You Can Grieve and Support Your Child

Merriam-Webster defines sorrow as both “a display of grief or sadness” and “deep distress, sadness, or regret, especially over the loss of someone or something loved.” When we talk about grief, we mustn’t limit it to emotions surrounding the death or loss of a person. You can grieve the loss of a job, the end of a journey, a transitional period, the loss of hopes and dreams, and many other things. Often, grief is associated with endings, which is a normal and healthy part of life. When something ends, it’s natural to feel a sense of sadness or loss before the next thing begins – or even as it starts.

Grief is a complex emotion, and for parents of transgender children, one that is often associated with feelings of guilt and shame. When my son first came out as transgender, I remember first being surprised that what I was feeling felt like grief, and then immediately thinking that I had no right to those feelings of grief or loss, because my son was still alive, after all.

Photo Cred: Leo Richardson / Steve Holmes Photography/V3 Photography

It was a sentiment my husband echoed when I asked why he didn’t appear as emotional as I felt.

“Some parents have lost their children, and I consider it a blessing to have mine still.”

Ugh. I must be an awful person, I remember thinking, because otherwise, why would I be having such a hard time moving forward and processing my emotions? As it turns out, not only am I not an awful person, I later discovered that many people experience the same feelings I was having. Knowing this not only made me feel better, but it also made me feel supported and understood.

The New York Times released an opinion piece recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. In “Celebrate Your Kid’s Transition. Don’t Grieve it,” the author introduces the idea that:

“Grief as a reaction to transition is transphobic; it reduces a person’s very being to their gender, and reveals that a loved one cares more about a phantom image than for the trans person they supposedly love, who is right in front of them.”

Talusan, M. New York Times, Oct. 20, 2019.

I find this idea problematic.

We’ve already established that grief is a feeling of sadness related to a loss. Transition is a loss for parents. It’s the loss of the child we thought we had, and all the hopes and dreams and expectations that went along with that idea.

That’s not to say that we can’t celebrate and support our child’s transition. We can, and we do. No one is happier than we are that our child can live as their true self. Or is happier than they have been in likely years. And their risk of depression and anxiety and suicide has decreased because they are no longer pretending to be someone they are not.

My son is a changed person, and I am willing to bet that coming out saved his life. No one wants to celebrate that more than I do, trust me. But that doesn’t take away from the sadness I felt around letting go of the idea of having a daughter. Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be both/and?

In order to move forward through my sadness, I first had to figure out what was causing it. It wasn’t my child being transgender, let’s be clear about that. After almost three years of processing my thoughts through writing, and the help of an excellent therapist, I finally realized it was my hopes and dreams of having a daughter someday. You see, I grew up as the oldest of five children and the only girl. When my last brother was born, I lost all hope of ever having a sister. As I grew up, I began to dream about one day having a daughter.

I didn’t lose my child when he came out.

He’s still the same amazing person he was before, except perhaps happier and more confident. We still do all the same things together that we’ve always enjoyed: watch movies, dish about all the things, go shopping, etc. However, my dream of always wanting a daughter isn’t being fulfilled by having two sons. That dream ended when he came out, and it is an ending that I have had to learn to let go of, and how to move forward from. Sometimes it is painful, but it is part of my transition to being the mother of two sons.

Parents of transgender children go through a transition process also, and that transition carries with it a lot of feelings. In addition to being happy for their child, those feelings can also look like guilt, confusion, sadness, loss, and maybe even anger. To tell a parent that it’s not okay for them to feel grief adds to the weight they are carrying as they try to work through all those negative feelings, and why they might be feeling them.

The author of the article and I agree on one thing.

It’s best to work through those emotions away from your child.

I was fortunate that Leo was away at college. For the better part of the first year, all the conversations we had were through social media messaging or texting. I was able to ask questions and have conversations with him without my emotions getting in the way. There was no worry that he would see my tears or know that I was struggling. It allowed us, at least I think, to move forward in his transition together.

In therapy, I worked through my emotions on a very regular basis. Once Leo came out, my therapist increased my sessions with her. Our focus turned to how to make sense of the things I didn’t understand. Additionally, we worked on how to help me move forward in letting go of the idea of having a daughter. I also am part of a very supportive group for mothers of transgender children on FaceBook. There, I can share my experiences and know others have been where I am, and understand what I’m going through.

One of my good friends observed it’s how we talk about grief and loss that is important, not that we are experiencing it. She noted we could reframe the conversation to express how we are feeling and why, as well as be supportive of our children. For example, I might say, “I’m grieving the hopes and dreams I had of having a daughter.” Or, “I’m grieving the fact that I had expectations, and they’ve changed.” This way, I own my feelings and experience them. I still support my child by not saying, “I’m grieving the loss of my daughter.” She wrote,

“One nuance is what you are grieving. The other is how. Not that you have grief.”

Some parents, even parents of other transgender children, get upset when they hear talk about grief in relation to a child’s coming out. Sometimes it’s because they have physically lost a child, and they don’t see how it compares. Others it’s because they want to focus on the positive and think a transition should be celebrated. I believe that there’s room at the table for all the emotions that come with a child’s being transgender. We, especially parents of other transgender children, should be careful not to shame each other for how we feel. Feelings are neither right or wrong. They come, and we feel them, and we should focus on processing them in a healthy way. Not making each other or our children feel bad.

16 thoughts on “You Can Grieve and Support Your Child

  1. Everyone should be awarded the space to move through their emotions. Whether you write this here or in the NYT, your emotions are valid. I was told by medical professionals that my trans teen was doing his own grieving. He was grieving the childhood lived as a little boy that he never got to have and any relationships lost as a result of him transitioning. He had to work through his own feelings of being “other” or “less than” in society.
    Thank you for sharing such a personal bit of your journey. Hugs to you and your family. #mamabear

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I fully agree with what you have shared here. I think it gets troublesome when we start limiting who can grieve, and how, and putting blame on others for how they feel, or worse, calling names. It’s important to recognize that transgender people go through their own grieving process as well, so thank you for pointing that out. XOXO B

  2. I thank you for sharing this. My daughter came out to me just yesterday and as much as I love her and support her 100% in wanting to become fully female I still feel loss. I thought maybe that feeling was wrong and selfish of me it. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in grief. I know this will get better in time but it feels so good to know I’m not the only one.

    1. Hi Jen,
      First, a big hug to you. Second, take a deep breath. These first days and the next few weeks and months are going to be full of so much change and will move so quickly you will feel like your head is spinning. It’s a lot to keep up with and it’s a lot to take in and processes and it comes with a LOT of feelings. None of those feelings are wrong. No matter what you feel as you move through this journey of learning to become the mother of a transgender is wrong. Allow yourself to feel all of the things, acknowledge those feelings, and then keep moving forward. I found it very helpful to have my own counselor to process my feelings with, which allowed me to be supportive to my son without having my emotions get in the way (most of the time). You are not alone in this journey, even though it might feel that way. XOXO Beth

  3. Thank you for putting into words what I was feeling.
    Knowing that the feeling of loss does not mean I am a bad parent. I love my son more than words but “losing” my daughter was tough.
    Your article made me realize that it really is more about the world I had created in my mind that I am mourning and not his gender.
    He reminded me the other day don’t worry mom. I’ll still be a picky eater LOL
    He has been a rock star through all of this and I just want to be sure I also can be for him.
    Thank you again ❤️

    1. Melanie,
      You are welcome. Thanks for sharing. It’s a hard adjustment at first, that’s for sure. Be gentle with yourself and let yourself feel all the things because it’s a normal part of the process. But know that those feelings wont last forever.

      XOXO, Beth

  4. My 21 year old daughter came out as gay in 2016. Her father and I were loving and supportive. In the past month, she told us she was having gender dysforia. After several sessions with a therapist specializing in gender issues, my daughter has learned/decided to transition to male. I love my new son, but I can’t stop grieving the loss of my daughter. I’ve had three pregnancies (all female) but only one live birth, a daughter. Now I’m losing the only daughter I gave birth to. That is another loss of a child for me and I’m struggling. I feel like my new son is throwing my daughter away. Your article has helped me realize my feelings aren’t wrong.

    1. That is all so hard. I’m sorry for all of your losses. Take the time you need to process your feelings. I found it helpful to do that away from my son, so he would still feel supported, but I had the space I needed to feel all the things.

      Hugs to you, and thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Thank you for acknowledging that it’s ok to grieve. My 25 year old son told me yesterday that he is trans. I had absolutely no idea. He has been married for 3 years, and says his wife is supportive. I am really struggling to process this. I want to be supportive, but my emotions are all over the place. My husband passed away unexpectedly 2 1/2 years ago, and I’m still grieving for him. Now I feel like I’m losing my son too.

    1. Kris, I am so sorry. That is a lot of loss in a short time. Your grief must feel like a huge weight, threatening to bury you. I hope you are getting support from a professional. You can grieve your child and support them. It’s not an either/or situation. Support looks like using their new name (if they choose one) and pronouns. Loving them the same way you always have. Learning about what it means for them to be transgender. It’s that simple. You can still feel all your feelings. And I found it helpful to do that away from my child. That too is being supportive.
      Big hugs and love to you.

  6. Thank you. Our daughter’s spouse came out to us last year as non-binary/gender fluid. I have felt guilt at the twinges of sadness I’ve felt. I am incredibly happy that they are able to lead life as their true self, but worry for the challenges that they must now face, along with our daughter. This article helped me understand and appreciate that feelings are just that-feelings. I’m sure the sadness will pass, but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one to feel it.

    1. Yes, feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. And it’s important to allow space to feel them, and understand them, if there is a root cause for them, and then to let them pass. Big hugs to you and your family.


  7. Thank you so much for this article. My son’s partner came out as transgender this year. I am supportive and want them to be happy, living as their true self but right now I am working through grief, worry, and a few other emotions. Your article didn’t shame me for feeling this way, it gives me hope.

  8. Thank you for this article. I read that NYT article and felt terrible. It’s been 6 years since my son told me he is not a boy. They use they/them pronouns and consider them self a lesbian. Changed their gender neutral name. I still struggle with seeing them wear makeup. At the same time that they came out they got very mentally ill with psychotic depression and OCD.
    They left college and did not take care of hygiene, gained weight, could not keep a job, and went into the red in bank account to pay for Tinder boosts. There was also some self harm, two suicide attempts, inpatient psych hospitalization, aggressiveness behaviors, stealing, multiple car accidents or just plain runningout of gas in the middleof the night. When they identified as a boy, they were a high achieving student with strong musical talent and they were also very attractive, so everyone knew who they were. I was constantly told how lucky I was to have a son like this. My young adult says I am living in the past but I can hardly help missing the days when I was so proud of my kid, and my mom and brothers were too, when they were healthy, and things were relatively simple. And when we were so very close.

    1. I’m so sorry your child has been struggling. Mental illness is such a difficult thing to navigate and I hope they are getting help to be supported through this time. It can take a long time to get to a place to stability. And I hope that you are getting the support you need to help navigate your own feelings. You didn’t say how old your child was when they came out, but it’s likely that the two things, their coming out and the mental illness onset aren’t related.. it’s just that they happened in the same time frame. Mental illness onset generally occurs in late teen- early 20s. When you say “I was proud of my kid when they were healthy” you give your child the impression that you are ashamed of them because of something they have no control over, which is that they have a mental illness… which has nothing to do with them being transgender, but it sounds like you have the two wrapped up together. A therapist could help you untwine those two ideas. Your child is transgender, and you can love and support them for who they are. Your child is also mentally ill, and needs your love and support to get better, in whatever capacity you can give it, to navigate that (if they accept it, not all people do, which is also hard for a parent to accept and where the help of a therapist comes in). Big hugs to you. This is not an easy thing and admitting you are struggling is very brave.

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