Disenfranchised grief and nonfinite loss as experienced by the families of death row inmates

Omega (Westport). 2006;54(4):281-99. doi: 10.2190/a327-66k6-p362-6988.


The families of death row inmates experience grief and loss issues that have been neglected by scholars and clinicians alike. The issues found in this population are unique and require our understanding. The present study uses the concepts of disenfranchised grief and nonfinite loss to uncover the pain experienced by the children and other family members who have a loved one on death row. Kenneth Doka's (1989) concept of disenfranchised grief is utilized to bring attention to the ways in which the circumstances surrounding an execution leave the family members of those condemned to death outside of the "grieving rules" that exist in the United States. Family members are disenfranchised from their grief, as society does not socially validate their pain. The loss that they feel is also nonfinite (Bruce & Schultz, 2001) in that it is continuous and denies the families all of the hopes, dreams, and expectations that they had for their loved one who now sits on death row. The qualitative interview method was utilized by the authors of this study to gather data from 26 family members of death row inmates who are incarcerated along the East Coast of the United States. The reactions of this group of family members are varied and complex, yet they include the following common responses: social isolation due to stigma and their own feelings of criminalization, intensified family conflict between family members who grieve differently from one another, diminished self-esteem, shame, diffused and specific feelings of guilt, and a chronic state of despair. This study explores virtually untapped terrain. An examination of the microlevel effects of the death penalty on families provides insight in to the area of death and dying, especially as it is related to disenfranchised loss and nonfinite grief. In addition, this study provides insight into the death penalty and its effects.

MeSH terms

  • Anecdotes as Topic
  • Anger*
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Capital Punishment*
  • Denial, Psychological
  • Family Relations*
  • Female
  • Grief*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prisoners*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States