You are probably familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief – a concept that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put forth in her 1969 book On Death and Dying (updated many times since). She based it on her experiences with terminally ill people. She found five common experiences that many/most terminally ill people go through as they process their diagnosis. These five stages seem to apply to many other forms of grief – loss of a loved one, a major medical diagnosis, large life changes, etc. It occurred to me early on in my realization of my gender that I’m working through these stages as well.
It’s important to know that this model (and many others like it) aren’t prescriptive – that is, this isn’t a roadmap on how to grieve. It’s a way of understanding the feelings you are experiencing as you grieve. For me, it gives me comfort knowing that these emotions are known and expected; in a world which tells me how different I am from most people, it’s nice to be able to identify with something many people have experienced. Also, a person working through grief might not experience all these stages, and, they might not experience them in the order they are given. And, a person might revisit some stages multiple times before they’re done.
Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
I was stuck in this stage for a really long time. I wouldn’t allow myself to have these feelings. My gender must match my body! If God had wanted me to be a different gender, He would have made me that way, right?! For a long time, I just told myself that I enjoyed wearing clothing for the other gender because it was fun. I wouldn’t admit to myself that there was anything more than that, even in the face of obvious clues. To even acknowledge that these feelings existed would have made them real, and I couldn’t do that… because they weren’t real! Right?!
I set out to be a good example of the gender I was assigned at birth. I studied that role and did my best to play it. I was pretty good at it, too. But underneath, there was always something a little off; some little part of my brain that wouldn’t let go of it and kept bringing it up at inopportune times. I got really good at lying to myself and telling myself that “this isn’t normal, so it doesn’t exist”. I had a sense that I had to maintain that appearance at any cost, because to allow for anything else would mean that I had failed.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this? Underneath anger is pain, your pain. […] We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in this stage, too. Those times that denial failed me, anger often quickly came. “Why do I feel this way? Why am I tortured with these feelings? I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” Usually, Denial would soon kick in – “I’m not feeling this – it was just a strange thought and it’s gone now.” But every time I suppressed my feelings of my gender, a part of me just got hurt. And hurt again. And again. And again…
Since I’ve given up on Denial, I’ve spent more time dealing with anger, though it’s changed a little bit. Instead of the red-hot all-encompassing, searing, urgent emotion, I think I’ve been able to bring some of the pain to the surface so I can deal with it. Instead of simply reacting to the feelings, I’m discovering some of their roots, and facing the losses I perceive as relating to my condition. I’ve missed out on experiences that I would have loved to have had, and I have a very strong sense of the unfairness of my condition. It wasn’t my fault that I have felt this way, and looking back, I can see the (feeble) attempts I made early in my life to communicate these feelings to those around me. Those messages were pretty much ignored or squashed. I learned quickly that you don’t get many friends by behaving like the gender that doesn’t match your body, and I couldn’t bear to take a chance that might alienate the few friends I had.
This isn’t to say I had a horrible childhood – in fact, my memories of my childhood are mostly good. But I was an introvert, and got very good at living in my own (sometimes make-believe) world, where I could control things.
[…] We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
I’m no stranger to bargaining, either. For a long time it was “I’m not [that gender], I just like wearing the clothes of [that gender], so as long as I can wear them, I’m fine” (I really wasn’t, but couldn’t see that). After coming out to myself, I’ve been fighting against the impulse to bargain – “if I have my hair like this, then I won’t go any further”, or, “if I just have these clothes, I won’t need anything else”. I recognized very quickly that these were bargains that I couldn’t make. I don’t yet know the extent of where my journey is taking me, so any bargains which try to place limits on that journey would be disingenuous.
The counselor we are seeing as a couple has recommended that my spouse and I draw up lists of the things we must have, the things we might be able to negotiate on, and the things which are non-negotiable. She warned us that these lists would change as time goes on – that some things that we might think are non-negotiable may end up being areas of compromise, and vice versa. Thankfully, our lists have largely remained compatible.
After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.
My last post deals with clinical depression, which does strongly relate to this stage. But that’s not to say that my clinical depression is a result of my grieving process. For me, I’ve come to recognize that I’ve been dealing with clinical depression for a lot longer than I originally thought, and it was simply through willpower that I denied the existence of the depression along with my gender!
This stage deals with more than just clinical depression. It’s normal to feel down after a loss. So what have I lost? Well, the experiences that I might have had; the time I lost by not claiming the ability to be genuine with my family and friends for all these years; the mental effort I spent making this condition “not exist” and could have spent on more fruitful endeavors… to name a few. But I now know what I’m going through, which helps me to realize that the sense of loss I’m experiencing is normal and expected, which helps me to move past depression and on to…
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. […] Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.
Acceptance is … complicated. I’m working to accept myself. I want those around me to accept me. But I don’t know and can’t tell what to ask people to accept. I know that I am gender non-conforming. I don’t know to what extent. I work to figure it out. My journey so far feels like I have some distant vision of happiness on the horizon, but my path to it is completely obscured by fog. I’m feeling the path out as I go, which means I will inevitably step off the path (sometimes, the only way to know where the path is is to figure out where it is not). As I make new discoveries about myself, I have to work towards accepting those discoveries. Sometimes that’s as simple as just thinking “well, ok, I figured that out and that’s fine.” Sometimes what I discover leaves me quite shaken (and can throw me back into one of the other stages of grief). But always, I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to accept myself.
I’ve seen another version of the stages of grief where 7 stages are presented. Basically, it’s the same 5, with Anger and Bargaining combined into the same stage, plus a stage of “Pain & Guilt”, and just before Acceptance comes “The Upward Turn” and “Reconstruction”. I can identify with Pain & Guilt, and perhaps it is a distinct stage. I do deal with a lot of guilt about what my journey means for my loved ones. I struggle with feeling selfish about taking time and resources to deal with my gender. But I keep reminding myself that being selfish is placing your own wants over other peoples’ needs, and in my case, I’m putting my own needs over other peoples’ wants. That’s not selfishness, that’s self respect. But I still struggle with the idea that I might be putting my needs before other peoples’ needs – I’m not sure what to call that.
As for “Upward Turn” and “Reconstruction”, to me, they feel like part of the process of acceptance.
These models are intended to show a path through dealing with your own mortality or the loss of a loved one. In my case, I’m grieving something different: I’m grieving the life I didn’t have because I couldn’t address and express my gender fully throughout my life, and I’m grieving the loss of the life I had before I had my epiphany. While I wouldn’t want to return to that place of not knowing/not dealing with my gender, it was a simpler existence.
Also, I’ve observed that my loved ones are also making their way through grief as they process this news about me. Perhaps someday I’ll have a guest post from one of their perspectives.
Until next time,