In my last post I talked about challenging my own ideas of grief and broadening my definition. The article on the disenfranchised grief of the descendants of Nazi perpetrators got me thinking. What other kinds of families are experiencing disenfranchised grief? Then it hit me: the families of death row inmates. I began searching through scholarly journals, hoping someone had done some work in this particular area of loss. I found this article; Disenfranchised Grief and Nonfinite Loss as Experienced by the Families of Death Row Inmates by Sandra Jones and Elizabeth of New Jersey and Georgia, respectively. The authors acknowledge that the issues facing these families are neglected by society and clinicians alike and that it is important to try to understand their unique pain and circumstances. The authors of the study interviewed twenty six family members of death row inmates who are incarcerated along the East Coast of the United States. Of the families interviewed one wife of a death row inmate said this about her pain, "I really can't put it into words...anguish, I guess..." The brother of another inmate stated that it felt as if, "...someone had died in the family...". These statements present a clear view of how ambiguous this kind of loss is for these family members.
One particularly unique scenario that faces families with a member on death row is the appeals process. One might assume this would present on opportunity for hope, but that is not the case. Often families said that appeals only confirm the death sentence, effectively dashing any hope whatsoever. One interviewee states that the appeals process made them feel as if they were, "reliving the worst days since the arrest". Another loss commonly experienced by many of these families was the loss of support from their nuclear families and other social circles. These family member essentially had to face the entire process alone, with absolutely no support. Another unique and intriguing commonality of loss cited by many of those interviewed was a loss of a sense of self. One mother said she had always thought she was a "good mother" until the crime (committed by her son) had occurred. Last, but most certainly not least, there is the contempt the families experience from practically everyone they interact with including lawyers, judges, prison guards, strangers, and even close friends.
I think there is still much to be learned about the grieving process of individuals in this particular situation. However, this study is an exceptional start. The article states, "Despite the intensity and uniqueness of their experience, there has been little written about this population in general and less about their grief. Yet, it is because of the intensity and uniqueness...[that it is] important for future research.". Studies have shown families of death row inmates largely suffer from dsythymic depression, PTSD, social isolation, and stigmatization. I believe it is the responsibility of the mental health community to continue to work to understand this population in order to serve their needs as best we can.
Jones, S. J., & Beck, E. (2006). Disenfranchised grief and nonfinite loss as experienced by the families of death row inmates. Omega: Journal Of Death And Dying, 54(4), 281-299. doi:10.2190/A327-66K6-P362-6988