TRANSSEXUALS AND THEIR PARENTS - PART II THE GRIEF PROCESS Copyright 1989 - By Kay Metsker
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong; So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men One summer Sabbath day I strolled among the green mounds of the village burial place; Where, pondering how all human love and hate find one sad level; and how, soon or late, wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face and cold hands folded over a still heart, pass the green threshold of our common grave, whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart, awed for myself, and pitying my race, our common sorrow like a mighty wave, swept all my pride away, and trembling, I forgave!
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
"Everyman can handle grief but he that has it."
Grieving is the normal response to the pain and anguish of loss. It is the process of healing after a disruptive loss occurs in life. It is uncomfortable and painful; a state of disease. If it is not experienced, or if it is repressed, denied, and internalized, it can lead to serious emotional and/or physical disease. Knowing what to expect in the process of grieving for yourself and others helps you get through the process.
When parents are told by their child that he/she is gender dysphoric and is planning a change of sex, the parents usually experience shock, a sense of betrayal, and a sense of loss. They may be able to accept the change intellectually, but at the emotional level, there is a sense of having lost a son (or daughter).
The burden felt by the parents is doubly great because the loss of a child and its accompanying feeling of powerlessness go against the most basic of parental instincts, that of protecting the offspring. Faced with such a catastrophic idea, the stunned parents all too often believe they should have been able to avert the "tragedy." When the feeling of powerlessness sets in, parents find themselves in a situation of having to deal not only with their shock, but also with their perceived inability to have prevented it. One of the basic things taken away from the parents is the conviction of possessing the ability to control and to have some say about what is happening in the world. Feeling that ability gone, parents must turn elsewhere to believe once again in themselves and to re-develop their sense of self-esteem.
Parents may think frequently about their mistakes or the things they didn't do, and now wish they had. They must realize that whatever happened in the past, they did the best they could at the time. Dwelling on the causes of the gender dysphoria and negative parts of the relationship will only delay the recovery time. Continually going over situations cannot change them. Parents should forgive themselves -- if there is anything to forgive that is still unfinished. They should begin to think in positive terms of the good times in the relationship and give up the painful ones. Above all, they should stop punishing themselves?
Adjusting to and eventually accepting the reality of the change is a long, slow and painful healing process. Studies by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others have shown that definite stages of this grief process are encountered and must be resolved by each individual before they can reach final understanding. The stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Guilt, Acceptance, and Renewal.
This is the first stage. A state of numbness and disbelief takes hold. Common thoughts are, "No, this can't be happening to me. I don't believe it. If I don't think about it, the problem will go away." After about six weeks, if a person is stoically fighting their grief and strong feelings, or is still feeling numb, they are denying their feelings and are headed for emotional trouble.
Anger may be expressed outwardly as rage, or turned inward and be experienced as depression. Reactions such as, "Why me? Why not our neighbors? How could you do this to us?", may be expressed. Blaming others is a way of avoiding the personal pain, sorrow and despair of coming to terms with the fact that life is not always fair. We all have different reasons for feeling what we feel. People's feelings are a legitimate part of them; they shouldn't be ashamed of these emotions. Hiding one's anger won't make it disappear. A person will get past it more quickly if it is brought out into the open. People should also realize, if they become targets of this anger, not to take it personally because the anger must be expressed and worked through.
Bargaining goes on to help buy time to accept the truth of the situation. "I'll come see you only if I see `Larry' instead of `Laura'. I'll have lunch with you if you wear slacks and no make-up. ", are ways to try to postpone the inevitable.
Depression can result in feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. Other feelings such as sadness, disappointment, and/or loneliness can occur. The person experiencing these emotions should ask for comfort and help when they want it. It is important to not resist one's feelings or to wallow in them. If a person is allowed to express their feelings, they will find final acceptance much easier. They will also be grateful to those who can sit with them during this stage of depression without constantly telling them that they should be more cheerful.
Guilt comes from something a person did or said, something they wished they had not done; or from something that a person thought they should have said or done. Whenever someone finds themself saying should or ought, they are putting themself in a position to feel guilt.
Guilt may be created unreasonably. If a person says to themself or others, "He wouldn't have had this problem if I ...", guilt is created by their own self-talk. "If only" and "what if" are questions that can never be answered. The facts are not all available to know what else could have happened. They must rid themselves of the irrational "if only" thoughts. Those thoughts serve no purpose but to continue the guilt feelings which will slow down one's recovery. A person must accept the reality of what has happened. It cannot be changed, but people can change what they think about it and choose not to feel guilt. Feeling guilty over a prolonged time is a choice some may make.
Thoughts are thoughts; they cannot be felt. Feelings are feelings; they cannot be thought. Self-talk can create one's reality. A person can use self-talk to set up emotional barriers and feel completely helpless and emotionally impotent. Or one's horizons can be expanded to create positive change and growth.
Progress toward acceptance is made when the parents can think of their child without strong emotional feelings of longing and sadness for the way things were. The parents will not be stuck in the past, they will be living in the present, and making plans for the future. They will be able to live with the ambiguity of the never-to-be answered questions. This stage should not necessarily be mistaken for a happy stage, where total acceptance is achieved. It should be considered as the stage where the pain has gone and the struggle is over.
The psychologist Carl Jung said that part of being human involves having problems because human beings have a consciousness, as opposed to lower animals that operate their lives on instincts. Problems force us to a more developed consciousness, a fuller awareness of events and feelings. As Jung says, "Everyone of us gladly turns away from his problems; if possible they must not be mentioned, or better still, their experience is denied. We wish to make our lives simple, certain, and smooth. And for that reason problems are taboo. The artful denial of a problem will not produce conviction; on the contrary, a wider and higher consciousness is called for to give us the certainty and clarity we need."
For each loss, each person feels a different set of reactions, and must work through their grieving processes at whatever pace and time is necessary. There are similarities among those who manage their grief successfully -- and similar blocking patterns for those who have trouble resolving their grief. Some never do completely resolve their grief and do not complete all the stages of the grieving process.
Parents must focus on their patterns of grieving, monitor their self-talk and emotions to help raise their consciousness and grow into stronger, more sensitive people.
It is important to remember that there is a balance in the universe. For every loss there is a gain. Surviving grief doesn't mean that parents will completely forget the past history of their transsexual child. That person is in their life forever, but his/her role in their life must, and will, change and evolve. The ideas expressed in this article will, hopefully, help to produce a better understanding for the parents who are learning to deal with the loss of an old relationship and the beginning of a new one.