"Dad, I was born the wrong gender."
Very few parents hear these words without a flood of emotions and reactions. In my time at The Marin Foundation, I've talked to many, many parents about the series of conversations that these words spark, like the pistol shot that signals the beginning of a grueling marathon. And the two phrases that I hear most often are these: "it felt like my world had been flipped upside-down" and "it felt like a death in the family." I think these statements speak to the fact that it's a grieving process. Parents often feel a very real sense of pain and loss when their children come out to them.
In keeping with this analogy of losing a loved one, I want to talk about the stages of grief as they relate specifically to this loss of an imagined life. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her monumental book, On Death and Dying, famously outlined five stages of the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Below are examples of what these stages might look like for parents in crisis over a child's coming out as LGBT, using statements that I hear fairly often in my work.
But first, two quick caveats:
First, while I will be using some more clinical terms in this post than usual, my training is as a Pastor. I studied Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief in Seminary, but by no means am I an expert in the field of psychology.
Second, everyone's journey looks different. In no way do I mean to present this as a roadmap to healing or anything, and each stage will likely be unique to them and the special relationship they have with their gay child. Also, it's natural to hop back and forth, forward and backward, between these stages. It's never as neat and tidy as this framework might suggest.
With that out of the way, here it is:
- "It's probably just a phase."
- "I don't want to hear about it."
- "You just haven't found the right [opposite sex] person yet."
Here's the sentiment behind denial: "This is not real. This happens to other families, not mine. There must be some mistake." I've met some LGBT individuals whose families simply do not discuss their sexual orientation or identity.
While this is obviously an unhealthy stage to remain in long-term, it serves an important function for parents. Denial can serve as a buffer between the initial shock of this new revelation and the impending roller-coaster ride of pain and confusion. Very few people are ready to enter a time of grieving. It takes time for the new reality to set in.
- "I'm disappointed in you."
- "How could you shame our family like this?"
- "We were good parents! What did we do wrong?"
This is when reality sets in. "This is real," the parent will recognize. "This is happening to my family. This is not a mistake." The tendency with any unwanted reality is to look for someone or something to blame. Parents often point the finger at their child, at his or her friends, at a childhood sexual experience, at the culture...and, of course, at themselves. Something went wrong at some point, they think. With no clear answer as to the source of their child's homosexuality or transgenderism, that internalized anger finds expression in all sorts of ways.
- "Just don't tell anyone else."
- "We'll find you help."
- "I don't want you to bring anyone home to meet us."
The impulse behind bargaining is to quell the one's consuming anger and to protect oneself against further pain. Parents in the bargaining stage anticipate things getting harder. "What if others ask me about my son?" "What if my daughter will always insist she's a man?" "What if my daughter shows affection with her partner in front of me?" The bargaining stage is all about setting up boundaries or proposing a plan of action to preserve one's emotional health. Like the denial stage, it serves an important function, but is unsustainable in the long run. Parents stuck in this bargaining stage risk alienating their LGBT children by presenting what appear to be ultimatums: "Do this or I'll do that."
- "I don't know what to do."
- "We've lost a child"
- "I just don't know who my daughter [or son] is anymore!"
The depression stage is just what it sounds like. It's difficult. The reality has sunk in. It's painful. The anger and attempts to bargain have been unfruitful, or may have even damaged relationships. There's nothing more to do. It's not within the parent's control. There's no sugar-coating this. As I said, there are dreams that the parent had for their child; an entire life imagined. And that's gone. Whatever his/her life will be, it's not going to match the image parents held in their mind ever since the day he or she was born.
It feels like a huge loss. Like a death even.
Before a parent can say hello to this new reality, they have to say goodbye to the old one. However painful this experience is, it's necessary. Emotions are important. They are there for a reason. They have to be felt.
- "I don't understand, but I want to understand."
- "We value your honesty, even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable."
- "If any of my friends or family have a problem with you, they have a problem with me too."
Acceptance is not the same thing as affirmation or agreement. It doesn't mean that the parent no longer feels pain, grief or loss. It means that he or she wants to live within this new reality. There's often a feeling of peace that comes with acceptance. It's still uncomfortable, but no longer unresolved. Acceptance is going to feel and manifest itself differently for different folks, but, in general, this stage makes room for new dreams and new possibilities for joy.
One final note for parents with spouses: It's likely that you and your husband or wife will move through these stages at different speeds. This can obviously cause a lot of tension within one's marriage in addition to everything else. Just as with any other period of grieving, there are times when it's good to mourn together, and times when it's good to mourn individually. Try to be sensitive to your partner's needs while respecting the functions that this denial, anger, bargaining and depression serve in both of your emotional and psychological health.
And, of course, if you feel stuck or need some neutral third party to process with, I'm just an email away: firstname.lastname@example.org. That's literally my job, and I'm happy to do it :)