What is really happening when parents grieve their healthy children?
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
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?
P: She was 7 at the time and her team was behind. I could tell that she was pretty upset about that, but she pushed and tried so hard and scored the winning goal. When she kicked it in, she immediately turned to look at me with these huge eyes and a huge smile. I was so proud.
With a little exploration, the father came to realize that if his child did not whip her head around to look at him when she scored, this memory would not have been so emotionally impactful. The child did sports for her father and worked hard to achieve something that was really important for her father. She wanted to make her father happy and proud. Now, there is a shift in the relationship where the child is asserting her own needs and the father is experiencing a sense of loss.
In most cases, the grief is rarely about the child, but rather the parents losing an important personal resource during the transition. Commonly, the parents and I are also able to identify that parts of the grief come from the loss of social privileges we had access to by virtue of belonging to certain social identity groups.
Grief in losing their dominant cultural identity
When a parent is marginalized by the extended family for having a gay child, the family members have always been homophobic, but the parent had enjoyed group membership by virtue of being straight. This is the hardest type of grief to process because the parents often have to navigate the guilt of being complicit in an existing problem and the struggle to let go of their family attachment and resources.
When a client grieves a disability, they are grieving the loss of cultural identity cohesiveness with their environment and the values and expectation that were salient before. The loss of security privileged by ableness and transition to a varying degree of vulnerability outside their controls can be scary and painful without understanding the cultural subjectivity and social constructiveness of the things that are lost.
Grief is about confronting and shedding our interalized 'isms'.
I always wonder if there was a world built for disabled people, would a parent grieve having an able child?
In a way, we should be thankful that our children have given us an invaluable opportunity to grow and develop into a more "whole" human. In times of grief, we need to feel our social connection more than ever but it would be important for parents to keep in mind that we are not mourning our children. We are mourning something else. You may need professional support to process all the difficult feelings and memories that are churned up. It is also okay to reach out to our children with this new vulnerability to build a new, more authentic, and stronger connection.