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The Grief Narrative and Our Transgender Children

Today we are going to talk about the grief narrative and our transgender children. Nearly six years deep into our transgender journey, I still struggle to understand the grieving process many parents describe. It is a pervasive narrative for parents of newly transitioned children, no matter the age of transition. Commonly, parents describe a feeling of loss over the gender of the child, a name, or for future events. 

Today at work I comforted the father of a patient after the sudden, tragic loss of his 37-year-old wife. She was the mother of three boys, 18, 13 and just 5 years old. While the 13-year-old was being seen by my husband, I asked the father to step outside with me to talk. 

As he wept, he reiterated several concepts repeatedly.

  • He thought he had more time.
  • And he would give anything to be with her for just a few more moments.
  • He does not know how he will get through this.
  • He had to go to the doctor because he felt like someone was standing on his chest. After being thoroughly examined it was determined that he is healthy, nothing wrong. His heart is simply broken.

I hugged the man as grief washed over him. Mostly listening, I gave him space to speak the words on his heart to a stranger. His wife had always been the one to cross our threshold for monthly appointments. As his son emerged from his appointment, I expressed my condolence. They got in the car and went home to walk through the unimaginable. This, my friends, is grief. 

Some parents in the transgender community will take issue with this post. Asserting their right to grieve the loss of what “should have been.” I understand that grief takes many forms, but it is the way we handle it that is important here. Many things in life do not turn out the way we plan. Be it a cancer diagnosis in our 30s, infertility, not making the team, or having a child with learning differences, to name a few. As adults, we know we need to pick ourselves up, process and reframe our expectations. When we place the burden of the changed direction upon our children, when they become our support and sounding board, we are failing as parents.

“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.

Transgender adults should not have to teach parents of transgender children to model resilience. Nor should they have to listen to the grief narrative. The grief narrative and our transgender children is real and dangerous. When I enter into Facebook forums or Clubhouse rooms, I find a consistent drumbeat from parents who are sad about the name change or that their child will not have children. I challenge parents of transgender children to reframe the narrative.

You are part of a special group that 79% of families don’t have access to. How lucky are we that we are granted access to the most private, core part of their being- their identity? Let that sit for a moment. The HRC’s Youth Behavioral Risk Survey shows that only 21% of lgbtq teens have shared their identity with their family and a mere 6% disclose to grandparents. ~HRC 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report. The same survey shows that:

 Trans youth are over two times more likely to be taunted or mocked by family for their LGBTQ identity than cisgender LGBQ youth.

Resilience. When my children were very young, I went on a book binge reading how to instill this mythical concept in my kids. This was the before. Before cancer, before transgender, before learning differences. Resilience is simply being able to get back up after life beats you down. Knowing that it can be difficult, but it will get better. Our children, being able to express their identity and absorb all that life throws at them- that’s some wicked resilience. We should be modeling the same by being that soft place to land, to lean into the headwinds, we are leading by example. Grieve privately, away from your child and become their cheerleader.

But wait, you say. I should be able to grieve the loss of the wedding, the name I spent so much time picking out, or the fact that I will not have grandchildren. I hear you. Talk to your spouse or best friend about this, but never your child. Put the pictures away, pack up the Christmas bulbs and go all-in affirming your precious gift, your child. The person you brought into this world is the same person sitting before you, only better. Because they feel comfortable in their own skin. I know it is a scary world and people are transphobic. Do not put your child in the position of living in a transphobic, unaffirming home. It is a recipe for unending grief. 

42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.~ The Trevor Project, National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021.

Being the parent of a transgender child is special. The authenticity that my daughter has shown me, from the very youngest years, is admirable. She is quietly, unapologetically, steadfast in her identity. I want to be her when I grow up.