Parent and Family Stages of Grief by averageguy
There have been several threads in this forum about coming out of the closet to one's parents. Some have been aimed at the more practical (how do I do it, and when?) to the more philosophical (how will they react, and why?).
A fellow moderator here suggested that I write a post that frames parent-reactions in terms of Swiss-born psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief. I mulled this suggestion over for the last few weeks, and decided that it was, in fact, appropriate to do. My initial hesitation stemmed from a cringe that somehow "coming out" = grief on other's parts. After all, sons were coming out to a parent(s), not dying. Should we assume that this news is negative, or sad - let alone sink to the level of grief?
Grief, though, doesn't deal with dying. Grief occurs due to loss. And, that sense of loss is common with parents - and, can even stem from otherwise happy events like going off to college or getting married. When one comes out to a parent, the "loss" can stem from thoughts such as "He's not a little boy anymore" to "I'll never have a daughter-in-law" to "I'll never have grandchildren (at least by him)." There's a sense of "losing" you to the outside world (and a world they know little about probably), and a sense of losing whatever hopes and fantasies they had about you being (heterosexually) married and having children of your own.
At this point, I will mention that these stages apply to wives to, when they find out. Only the loss is someone different - it's a loss of someone they thought they knew in a different way; the loss perhaps of a marriage; and the loss of a sense of security.
According to Kubler-Ross, people experiencing loss go through 5 stages in dealing, psychologically, with the loss. Those who adhere strongly to this theory will tell you that they are linear in progression, meaning that you must go through, and reconcile, each stage as listed. If you don't, you are bound to regress in your healing and revisit certain stages until that stage is reconciled. The other thing they believe, is that all people go through all stages.
Personally, I think people generally do go through these stages in dealing with grief. I think some go through them faster than others, but my experience has been that people do go through them, and basically in this order. How long they linger at each stage, and how quickly they get to "acceptance" depends, in large measure, on how grief-stricken they are by the loss.
In terms of coming out, realize that we as gay men may very well have gone through these stages too in recognizing - and then accepting - our own sexuality. Other gay people you meet could be going through the same process and may be at a different stage than you in acceptance. That's OK - what's important is that you understand that.
Lastly, know that not all parents will feel grief when you come out to them. Some may be happy, for any number of reasons. Some may have a neutral, no-big-deal, reaction. Others may feel sadness, or a sense of loss. In these negative cases, perhaps this will help.
What can you do about it? The best thing you can do is know what's going on - even if they can't articulate it for you. Information is your best friend, here. The more prepared you are, the more you can help someone come to terms with your sexuality (perhaps even come to terms yourself). Also, knowing what to anticipate can perhaps help in thinking through how to deal with it.
Here, then, are Kubler-Ross' Five Stages. I'm also listing examples of comments or questions that are common with each stage from your perspective as someone coming to terms with your own sexuality; from a parent's perspective; and from a wife's perspective:
Stage One: Denial
This first stage happens immediately. People can express themselves as "shocked." "I had no idea..." "This can't be."
Yourself: "I'm not really gay." "I don't dislike girls." "I've never been with a guy." "I don't think I'm gay." "I will feel straight if I have sex with a girl." "I've never had sex with a guy, therefore, I'm not technically gay."
Parent: "No you're not." "No one in the family is gay, and you're not either." "You don't act gay." "You don't know what you're feeling." "Have sex with a girl and you won't feel that way anymore." "You're confused." "You need therapy."
Wife: "You're not the man I married." "You're stressed/tired/angry." "You're in mid-life crisis." "You're too manly to be gay." "Let's get therapy; I know you're not gay." "You have sex with me, thus, you're not really gay."
Stage Two: Anger
The second stage is a downer for those coming out. Once the trauma of coming out is over, and you think the coast is clear, the parent/wife enters the anger stage. How much anger, when they enter, and when they get over this stage is dependent of many factors.
Yourself: "I hate myself." "I hate being gay." "I hate gays." "Why the fuck me?" "What did I do to deserve these feelings?" "Jesus! Why can't I love her?" "I want to be like X!!!" "I'm such a loser."
Parents: "You're not sleeping with X are you?" "Don't you know there are dangerous diseases out there?" "Can't you just be normal?" "For God's sake, don't tell anyone else!" "Why did you tell me that?" "Don't come crying to me when you're life gets screwed up!" "Why didn't you tell me this before?" "Didn't you trust me until now?" "Would you have EVER told me this? (if outed)"
Wife: "Why did you marry me?" "You lied to me!" "Why did you fool me?" "What did I do to deserve this!?" "You'll pay for this, mister!" "So, are you sleeping with X,Y, and Z?" "Who else knows?! Am I the laughing stock of town?" "You asshole." "Fuck you - oh no, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" "Couldn't you have figured this out before NOW?"
Stage Three: Bargaining
Bargaining is usually a welcomed respite from the Anger Stage. But, it can be equally annoying.
Self: "I bet if I have sex with a girl, I'll find out I'm hetero." "Maybe I can get married, and have a fuck-buddy on the side that no one knows about but me. What would be the harm in that?" "If I don't tell anyone, then it's not really real." "God, if I promise to be good, will you make me straight?" "God, please make me straight. I'll do anything." "I bet if I lose weight and tone up, I'll be more attractive to girls and then I won't like guys." "I bet this will pass when I'm 20, no 30, maybe when I'm 40?"
Parents: "Let me set you up with X. If you only had a girlfriend, you'd forget about guys." "God, I'll do anything if you make him straight." "I"ll buy you a car if you don't date boys." "Maybe we were too strict. If we relax our rules, will it make you feel more comfortable and feel like dating girls?" "I bet if you had more confidence in yourself, you'd feel more comfortable with girls. I'll set you up with a counselor/prostitute/assertiveness training class."
Wife: "I"ll forgive you if you don't divorce me." "You can have your discrete fun on the side as long as it's safe and you don't leave me." "Look, honey, I bought this new lingerie. Isn't it sexy?" "If I lost weight/had a face lift/tummy tuck would you find me sexy again?" "Dear God, get him through this midlife crisis. I'll do anything." "We can have separate bedrooms and separate lives, just don't leave me alone."
Stage Four: Depression
This stage occurs when the preceding stages did not alleviate the grief, and the loss is not yet accepted. It is the brain's last-ditch attempt at not accepting the truth.
Self: "I'm screwed." "I hate myself." "I'm not good at anything. I can't even make a baby." "Why am I here? What's the purpose of my life?" "My future is empty and hopeless." "I can't compete in the cut-throat gay world, I'm just not up for it." "I've ruined everyone's life around me, including my own." "I know I am going to burn in hell." "I want to die."
Parents: "He's hell-bent on being gay. I'm helpless." "I guess if he wants to ruin his life and make me miserable, he's going to." "I give up." "I am so sad that I can not make him straight or be interested in girls." "I don't know what else I can say or do." "Why did I have children? Such heartache." "I can't imagine a future without grandchildren. What's the point of living?" "I thought I did better than that. Where did I go wrong?"
Wife: "My life is over." "I will never love again." "I will never trust again." "How on earth will I cope?" "My future is empty." "I now feel nothing - for anyone." "I want to die."
Stage Five: Acceptance
At long last, we reach the final stage of acceptance. If achieved, depression lifts and anger subsides. This doesn't mean that we forget the sadness and anger, it means we don't feel it anymore.
Self: "I'm gay." "I'm gay, and that's fine. Now what?" "I'm proud of who I am and the person I've become." "It's alright not to marry and have kids. I can contribute to society anyway - in other ways." "I am more than gay. My sexuality does not define me. I am 3-dimensional and have interests." "It's time to find a boyfriend." "It's time to get on with life."
Parent: "OK, he's gay. I hope he finds someone who makes him happy,." "Have you found a boyfriend yet?" "How are you doing - really?" "I love you." "Be sure to tell X [boyfriend] hi for me." "I want you and X to come for dinner." "Tell me all about him." "I'm so proud of you." "I'm so happy for you." "You know what? His being gay isn't that bad. It's not like he's a murderer or dying or anything. Now, THAT would be tragic."
Wife: "He's gay, but he's still a good person/father." "I need to let go." "I need to have a life." "Life goes on." "It's OK, we'll get through this together." "This is not a reflection on me - this is his issue." "That's the way he is; he needs to be happy." "I wish he'd figured this out before we got married, but sometimes it doesn't happen that way." "OK, my husband is gay. That's a reality. Now, what do I do?"
One thing to remember - or recognize - is that frequently we come out to others when we have gotten to Stage 5: Acceptance, ourselves. And, sometimes this has taken us years to do. Thus, we can't be impatient with those closest to us who just found out. It would be great if we could rush them through to the Acceptance stage, but we can't. The best we can do is anticipate these phases and help them adjust to this information, just like we adjusted.
Lastly, this isn't advocating coming out. Many men get to the Acceptance stage, and do not share this information with anyone. And, there can be compelling reasons for doing so. Thus, this piece is not meant to get everyone to Stage 5 and then bring as many of your closest people around you through it too. Rather, it's offered as one theoretical perspective on how people deal with what they perceive as a "loss" and if it's helpful in your situation, then it was worth writing down.