Transgender Grief Therapy
A candle for transgender day of remembrance.
Posted November 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- How we process grief hinges on our internal relationship with emotionality itself.
- For trans and nonbinary people, the experience with loss is diverse.
- People have a natural tendency to compare experiences, yet death is incomparable.
Grief is a unique and misunderstood emotion, muddied by discrimination, disenfranchisement, and trauma. While everyone’s bereavement is unique, grief therapy for trans and nonbinary people can take on added complexity. Consider how Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 13th-19th) concludes with a candlelight vigil on Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20th). A week of social activism concludes with a memorial.
As a young queer counselor, I was drawn to grief therapy because my experience didn’t resemble the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance model so often presented. I soon learned that Elizabeth Kübler Ross and David Kessler never intended their framework to be a tidy little box.1 Some may experience more steps or less. Some may experience them in different orders or revisit them over and over again.
Beyond sadness, depression, and heartache, grief can look like wailing tears, vengeful outrage, dreary malaise, anxious dread, exhaled relief, nostalgic joy, and dignified honor. There is no “correct way” to grieve, yet there can be many obstacles to the grieving process for trans people in mourning and those mourning the death of a trans person.
How we process grief hinges on our internal relationship with emotionality itself. Some feel emotions intensely. Others keep them at arm’s length. Some trust their emotional wisdom. Others fear losing control. Once again, there is no right or wrong as there are many factors to consider like personality, neurodiversity, and familial culture.
For trans and nonbinary people, we may also need to consider psychological defense mechanisms like emotional suppression and dissociation. It’s important to note that gender diversity is not a mental health disorder while also acknowledging how hostile environments may have impacted us throughout our lives.
We may have pushed down our feelings to not draw attention to ourselves or hide and protect our gender identity. Even if we’re out of the closet, our old survival tactics may warn us “not to feel the feelings,” leading us to minimize or even normalize hardship. On top of this, the sociopolitical scrutiny that trans people are subjected to forces us to “keep it all together” because the moment we show any emotionality, our employers or family members could accuse us of being “unstable.” Even on our worst day—standing at a funeral— we may still feel pressured to perform.
By contrast, dissociative trauma responses like depersonalization and derealization can make some of us “numb” to our emotions. We may want to cry but struggle to do so. We may recognize the benefit of vulnerability but feel locked off from it. And when we finally come into contact with our emotions, our arrested grief may pour forward from decades ago.
History of Loss
As trans and nonbinary people, our experience with loss is diverse. For some, self-actualization is an integration process, accepting and unifying multiple facets of our identity. Yet, for others, it is a severance process. There’s a reason deadnames are dead, since “letting go” of our former self can take on many dimensions of grief, both for our families and us.2 When severance is within our control, it can feel scary but empowering. Gender-affirming surgeries are the penultimate example of this, as we let go to grow.
Yet, there are many losses beyond our control. If we were disowned, we might grieve our estranged family, confusing as that may be. We may love, miss, fear, and hate them, all at the same time. In turn, we may even grieve the family we never got to have, the family that never was, especially if we were never safe at home.
While these experiences are potent on their own, they can deepen and magnify our sense of loss when someone dies. Banished, we may not be able to attend our parent’s funeral if our Family of Origin doesn’t accept us. And if we lose someone from our family of choice? Someone who actually embraced us for who we are? Is someone instrumental to our self-acceptance? Then grief becomes a chasm, like a gaping crack in our foundation.
Circumstance of Death
We have a natural tendency to compare our experiences, yet death is incomparable. Losing someone to cancer is wholly different from a loved one being murdered. Likewise, our relationship to the person in question and their age also factor in how we wrestle with loss, time, mortality, regret, injustice, spirituality, and disillusionment. Our level of support varies in each circumstance, too, as the legitimacy of trans and nonbinary people is questioned even in death.
Tragically, 2021 has been the most fatal on record, with over 375 murders worldwide, 45 of which in the U.S.3,4 Yet we all attend the memorial knowing the list is incomplete. Not every victim is found, let alone reported. And even if they are, the next of kin do not always accept a person’s gender identity and may deadname and misgender them post mortem.5,6
While there are a handful of studies researching disenfranchised grief for same-sex couples, there is next to no research on the emotional hole left in the trans community when one of our own is murdered.7,8 Yet the ripple effect is palpable, whether it brings us to tears or drives us to galvanize our community or both.
Honoring Our Grief
Grief is an involuntary drop into existential reflection, forcing us to inventory our feelings and how we process them. Grief can undermine us and ignite us at the same time. It is both the darkness and the candlelight vigil. The worry makes us reach out to our friends and the anger that redoubles our activism. It is the heavyweight behind the insightful words and the knowledge that we can’t just talk it out. Because of this, memorials serve a therapeutic function since they allow us to channel our chaotic feelings into deliberate action.
If you have lost someone close to you, it may be time to find a grief counselor. Look up support groups in your area. Make that phone call to someone you can confide in. And take a moment to light that candle in the window.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
1. Ross, E. K., & Kessler, D. (2021) The Five Stages of Grief.
2. Norwood, K. (2013). “Grieving Gender: Trans-identities, Transition, and Ambiguous Loss.” Communication Monographs 80(1):24–45.
3. TGEU Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide (2021) Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) Update
4. Powell, L. (2021) 2021 Becomes Deadliest Year on Record for Transgender and Non-Binary People
5. Whitestone, S.B., Giles, H., & Linz, D. (2020).Overcoming Ungrievability: Transgender Expectations for Identity after Death. Sociological Inquiry, 90(2): 316-338
6. Nolan, R.D. (2020). Transgender and gender non-conforming bereavement (TGNC): A case study on complicated grief experienced and the effect of partner suicide on interpersonal relationships and subsequent partnerships of the bereaved. Death Studies, 44(8): 521-530 |
7. Curtin, N., & Garrison, M. (2018) “She was more than a friend”: Clinical intervention strategies for effectively addressing disenfranchised grief issues for same-sex couples. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 30(3): 261-281
8. Nolan, R., Kirkland, C. & Davis, R. (2021) LGBT* After Loss: A Mixed-Method Analysis on the Effect of Partner Bereavement on Interpersonal Relationships and Subsequent Partnerships. Omega (Westport), 82(4):646-667