Coming Out Later in Life - Letting Go of Fear - Don't Be Afraid It is Grief
As a society, and many of us personally, are terrified by this word. This word is the purveyor of the difficult emotions. A mentor once told me there are only four emotions in this world mad, bad, sad and glad. I would add a fifth, afraid. Grief is bad, mad, sad and afraid. The synonyms for grief are an ominous: sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, heartache, heartbreak, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, woe, desolation, dejection, despair, mourning, bereavement, lamentation, etc. This list can go on and as human beings we do not want to feel or experience any of these emotions. Why would we?
Have I lost you yet? Don't be afraid, it's just grief. I know we don’t want to think about this, but hear me out for a moment.
The experience of the actual grief includes anger, sadness (or depression), bargaining, denial and acceptance. Elisabeth Kubler Ross was a pioneer in grief research and her studies were with dying people. In the last fifty years these five stages of grief have morphed into many different variations and counter theories. The Kubler-Ross theory is also applied to the experiences of mourners or survivors. In my work as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor I have witnessed both the dying and the survivors have these emotions and so many others as well. People now know about the stages of grief. They often tick off the five stages like a checklist, something to be accomplished. Denial – done. Bargaining – completed. Anger – Check. Sadness – Yep got that one too! Acceptance – I must be finished!
Grief does not work that way. Grief is our bodies physical, emotional and spiritual response to loss. I call it the roller coaster ride of our lives. I asked how people would describe grief on a Facebook post. This is some of the responses:
"It is the feeling of being adrift in the ocean with our emotions cresting and falling like waves."
"We are treading water in that same ocean and sometimes we can float for a while and at other times we barely can keep our head above water."
"Grief is a ball of sticky silly putty (or clay) that molds and changes shape without any guidance from us."
"Grief is like icicles - a slow drip and a refreeze. Very beautiful in some ways and can be dangerous in others. In most environments they eventually melt away."
"Visualize a path with many turns and not a straight road."
"Visualize the loss of your remaining."
"Visualize the path to a new normal as your life will never be the same and the relationship you had with the person who died lives on in memories. I envision a long winding path with turns and rocks and obstacles in the way as the journey is tough and unique to everyone. For example, I may get to the the end of the path and find acceptance faster for someone I knew as an acquaintance but take longer for my dad. Also at times we go back on the path on anniversaries or when memories hit us hard. You can even draw a path of your own and color it as a way to distract yourself and put where you are on the path towards the new normal"
Many of us struggle to acknowledge this sadness in our lives. People around us will let us have our bereavement, but on their timetable, not ours. At best most of us are given one year to despair by others. My bereavement groups have told me the second year after the death of a spouse or partner is much harder than the first, because nobody asks “how are you” anymore.
We always associate grief with death, but it comes to us in many disguises. I can name some, but my list might be paltry next to the myriad of experiences humans grieve. It is also culturally and societal based, so what I might grieve as a white American woman, another woman in another culture may not. We grieve over divorce and break-ups, miscarriage, stillbirths, disease, addiction issues in loved ones, moving, losing a job, changing careers and retirement. Grief cannot be avoided and if we are successful in denying one grief, it will make an appearance again in another experience often surprising us with its presence. For example, “My mom has just died, why am I thinking about my grandma so much?” or "why is the acquaintance's death hitting me so hard?" Most likely it is another grief from another loss that has come to visit as well
I came out as a lesbian in my early 50’s and divorced my husband of twenty-seven years. Grief was a profound part of this process, one that I naively did not expect. I know the divorce would be difficult and coming-out would be challenging, but I did not see the full force of the grief tsunami coming and it hit me holistically. Although I worked as a hospice chaplain it took me months before I recognized my own grief.
Physically I was mess. I was unable to sleep, for two months I survived on two hours a night. I could not eat, food tasted like saw dust and I lost twenty pounds. I was unable to focus on anything. My work suffered because I could not be with grieving people when I was grieving myself. It became worse, I was exhausted and malnourished, and I contemplated suicide on February 14, 2016. I had a way and a plan. I was unable to see a way out of this experience and knew there was not way to go back. As someone who evaluates others for suicidal ideation, I knew I was in trouble. My then girlfriend (and now partner) came to my rescue and helped me get past this moment. Unfortunately, it took another incident a couple months later before I finally sought and received professional help for this deep depression. If you are experiencing these, or any other physical, emotional and spiritual symptoms, do not wait to see professional help. I would have saved myself several more months of anguish if I did.
Emotionally I was all over the place. I was profoundly sad and missing my family. I has moved out of my marital home and was house sitting for several months. I had poured my life into my family and now they were in despair and angry about the divorce and confusion about my coming out. They distanced themselves from me. I was leaving my long held identity as a married woman/mom which were very intertwined at the time. I thought that I was going to lose my relationship with my children. My sense of self was dying. I was afraid, but when I realized I was grieving, I became much gentler on myself. Grief is uncontrollable and when we recognize our grief and acknowledge its presence the fear, not the grief, goes away. What do I mean by fear? The fear that you cannot live your life a different way because of this loss.
I also met my partner during this period and I finally was with the correct person for my sexuality. I experienced such joy, excitement and happiness with her. Imagine denying or repressing a very important piece of who you are for years? When I finally acknowledge my sexuality, the feelings were a force of nature. Those of us who have experience it call it a second adolescence. This was such a juxtapositional experience to my grieving. Layer this on top of losing your identity in the world, and the associated mourning, I experienced a long period of confusion and questioning. Yes, it would have been easier to have the grief over my divorce and coming-out to be well behind me before I met someone. Easier for our relationship and what I could give emotionally to her. Life does not work that way and if I hadn't met her during this time I would not have been able to validate all this feelings regarding my sexuality. God sent me a woman with the patience of a saint who just loved me for me, warts and all. I had not experienced this before in my life.
Spiritually I was livid at God. Yes, you can be angry at God. Have you read the Psalms recently? I came out as a result of my ordination as a minister in the United Church of Christ. To be the best minister I can be I am called to serve from my most authentic self. My partner, a recovering Southern Baptist, believes it is because God has called me to the LGBTQ+ community to minister. I had worked so hard all my life to create a warm and loving family that is an ideal of married hetero life. My ex and I worked on our f’ing marriage again and again and again because we bought into this paradigm. Coming out was like taking a knife and ripping apart the seams of my carefully constructed world. Finally, after years of denial, and then bargaining during the six months before I left my marital home, I became angry. Angry that I was gay, angry that I stayed so long in troubled marriage (with other problems besides my sexuality), angry that my world was falling apart and angry that my friends and family met all these changes with a wall of silence. I now understand the isolation of grief. If you are grieving do not isolate yourself, even if others do. I found my tribe in the survivors of divorce and my online later-in-life LGBTQ+ community. They understand this process, especially those who have lived in the straight world for a very long time and finally acknowledging their sexuality. We often end very long-term relationships and upend straight married family life which is the paragon of virtue in our American society. Guess what? Heteronormativity is the overriding structure of our world, but there are other structures that might be a better fit for who we are created as human beings.
Finding support during a grieving period is vital. A professional grief counselor or therapist, an in-person or online support group can make a world of difference. My online support group of women coming out later in life made this journey so less lonely. When you find a friend or two who is supportive, ask if they would mind if you reached out when you are having a bad day. Think outside the box in ways to take care of yourself. When my sister lost her husband she negotiated with her boss to take one day off a week during the most difficult part of her grieving. Get physical, it truly does change the chemistry of your brain, go for walk, take up kickboxing so you can punch a bag, get on the water in a boat or kayak. If you can only walk to the mailbox today, do it! Create, let the torrent of words inside of you, come out in new forms of expression. Draw, paint, sculpt or do whatever you can to being your viewpoint to this experience. Or do nothing, because sometime that is all we are able to do. In this quiet time, be gentle on yourself, take warm baths or showers, sit in meditation or prayer, it you can eat, dine on the best food you can find, or just stare out the window. A friend of mine sat in a chair for a year with her faithful dog by her side until she was able to get up and move on. Remember that grief waxes and wanes, comes and goes, peaks and valleys, it is the experience of opposites.
Grief is so intertwined with my coming out it is very difficult for me to separate the two experiences. The most profound part of my sadness lasted approximately year and a half. The grief is not gone and it will be with me for the rest of my life as it comes and goes. My compassion and empathy for people who are grieving is now filled with a quiet understanding of what it is to love greatly and to have everything change. This experience has made me very sure of my beliefs and I am no longer afraid to share my spirituality or values. That does not mean I force my belief system on others, because I truly believe we all have very different journeys through this life. I just know what I believe and that the paradigm in which I frame my life is within a religious belief system. (Perhaps that was what God was up to?) It is why I have chosen to be a professional caregiver in this life. I have let go of my need to seek other’s approval. I have become fearless, because everything has changed and I survived, and yes thrived. My life has all slowly fallen back into place, into a reorder that has become a new life. It is a happier life, something I could have never imagined several years ago, because the persistent sadness and restlessness I always had is now gone. This is my acceptance of who I was created to be by God. The grief has not gone totally away, but now when it shows up, I say “Hello, you are here again, I really wish you didn’t come, and you are an unexpected visitor,” because my life is filled with much more joy and peace, “Well you are here now and I know you will leave soon. Thank goodness you will be leaving, but while you are here, is there something you want to teach me?"
Don't be afraid, it is only grief.