Thompson, C. A. (1992). Lesbian grief and loss issues in the coming out process. Women &
therapy, 12(1-2), 175-185
Lesbian Grief and Loss Issues in the Coming-Out Process
Carol A. Thompson
As a lesbian psychotherapist, specializing in trauma and loss, I am interested in loss issues and ways to reframe loss as a normal process. In my work, I often see women in the process of coming out who are sfuggling with a variety of issues that contain a loss component. My belief is that lesbians are raised to value a hetero- sexual lifestyle, and that it is natural to grieve the loss of that value as part of the coming-out process. Additionally, lesbians lose the inherent rites and privileges of the majority position such as mar- riage, divorce, societal acceptance of the relationship, and the esteem of family and community. Finally, there is a broader loss that lesbians experience by virnre of often being isolated from the het- erosexual community. It is these aspects of loss that I will address in this chapter.
zoss In our society loss is linked with death or oftentimes divorce and
is often seen as tragic. Society's response to loss is often to deny or ignore that the loss has occurred (Rando, l9S4). There are losses throughout our infancy and childhood, the first being birth when we lose the warn, comfortable existence of the womb. We lose moth- er's breast as we are given solid food. We give up being held in order to walk. Each time we change or begin something new we shed some of the old. Loss, therefore, is not something tragic, but
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rather a normal part of living. Life is a series of transitions and giving up the past for the present happens constantly.
Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) offers a theory of attachment and loss suggesting that people establish strong, emotional bonds to otherO from a need for security and safety, and that there is a strong, counteremotional reaction when that bond is threatened or broken, The reaction is one of loss and grief for the lost object or ideal (Bowlby, 1980; Klass,1987; Weenolsen, l98S). Grieving refers to the feelings, thoughts, physical symptoms, or behavioril changcl that may result from loss (Worden, l99l).
Numerous authors have described the mourning process (Lindc. mann, 1944; Klass,1987; Parkes, 1972; Rando, 1984; Weenolson, 1988; Worden, l99l). Of note is the work of William Worden and Patricia Weenolsen. Worden (1991), a grief theorist, describes fo$ tasks of mourning: (l) to accept the reality of the loss, (2) to ence the pain of grief, (3) to adjust to an environment whero deceased is missing, and (4) to emotionally relocate the and move on with life. Weenolsen (1988) discusses what she loss and transcendence in four phases: (l) grieving, (2) foq the lost object or ideal, (3) replacement, and (4) integration, will rely upgl a combination of these stage models in desiribin5 clinical model for working with lesbians around issues specifld the loss of the majority position of heterosexuality during-tho mg-out process.
COMING OAT Most of us were raised by heterosexual parents with the valUl
the heterosexual majority, including marriage and children. WO up knowing that our families had an expectation that wo marry, and most of us also held that expectation. For many the dream of marriage, or the reality of it if we were marriod, into conflict with what we were beginning to learn about There have been many articles describing the coming-out (Cass, 1979; Coleman, 1982; Dank, l97l; Hanley- 1989; Hencken and O'Dowd, 1977; Lewis, 1984; Sophic, I Troiden, 1989). What each of these models has in commOn I attempt to put into understandable linear form the complicated
Lesbian Gief and Loss Issues in the Coming'Out Process 213
linear process of identiffing as lesbian and acting on that awareness. Also described in each is the way in which the individual who is coming out deals with society. Cass (1979), for example, describes a period of social isolation, whereas the woman compares he_r behav- ior to society, in general, and finds thdt she is different. Coleman (1982) places the feeling of difference in the pre-coming-out stage and self-acceptance in the coming-out stage. In a society where the majority of the population still defines homosexuality as wrong lHyde and Rosenburg, 1980), coming out involves dealing with boih internal and external homophobia, the institutionalized preju- dices around homosexuality (Forstein, 1988). In addition, lesbians and gay men make up l0 percent of the population (Reinisch and Beasley, 1990) and we are, therefore, demographically, a minority.
Somewhere in the coming-out process, lesbians must deal with the fact that they are identifuing with a segment of society that is stigmatized (Fein and Nuehring, l98l). By choosing to identiff as lesbians, we are not entitled to marry lesbian partners, divorce, carry joint health insurance with our partners, or publish pictures in the ne*rpaper to signiff intentions to legalize our relationships. Public displiybf affection brings the risk of public censure and/or possible losi of job. Finally, coming out to families and friends brings the risk of being rejected or even disowned. Despite the many losses in the coming-out process, lesbians have proven to be every bit as well-adjusted as their heterosexual counterparts (Rothblum, 1988). Regardless, one of the ways to deal with the loss of the inherent privileges is to recognize, acknowledge, and grieve that loss.
BetU Berzon (1988) addresses the issue of loss in her book Permanent Partners:
With the letting go of a perception of self that is clearly hetero- sexual one can experience a profound feeling of loss. As with any loss the way to move beyond grief is to acknowledge and express it. Expressing griefover the loss ofone's heterosexual status, and all the fantasies about the future that went with it, has not been too popular a topic for dialogue in the gay and lesbian community. But, at this stage of identity development, grieving the loss of the heterosexual blueprint for life is an inescapable part of what is going on. The more it is acknowl-
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edged and talked about, the sooner it can be worked through and prevented from becoming a chronic, underlying theme in the person's relationships. (pp. 48-49)
In the five-stage model I am proposing, I am suggesting that losr is an additional aspect of the coming-out process and that the stagot of loss happen in conjunction with various stages of the coming.outprocess. i Stage One: To accept the reality of the loss of heterosexual and its privileges.
Clients coping with stage-one issues experience many con feelings. Often women are clear at this point that they are but are sad or angry at the injustices they see inflicted on lesbiana a heterosexual society. It is important that therapists not rush through the process of acceptance of the loss of the identity. Peggy Hanley-Hackenbruck (1989), for example, in article about coming out, describes grieving as "necessary for formation of the new ego ideal through the giving up of the heterosexual ideal" (p. 29). It can be tempting to point out tho positive aspects of being lesbian; however, it is not useful to at this juncture to hear these positive aspects from the Otherwise, the client must then defend her feelings of angof sadness to the therapist or it is possible she will feel guilry having negative feelings about being lesbian. Clients need to through these feelings in their own time.
We can help clients by asking them to describe the dreaml expectations they had for a heterosexual life or describe for ur ideals that were handed down to them from their families. aging detailed descriptions of weddings, wedding showers, ment photos, and so on, helps clients to recognize the dream! probably had since childhood.
Rituals, too, are often helpful in the letting-go process. Whiting (1988) discusses the idea of a ritual for letting go l! lows:
The symbolic actions described within the letting-go are commonly, yet not exclusively, utilized in healing and
Lesbian Gief and Loss Issues in the Coming'Out Process 215
tity rituals. The letting-go action facilitates a cleansing and healing process. Over the years we have asked people to burn, freeze,bury flush, or send up in balloons a variety of symbolic items such as photographs, rings, letters, written memories, psychiatric records, and clothes. Such ritual actions have issisted people in moving beyond traumatic events and mean- ings that have interfered with their living in the present. (p. 93)
Letter writing is oftentimes a useful ritual' The clients write a good-bye letter to their heterosexual identity. Composing a wedding invitation for the dreamed-of weddings and then burning or burying it helps with those dreams which are especially painful to let go of.
Stage Two: Aclcnowledge specifics of the loss and lookfor ways to 'fit in."
Weenolsen (1988) describes a process that she calls searching. In grieving, searching is an almost unconscious wish for the return of the lost object or person. When someone dies there is a period of time during the grief process when the bereaved feel restless and anxious. They often find themselves wandering from room to room as if in search of something (Parkes, 1982). I often see this same searching behavior in lesbians as they are looking for ways to fit into the lesbian community and are letting go of their heterosexual identity. This is the point at which women begin to join social organizations or go to bars. They begin to test out their degree of comfort in these settings within the gay and lesbian community. At the same time they often begin to discover some discomfort at events where they may have been comfortable before, such as oflice parties or showers. Peggy Hanley-Hackenbruch (1989) describes the process as practicing or exploring within the new community. It is often a time mixed with fear and ambivalence for the emerging lesbian.
Anger at the loss of privileges, such as marriage or divorce, often surfaces at this point, as well as discomfort about coming out to people. Recently, a client of mine blurted out in a group that she hated being a lesbian. She was angry at always having to come out to people or guarding her conversation if she did not come out. She resented the fact that people assumed she was heterosexual unless
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she told them otherwise. It was important for this woman to verbal- ize her feelings and obtain support for them. Only by resolving her negative feelings can she find her positive feelings. [t can be helpful to ask clients to make a list of both positive and negative aspects of being lesbian. This list can be redone periodically as a check to seg if the clients' thoughts and feelings are changing.
Stage Three: To feel the pain of the loss and to grieve.
As stated earlier, our socialized response to loss is often denial, whereas sadness would be the more natural response (Rando, 1984), We cannot resolve a loss unless we acknowledge it and grieve. Tho process of grieving and letting go allows an internalization of thf lost object or ideal so that the client is not constantly preoccupi€d with the loss. The therapist can ask clients such questions as: HO$ does it feel to think of giving up this dream? The therapist can holp the clients access whatever loss, anger, or guilt feelin-gs they mf$ have. In grieving, it is important to experience these feelings ovl![ though painful. Avoiding them only allows the feelings to late and interfere at a later date. Unresolved feelings of grief translate into patterns of behavior that will ensure a avoidance of feeling pain (Bowlby, 1980). This can interfero intimacy in relationships. Resolution of the painful feelings allow clients to move to an experience of their lesbianism ag tive.
Stage Four: To adjust to life as a lesbian.
Once clients have grieved the loss of their heterosexual they are free to celebrate being lesbian. I must note that while process has been described in a linear fashion, it rarely happo6 neatly, and often the clients are grieving, raging, and ce at the same time. Helping clients create rituals to celebratc out emphasizes the importance of their lesbian identity and demarcation of giving up a heterosexual identity. The clientr be encouraged to give parties celebrating coming out, announcements to friends, attend lesbian support groupgt of in a Gay Pride parade.
Lesbian Gief and Loss Issues in the Coming'Out Process 217
Stage Five: To integrate lesbian life into the lesbian community and broader society.
This is also a stage that overlaps other parts of the coming-out process. Sometimes lesbians have already found the lesbian com- munity by the time they are out. Unfortunately, not all women will complete this stage. I see many women who are isolated from the lesbian community and do not want to become a part of it- Some women tell me they have chosen to socialize with heterosexuals because it keeps their love relationship safe. Other women have such internalizedhomophobia that they do not want to be identified with "those" types.
For those women who can integrate into the lesbian community, the therapist can be helpful as a resource. I keep lists of activities and organizations that I offer to clients. Clients also need to be able to process their experiences the first time they attend all lesbian events. tf there are any parts of the events that make them uncom- fortable they may feel some guilt and need some assistance in work- ing this through.
In addition, the therapist can assist clients with integrating their lesbian experience into a broader heterosexual community. This is often a very diffrcult time for clients who struggle with how to be lesbians in a "straight" world or how to deal with family and friends. Some women choose to isolate themselves from any social functions that will have heterosexuals at them and others cut them- selves offfrom any people from their "former life." Both of these positions are an extreme way to cope with the discomfort of trying io integrate into the heterosexual society. The therapist can encour- age clients in their struggle, allow for the processing of feelings, and aid with reality checks concerning external homophobia.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS IN COMING OUT
Not all lesbians experience loss issues when coming out. For some women coming out is an exciting experience. For women who come out in the context of a relationship, falling in love often takes focus over any potential difficulties, and the question of societal
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acceptance or self-labeling is only thought about later. If women are in their thirties or older, and not married, coming out often gives them a sense of identity and power they had not experienced as heterosexuals. Clients will tell me that they often felt like failures in the heterosexual world having never married or had children, and in coming out as lesbians they felt as if they had found themselves and now fit into the lesbian community. In this instance, there is no grieving of the heterosexual identity. That grieving happened as the women were trying unsuccessfully to live as heterosexuals.
This grief model is also slightly different for women who havo been married. These women have to let go of both their view of thg sanctity of marriage and their sense of selves as being derived from their role as wives (Charbonneau and Lander, 1991). These womon may be trying to grieve the loss of their marriage, and role as wivot, as they are fighting for custody of their children, perhaps simulta. neously trying to convince a judge of their suitability as a paront, ' This will often delay the grief process until a later date when lot. bians can safely feel any sadness they have about leaving the hetero. sexual identity.
Women of color may also have a different experience in comitg out. Their grief is often in feeling that in order to come out they give up their racial communities and the support that they ally have received from them. One young woman told me that took her two years longer to come out because of the shame sho at turning her back on her community. Anita Cornwall, in her Black Lesbian in White America, states that, "Not the least of problems that the black lesbian has to contend with is the conservatism that prevails in the black community" (p. 9). Sho goes on to say that the religious beliefs of the black community, their reliance on the Bible, contribute to many black lesbians guilty for being lesbian. For these women, it is not only the sexual community that feels judgmental but their own racitl ethnic community.
My choice as a white therapist is to help these women find or Hispanic therapists who will support them and give them also stay within their own community if that is their choosing. If is not possible, then I will suggest ways for these women to
Lesbian Gief and Loss lssaes in the Coming-Out Process 219
such as attending functions in their ethnic community together so that they can establish a new network of support.
Jewish lesbians may also have a somewhat different experience closer to that of women of color. Some Jewish lesbians cut them- selves off from their Jewish communities in favor of lesbian com- munities, convinced they were unwanted (Balka and Rose, 1989). Christie Balka (1939) writes of her experience in the book she coedited, Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish-
We made love for the first time shortly before Rosh Hashanah. I remember walking into services at an egalitarian minyan that fall, my face flushed, feeling that the ground had shifted (and perhaps was still shifting) underneath me. I had marched in my first lesbian and gay pride parade that summeE publicly affrm- ing my love for a woman. I remember looking around at famil- iar faces in the minyan, davenning a familiar service, and thinking that Judaism contained no road maps for my experi- ence that year. (p.2)
ROLE OF THE THERAPIST
Although I have given some therapeutic interventions throughout this chapter, I would like to comment about the overall role of the therapist. In grief work, it is imperative for the therapist to have done her own work. If I have not dealt with my own loss issues, then each time a client speaks with sadness about losing her heterosexual privileges or heterosexual identity, I will not be able to hear it. Additionally, I will be so uncomfortable that I might discourage her from voicing these feelings or worse yet try to convince her that she does not feel bad.
It is very difficult work to sit with those who are tuly grieving, because we can only be there as the wifiress. We cannot "fix it" or make it better as it is exactly the experience of grieving that ultimately eases the pain. I also think that as lesbian therapists we need to examine our own social and political views as well as our intemalized homophobia. It is too easy for those of us who believe in being out to not respect the safety of passing for lesbians who are still not sure they like being lesbian, or to subtly imply that lesbians need to be political.
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It is incumbent upon the therapist to be as nonjudgmental as possible, allowing clients the freedom to choose their own pace in coming out and how, or even il she grieves any part of the life she is leaving behind. Further, I think as therapists we need to examine our own stereoqpes around lesbianism. Because I almost never go to bars I have to remember to list local bars as places where my clients can go and be aware of the events that local bars may be sponsoring. Finally, I believe it is our responsibility as therapists to examine our own issues conceming coming out and loss whether through therapy, a supervi. sion group, or via peer support.
Clients of mine who have grieved, either during the coming-out process or at a later date, have responded with great relief at feeling permission to express feelings they had often felt were unacceptablo or politically incorrect. One woman responded with tears when I asked if there were anything she would miss of her heterosexual lifestyle. She said she felt sad that she would never have the family approval her brother had because he was married. She also said thft it felt good to finally cry about not going to her high school prom, She had felt like such a failure for not having a date even though sht knew that she was not attracted to men. Clients also have expreg$d, tha! after grieving, they are much less angry at their families anC straight friends. As one woman put it, "I'm not jealous of what thfy have anymore." Experiencing the loss allows women the nity to experience the full joy and celebration of being lesbian.
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