Grieving and the LGBTQ+ family

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Last week my mom died. After journeying with Alzheimer’s disease for 15 years and spending the final 6 days of her life together leaving nothing unsaid, I was sure we had completed the grieving of her life. I was completely stunned when I awoke on my first day without her unable to function, full of emotion and grief. I was equally stunned when these feelings continued as the days went on. While committed to fully experiencing the feelings and writing throughout the process, the fog began to clear and I recognized the similarities of the experiences of all grief in our lives, whether this be the physical loss of a parent, the loss of a dream or the loss of a belief.

My clients frequently come to me speaking of loss and grief when their child comes out, particularly parents of transgender children. They speak of “losing their son or daughter”, feeling unable to cope with requests for change. They worry that something is wrong because of the strong feelings they are having, as if it means they are not accepting of their child when nothing could be further from the truth. Acceptance is as feeling separate from sadness and grief. Because all feelings come from our thoughts, they are separate and distinct from one another.

So when a parent comes to me with this line of thinking, we start by looking at what we know to be true.

What is true is that they have not “lost their son or daughter.” They, in fact, have found them. We are being given the opportunity to know our child for who they are and being trusted with their confidence.

People will ask, “how do I know it’s not a phase?” To which I answer, did you know the period of life when your child was learning about themself and building their bravery to be themself was a phase? Life is a series of phases. For everyone. We go through childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midlife and later adulthood, each phase as natural as the last. Humans are not static, ever changing and growing which includes our neurology. Just like you and me, our children have been socialized in the norms of gender and have had to learn and grow to learn more about these constructs as well as who they are within them. You are therefore correct that it’s a phase- a phase of growth into themself.

“Yes, but first my child said they were gay then it was non-binary and now transgender,” said one client to me. “How is that not a phase?” Again, it is a phase, but not in the way it was being asked. Frequently LGBTQIA+ children and teens report a “knowing” and/or a “feeling” something was different and go through a period of self exploration. In some form or another, we all go through periods of seeking and questioning. Because we didn’t go through a particular form of questioning does not invalidate someone else’s experience. I was assigned female at birth and my gender is female. I have never questioned my gender. But I have questioned my faith. Does that mean that only my questioning is the right type of exploration? If that were the case, we would all have to be on an identical growth path and have knowledge of the same things. Growth takes many paths.

So why does it feel to some parents as though there has been a major loss when their child comes out?

Because changing any belief can be painful, especially one we attached so much meaning to. It may also conflict with what you were taught in your religious or cultural upbringing, taking the questioning to a whole new level.

Think about it. When you learned your child was labeled a boy or girl, what did you now “know” to be true about them? Did you have visions of their future, how your relationship would be shaped by their assigned gender? What did it mean to you? Did you see your child in a wedding dress or as a football star? Were there roles assigned to them and who they would become?

You’ve now carried these thoughts for a long time. They evoke deep emotions. And questioning them is uncomfortable, even painful to the point of grief as we surrender our old ways of thinking.

The human brain was created for efficiency and safety. Change is never comfortable. We have to learn new ways to think and be in relationship with ourselves as well as others. It makes sense why we experience grief- our brains want to hold onto what is simple, easy and familiar. It is much easier for us to get stuck in the old thoughts and not feel discomfort. Our brain wants us to believe the person is somehow different than they were, but it’s not true. They always were who they are. So it’s not the person we are grieving- they are still there, the beautiful soul they always were- it’s the thoughts we have about them and the meaning we have assigned them.

The loss of our belief systems often require us to grieve. We grieve what we believe was certain and true, that our vision of our cisgender heterosexual child isn’t actually who they are. It was our thoughts that created that vision, not theirs. With self compassion, we can recognize these thoughts and question them. We can choose to experience the feelings rather than resist them. And we can choose a path of growth. Because growth does not come without discomfort.

Our children aren’t walking away from us. They’re walking towards us. Let’s learn, be uncomfortable and grow together.

I’d be honored to hear your experience. Email me at sarah@sarahkennedycoaching.com

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