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Grief in a Disenfranchised Community

Christina Limmer

Until recently, few studies had been conducted on the grieving process of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals. Most research on the subject has focused on gay men and their reaction to the AIDS epidemic. The literature on lesbian and transgender relationships and the impact of grief on those relationships is sparse indeed. One of the issues surrounding LGBT grief is the reductionistic conception of grief found in most literature making cross-cultural considerations an important aspect when dealing with LGBT grief. Since an overwhelming proportion of research on grief is done in the heterosexual community, there is a risk of over generalizing aspects of grief idiosyncratic to that part of society. In many ways the LGBT community is a separate subculture similar to racial or ethnic minority group subcultures.

Disenfranchised grief cannot be publicly expressed or openly acknowledged. Secrecy, shame, and guilt often are part of the grief symptoms expressed in the LGBT community. Unable to do the work of grieving and mourning, members of the LGBT community may be more at risk for maladaptive coping devices such as drugs and alcohol. Also, living in a constant state of suppression of feelings could lead to depression, which in turn increases any sense of isolation and alienation already present.

The issue of death and bereavement in the LGBT community is compounded by a constant vigilance against violence, disease, and established societal norms which refuse to acknowledge and validate the relationships of diverse minorities. In addition, the LGBT community struggles with complex issues such as saturated loss or grief from multiple losses, often without support.

The death of a life partner is especially stressful for a person who, because of their personal identity, faces societal opposition. During the course of a partner's death, the bereaved struggles to maintain that personal identity while at the same time coping with the loss of a partnership. Gay and lesbian partnerships, as opposed to heterosexual partnerships, are especially significant as they prove one's ability to love regardless of social taboos and inner homophobia.

Disenfranchised grief can become more complex when an individual does not recognize their right to grieve. In some grief situations the sense of loss may not be present, resulting in sadness and related feelings being suppressed and therefore more intensified. In the case of AIDS-related bereavement, one study suggested grief was most closely associated with emotional suppression and avoidance of coping strategies.

Lesbian women and gay men bereavement may be explained in part by research focusing on evolutionary perspectives of grief. Gender differences occur in grief reaction based on the intensity of grief, reflecting the biological importance of the lost relationship.

Feminist theory research suggests that women respond to each other through a process of mutual engagement which leads to psychological growth. Mutual engagement creates an empathetic interplay between two women, forming a connection. This connection leads to an active and empowering relationship resulting in clarity of thought about the self and other. Because these processes have occurred, women feel a greater sense of worth, and a desire for more connection results.

A central part of this connection is the ability to define what can and cannot occur within relationships. In the event of the death of a partner, lesbians may lose their ability for mutual engagement which ultimately could lead to a loss of identity, community, and personal power. Recent research measuring intensity of grief suggests women have a significantly higher severity of grief reaction scores than men.

The biological mechanism underlying women's responses to stress and grief may also be explained by what appears to be a tend-and-befriend pattern of behavior. Tending involves nurturing activities designed to protect the self and significant others from stress and promotes a sense of safety. The creation and maintenance of social networks is the befriending activity which aids in this process. There is neuroendocrine evidence which suggests that oxytocin, in conjunction with other female hormones helps facilitate the ability to reduce stress responses in women. This new information may have an impact on how researchers look at lesbian grief support such as relationship validation, breaking the silence, formalizing the loss through ritual, universality, self-care and stress reduction.

Studies on men's friendships show that while men do engage in self-disclosure with friends of both gender, they do so more frequently with men considered close friends. Anthropological accounts suggest men form larger groups than women for specific tasks or purposes. In the event of illness or death, the primary sources for social and emotional support for the gay widower are cut resulting in institutionally organized friendships such as AIDS assistance groups and self-help groups. Many gay men are facing bereavement at an earlier age than expected by their having to face the death of a partner from AIDS-related illnesses. This is especially distressing when the couple is not out to others. Work colleagues or family members may not be aware of the bereavement which consequently results in inadequate grief support and possible traumatic stress reaction.

Mourning rituals are highly evident in the LGBT community. Once a year major cities around the world remember loved ones who died of AIDS related disease. World AIDS Day is recognized by the wearing of red ribbons which is a symbol of AIDS remembrance. A Canadian venture which preserves the memories of those who died of HIV/AIDS related illness is The NAMES Project. The Canadian AIDS Memorial quilt, which is maintained in Halifax, is managed by The NAMES Project, which coordinates displays and hosts regional panel-making workshops. The quilt is made up of more than 500 panels, three feet by six feet in diameter. Each panel has been created in memory of someone who has died of AIDS.

In British Columbia alone, approximately 2,100 people havedied of HIV/AIDS and more than 10,000 individuals live with an infection. The city of Vancouver supports the bereaved through various campaigns and venues. The AIDS Memorial which has been erected on Sunset Beach at Stanley Park provides a place of solitude and reflection for those who mourn the loss of a loved one. In addition to the AIDS Memorial, Vancouver's gay and lesbian biweekly paper, XTRA West!, donates space to commemorate those who have recently died.

In a process of healthy grieving, the disenfranchised community has come together to build an expression of loss, sympathy, and respect. The value of these processes reflects the need for a shared sense of pride and affirmation of identity.


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About the Author:

Christina Limmer,B.Ed.,M.A.,CCC

Christina Limmer is now retired from her work as a clinical counsellor in private practice, and a Youth and Family Counsellor with the Coquitlam School District. Christina specialized in GLBT issues and is a member of the British Columbia Gender Team which was responsible in the assessment of transgender individuals for hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery.

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