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.
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.