Featured image is of human figures in gray-scale marching together and holding various queer flags.
Here is a compassionately direct message about grief and how to support those in your life who are transitioning their gender:
Exploring gender can be a lifelong endeavor. A family member or friend (or coworker, student, etc.) finding their gender, while a positive change, is still an external change that everyone around them has to internalize, accept, and then celebrate. In other words, while gender transitioning for an individual is a realignment to their truest self, the people who love and respect this individual must transition their understanding of who this person is in order to love and respect them best. We can experience grief within this change because “change, even if we see it as positive, disrupts the connections that exist” [Forbes]. There is an end attached to every new beginning. It is natural to feel grief when things end or shift, because that disruption can often feel like some kind of loss. However, it’s how we deal with these feelings that matters.
The best thing we can do for grief is to acknowledge its existence—quite literally name it—and sit with it. We need to actually look at our grief to process it, and that may take time. As we take inventory of change, there are transitions within, the “in betweens”. According to the Bridges Transition Model by William Bridges, we have an “ending zone”, “neutral zone”, and “new beginning zone” as we process transitions. This model was originally used for change in the workplace, but here we’re applying it to gender transitioning. What do we need to let go of as allies to get to the neutral zone? What can we look for in new beginnings to bring us out of the neutral zone? How can we celebrate the new beginnings to move forward into them?
Before diving in any further, I want to be very clear about something: this transitional process is yours to manage without relying on the emotional labor of your trans* loved one. Your trans* loved one has had enough on their plate going through this process themselves, and if you place your grief on them while they are entrusting you with their true identity, they will be burdened with the notion that you might not actually be trustworthy. Yes these things take time, but while you are processing, it’s important to express full support on their behalf. Your trans* loved one is still the person you’ve known and loved for however long they’ve been in your life, only now they know themselves better which means you have the privilege of getting to know them even better too. And if you don’t understand yet, or fear your never will, remember that you don’t have to understand to be respectful.
It’s important to understand this: You’re not losing anyone, you’re actually just gaining more of the same person. The person that you’ve known, who is now realigning to their truest self, is not going through a living death. The person they were before coming out was just a mask they finally figured out how to take off. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t make you a bad person if it takes time to understand how you’re gaining more of the same person.
One caveat: many trans* people will refer to their birth name as their “deadname” and do see themselves as separate from who they were before coming out. If this is how they view their transition, whether it’s strictly social or a social and medical transition, it’s important to not prescribe and project your own understanding of their experience onto them. Always default to how they process their transition. If they don’t want to be related to their past self at all, then you need to not relate them to their past self at all.
The Ending Zone: Acknowledge
While it’s important to understand you’re not actually losing anything but gaining everything, it might help to cope with your loved one’s transition by stating what you think you are losing. Again, the first step to processing grief is to name it. So, what are you grieving, i.e. what do you think you are losing as your loved one realigns to their truest self? You will need to let go of the prescriptive image of who you thought your trans* loved one was. And if some of your grief is attached to gendered actions, like getting your nails done together, it could be a fun opportunity to ask your trans* loved one what gendered activities they might still be comfortable with, or explore together what activities you could do together instead.
(I would like to add that I use “gendered actions” in context of how our society demands things be gendered, not that they actually ARE gendered. Anyone can get their nails done, anyone can throw a football, etc.)
As a parent: if your child decides to change their name, you will need to adopt the understanding that the name you gave them at birth was a gift that no longer serves them. If this is a struggle for you and your child hasn’t already chosen a name, it’s okay to ask them if you can be a part of the decision process for the new one, but be prepared to be told no. Listen more than you speak if they say yes. And do NOT make this process difficult for your child by guilting them into allowing you to be a part of the process, or guilting them by explaining how special their birth name is to you. Confide in a friend or therapist instead.
As a parent you may also be grieving the loss of the future you saw your child having. While this is understandable, and you may fear the hardship your child will face as a trans* person because our world is less than kind to the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s important to recognize that whatever future your child has, they will a) have you as a supportive parent and b) be living a life that is more aligned to them, which will elicit strength and more possibility for happiness.
The Neutral Zone: Internalize
“This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one” [wmbridges]. This is where you adopt new understanding of who they are and who you are in relation to them. How might your role in their life change as they realign? It may be that your role doesn’t change at all, except for needing to be extra supportive of your trans* loved one. This may require you to stick up for them in public spaces, or even amongst other family members and friends (be sure to ask them how they would like those circumstances to be dealt with first). It will also probably require language shifts as your trans* loved one chooses new pronouns and name (I say probably because not all trans* people want new pronouns or names).
Understand that while you may have had to let go of the future you saw your loved one having, it’s important to recognize a new future is on the horizon for them—one that is better suited to them because they know themselves better now.
The New Beginning Zone: Accept and Celebrate
“Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction – they are an expression of a fresh identity” [wmbridges]. Not only does your trans* loved one get to explore their new identity, but so do you! You get to relearn with them who they are, and you get to relearn who you are in relation to them—a loving ally.
The most important thing you can do to support your trans* loved one is to get yourself to a place of excitement in learning who they are becoming, instead of focusing on the “negative” of who you think you’re losing.
Key tips during this transition:
- If you mess up pronouns or their name, simply say “sorry” (truly, just ONE word, or say thank you), and repeat what you were saying with the corrected pronoun or name
- ASK your trans* loved one how they would like to be referred to in specific settings
- ASK your trans* loved one what you can do better so that they feel supported 100%
- DO NOT burden your trans* loved one with stories or explanations of your grief. Keep your grief to yourself and other loved ones whom you trust and/or seek out therapeutic support, or support from a trans* peer support specialist (like me!)
One final note: It may help your transition through grief to acceptance, to compassionately ask to speak with your trans* loved one about their transition through grief to acceptance. It’s very common for trans* people to have our own grieving process as we come to learn who we are. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried over my childhood, or over a future that no longer exists. Granted, I’m much happier now and am so excited for my future, but that took time to come around to. A big part of me went through those common stages of grief, where I denied myself of my actual identity out of fear (imposter syndrome), where I got angry about mistreatment in my past or loss of future dreams, where I’ve bargained with the past and felt depressed over it all. Finally I’m at acceptance and celebration, but I experienced all of those stages of grief, and not in a linear fashion. This took time. A LOT of time. The first full year and a half after coming out, actually. And even though I’m well into my third year of being out, I sometimes still experience the anger or depression stage. Just as gender can be a lifelong journey, so can processing and living with grief. But I promise, the future is brighter when we know ourselves better, and an informed support system can make all the difference. So from the bottom of my trans* little heart, thank you for caring. Thank you for taking the time to learn how to best support the trans* people in your life.
If you are an ally looking to be the best ally you can be, and you would like support, I offer peer support sessions on a sliding scale. Please click here to schedule with me! And if you’re someone exploring identity and would appreciate a safer container to do so in, I’m always here for you in those same sessions as well!
If you are a business looking to better serve your trans* employees and the queer community at large, I am available for consultation as well. Please click here to pick a package and schedule an appointment! Keep in mind: I can do one consultation, or you can hire me as a coach for your workplace to transition your environment into a more inclusive space.