “I felt so isolated.”

Shiner began to lose the support of her friends in whom she confided the abuse. They did not understand why she would stay in the relationship and began to withdraw their support and their willingness to listen to her. The withdrawal of the support of friends resulted in increasing Shiner’s isolation and reinforcing her sense of humiliation. Two years later, Shiner’s husband came close to killing her in a fit of rage. It was this event that convinced Shiner that she needed to leave home to protect not only herself but also her children. After leaving, Shiner filed for a protection from abuse order (PFA). “At the PFA hearing, with the judge presiding, I was asked to describe intimate details about my marriage. I felt like a tourist attraction in a packed courtroom. My family and friends did not know even half of what I had been through.” A divorce followed.

In many cases, losses that children experience as the result of IPV are overlooked. Children living in violent households may experience both emotional and physical losses. Examples of potential losses include the basic loss of safety and security, the loss of routine and normalcy, the loss of a parent due to death, a parental decision to leave the violent situation, the legal termination of parental rights, or the loss of attention from emotionally unavailable parents. Effects on children of IPV may also include the loss of home and the loss of innocence (Hollinger, 2010).

Shiner says that she did not talk to her children about the abuse she was experiencing because she was in “survival mode.” Not talking about the abuse in their midst, however, can have a negative long-term impact on children. While the direct victim of abuse experiences isolation, so do the children. Shiner says that her daughter could not have friends stay over at her house for fear of exposing them to the violence in the house. Other consequences include the risk of perpetuating the cycle of abuse because children are at risk for modeling the behavior of the abusive parent. Children are also at risk for growing up to become victims of abuse themselves. It is important to reassure the child or children in living in violent homes that they bear no fault or responsibility for the abuse or the abuser’s behavior, nor is it their job to intervene (Deboard-Lucas, Wasserman, Groves, & Bair-Merritt, 2013).

Shiner’s abusive ex-husband perpetrated the ultimate act of IPV when he murdered their two children, Jen, age 10, and Dave, age 8, and then took his own life during a visit per the custody agreement. She reflects, “The murders of Jen and Dave stripped away my independence, beliefs, confidence, self-esteem, future, and hope, leaving me vulnerable, exposed, and dependent on others.” Sometime after the murders Shiner began to speak publicly about her experience in hopes that her story would help to validate the experiences of other victims of domestic violence.

Experiencing Grief
In general, grief therapy utilizes specialized techniques that help survivors to process complicated grief reactions and to resolve the conflicted emotions of separation from the loved one. In the therapeutic process, mourners must be met with compassion and empathy and understood and supported in their journey through grief (Worden, 2008; Jordan & Neimeyer, 2003). Clinicians must take compassion and empathy a step further by validating, acknowledging, and supporting losses that the victim and/or victim’s family have experienced as a result of the violence.

In working with survivors of IPV, an appropriate psychoeducational approach might include providing survivors with information about the traumatic effects of abuse, information about the specific losses they may have experienced, or information about losses that may be experienced in the future. Creating opportunities for survivors to discuss their responses to trauma has the potential to open avenues for them to receive support and validation for the losses that resulted from their experience so that their losses do not remain hidden and disenfranchised.

Collateral Damage
Victims of IPV experience many forms of grief that often go unrecognized, unsupported, and unacknowledged. Fallout from the experience may make further claims on a victim’s life in the forms of addiction, health issues, disabilities, mental illness, prior victimization, complicated relationships, financial losses and possible financial instability, PTSD, loss of work or inability to work because of the abuse, and custody issues. These factors may complicate a victim’s journey. Over the years, as social workers, we have learned that it is critical to step back, look at the big picture, and take a more holistic approach when offering services to survivors of IPV. We accomplish this by understanding the complexities combined with support and validation of losses related to IPV with trauma-informed interventions.

As social workers, we can work with clients to provide education—not only about IPV, but also about potential grief reactions. Survivors are often left feeling powerless. Part of our work is to focus on empowering survivors by validating and recognizing these varieties of losses that may likely go unsupported by family, friends, and society. For the survivors of IPV, information and knowledge can be powerful and healing.

— Lisa S. Zoll, MSW, LCSW, is an instructor at Temple University College of Public Health, School of Social Work.

Corr, C. (1998). Enhancing the concept of disenfranchised grief. Omega, 38(1), 1-20.

Deboard-Lucas, R., Wasserman, K., Groves, B. M., & Bair-Merritt, M. (2013). 16 trauma-informed, evidence-based recommendations for advocates working with children exposed to domestic partner violence. Retrieved January 31, 2018, from http://promising.futureswithoutviolence.org/files/2013/08/16-Trauma-Informed-Evidence-Based-Recommendations-For-Advocates.pdf.

Doka, K. (Ed.). (2002). Disenfranchised grief: New directions, challenges, and strategies for practice. Research Press: Champaign, IL.

Gilbert, K. (2007). Ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief. Retrieved from http://www.indiana.edu/~famlygrf/units/ambiguous.html.

Hollinger, C. (2010). Loss, grief, and domestic violence. Retrieved January 31, 2018, from https://www.fcasv.org/sites/default/files/Loss,%20Grief,%20and

Hugstad, K. (2017). Grieving losses other than death. Huffington Post. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/at-a-loss-grieving-losses-other-than-death_us_59794d8ce4b06b305561ce05.

Jordan, J., & Neimeyer, R. (2003). Does grief therapy work? Death Studies, 27, 765-786.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2015). Retrieved January 28, 2018, from www.ncadv.org.

Worden, W.J. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: a handbook for the mental health practitioner. 4th edition. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Zoll, L. S., & Shiner, L. (2017). A grief trajectory. Social Work Today. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/pp_063017_5.shtml.