What is really happening when parents grieve their healthy children?

Updated: Jul 10

The reality is that most parents experience grieve their children's gender transition, sexual orientation, neurodiversity diagnoses, etc, even though these children are very much alive and healthy. (Objectively, the children are likely going to experience a healthier life with their new revelations.) This type of grief is incredibly harmful to the children and the communities they belong in. It sends the message that the parents think of their children as broken, a mistake, and a tragedy you are burdened with and the implicit 'ism' can show up in the parenting and therapy approaches.

This puts the counsellors in a tight spot. The children are 120% correct, but counsellors are also instinctively and intuitively bound to honour and respect each and every feeling of our clients.

Grief is the natural response to loss, but what exactly is lost here?

When counselling grieving parents, I often have them describe or narrate in detail the 'thing' that was lost.

Example 1: Parent of a child with restrictive avoidant food intake.

P: A large harmonious family dinner where I am surrounded by my children and grandchildren.

Me: What is everyone doing?

P: I have prepared a delicious feast in [details of the food and the labour of love].

Me: And then what happens?

P: Food is served, I sit down and watch everyone enjoy my food. My kids would tell their high school or college friends or their girlfriends how amazing their dad's cooking is. Their lunch box is the envy of all their friends and they would bring friends home. They would tell their children the same thing and bring them home on the weekend.

With more exploration and with my inquiry, the two of us would come to realize the emotional importance of this image originates from the cultural practice of his family of origin and his love for his own grandfather who offered this exact role. These memories and sentiments were a source of strength with difficulty and trauma in other parts of his childhood.

Example 2: Parent of a transgender child.

P: I wanted to have one of those father and son relationships where we throw a football back and forth and go have a beer and talk about hockey, you know. I had a photo of him, I mean her, on my shoulder with the soccer trophy and we were so happy. I am not allowed to keep that photo there. She wants me to delete it.

Me: Does she do sports now?

P: No, she doesn't want to anymore. She said the other parents give her the stink eye because she is too good. She said that she was never that into sports anyway and was mostly doing it for me. I can't even keep that photo in secret.

Me: Why do you think is this photo important?