Bringing Bereavement Out of the Closet

by Laura Barron

Recently I attended the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling’s conference in San Antonio. When I saw the lineup of topics, I jumped at the chance to attend the session entitled: BRINGING BEREAVEMENT OUT OF THE CLOSET: PARTNER/SPOUSAL BEREAVEMENT AMONG LGBTQ+ INDIVIDUALS. In my short time interning at the Christi Center, I’ve already had at least three different callers requesting to attend a group specifically for the LGBTQ+ individuals. Although we welcome all with open arms and have a very accepting environment here at the Christi Center, this conference opened my eyes to the specific needs of the LGBTQ+ community and it is my hope to share my new awareness with the Austin community.

rainbow-painting           My main take away from this presentation was that the LGBTQ+ community experiences what is known as “disenfranchised grief”. Essentially, this means their loss may not be recognized or socially sanctioned. Even in this day and age of legal marriage, the wider society may not accept their feelings of grief as permissible and in turn, this lack of support can lead to increased vulnerability with mental health issues.

Other complications include the fact that one partner may have been more “out” than the other. This means that the one left behind may feel as if he or she is completely alone again and has to hide his or her true identity. For those individuals who identify as bisexual or transgender, there may be a “double disenfranchisement,” meaning they are further prejudices blocking them from receiving the help they need during the difficult grieving process. Additionally, older LGBTQ+ adults face the phenomena of being invisible. One woman spoke of her own mother’s experience in a nursing home where there was a support group for women. She said she was surprised to encounter a woman mourning the loss of her female partner. She never expected to meet a “lesbian” in the nursing home.

At one point in the presentation, one of the presenters, Dr. Laura S. Wheat from the University of Tennessee, asked the audience if we had examples of inappropriate community resources for the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly everyone raised their hands. One counselor shared that he lost his partner a few years ago and searched high and low for a grief support group specific to his partner loss. He only found one LGBTQ group that was a general support group instead of one for bereavement and loss. Although he shared some common stressors with the group such as hiding his identity from family members, they could not empathize with his death loss and so he felt this was not a good fit for him. Subsequently, he felt isolated and alone. A clear theme that emerged from the sharing of these anecdotes was that there is a lack of appropriate community resources nationwide. As mental health care professionals, we need to screen the ones we do refer our clients to make sure they are accepting and helpful.

The session ended with recommendations of what to include in a grief group, and two suggested group sessions that stood out were “Self care that is identity affirming” and “Reflecting on strengths/resilience.” I’m happy to report that here at the Christi Center, I’ve sat in on three adult groups and have heard affirmations of strengths as well as self-care suggestions. I hope that as we work to be there for all in our community during their time of loss, we can affirm their identities and be one of those community resources that is the best fit for all.

*Special thanks to Laura S. Wheat, Ph.D., LPC, NCC and Isabel C. Farrell, M.S., LPC, NCC for their presentation at the ALGBTIC conference.


About the Author

Laura Barron is an MSW intern from Texas State University in her final field placement at the Christi Center. In her free time she enjoys running and playing with other people’s dogs.