Monday, January 11, 2016

In Grief: Lesbian Widow Finds No Support in Group

[Reviewed and updated December 23, 2023]

A reader writes:
My heart is breaking. My partner died some time ago and it feels like it was yesterday. I have had some very bad news about my health and I think I have been needing my partner to be here now. I just feel my heart can bear no more. My soul feels empty without her. I feel so different and it is so hard. I need to find other lesbians who have lost their spouse.

I tried out a grief support group yesterday and it was painfully hard. During the introductory "check in," one member who was just after me actually said she would not be able to continue if I was allowed to stay in the group. She said lesbianism is a sin.

I looked to the facilitator after this woman made the comment expecting she would say something—anything but nothing. Her body language told me that she was appalled but no words came from her mouth. She looked to the next person to begin their "check in." I felt like I did not matter. I sat there for about 10 minutes more and then just got up and literally ran out of the room. The facilitator did run after me and said please don't leave. I did not turn around, I just kept running all the way to my car and drove home.

Well, the facilitator and I spoke today and she apologized to me for not speaking up in the moment. She said she was just so shocked in the moment that it rendered her speechless. She asked me what I needed now. I asked if she had spoken to the woman. She said she had not yet as she wanted to check in with me first to see what I needed. I said what I need is to come back to the group and have an opportunity to say how that comment affected me and that I have every right to come to a grief support group as anyone else. I am angry that not only do I have to experience the pain of losing my partner but I also have to experience the pain of people who are ignorant and intolerant of lesbians. It complicates my loss and makes me so angry that if I could climb the tallest mountain that you know and scream at the top of my lungs for the rest of my life, it would only touch the pain I feel at times. I did not choose lesbianism, I was born a lesbian.

It was a good exchange I had with the facilitator and I will go to the next group and see what develops. My partner’s life mattered, my life matters and I will keep honoring the love that she and I shared till the day I die and we will be together again. I am going to have a voice about how that comment affected me and how it complicates my process on reframing my life without my partner. Right or wrong, in front of everyone I am going to speak on my feeling and thoughts that the facilitator did not intervene immediately as well.

My response: I am so sorry to learn that this happened to you! Gathering the courage to attend a grief support group is difficult enough, but to be assaulted by the ignorance and intolerance of another member is beyond the pale. You say that you feel different, and I know this person's comment must have felt like a stab to your heart ~ but please do not ever think that you are any different from any one of us. Furthermore, grief has no gender and no sexual orientation ~ it belongs to all of us who’ve loved another sufficiently enough to be devastated by their loss.

You are a precious, valued person, and you deserve to be loved and respected by all of us. This is one of those times when I urge you to invoke that famous statement by Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Do not waste another moment of your time even thinking about what this person said or did to you. Shame on her (or him?) Shame!!!

I so admire your courage and your strength ~ and I am proud of you for your willingness to use this as an opportunity to educate others in your support group ~ but it hurts my heart that you've been put in that position in the first place.  Forgive me, but it seems to me that, far from being rendered "speechless," it was your support group facilitator's responsibility to create a safe place for everyone there, and to protect every member of the group from the kind of thing that happened to you. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt if you are willing to do so, but I must say that if the next time you're there, you don't feel truly safe in this group, you owe it to yourself to find another group.

If you do go back there, I hope you will visualize my lifting you up and surrounding you with light so you can say what you need to say. Know that I am there with you in spirit, supporting you and sending strong, positive thoughts in your direction ~ and I hope you will let me know how it goes.

In the meantime, I want to point you to some resources that I hope you will find helpful, if you're not already aware of them:

Legacy Connect - Online forum for gays and lesbians who have lost partners

Lesbian .. Gay 2 Spirited  - Online grief support for anyone who has lost their gay partner

10 Tips for Finding LGBT-Affirming Services - “Inviting someone into your home or revealing personal information can be a very vulnerable time in any LGBT older adult’s life. It is important to find service providers who understand LGBT issues and provide equal care to all. Here are ten helpful tips on finding an LGBT-affirming service provider.”

Blog, Dan, in Real Time: One Man's Journey through Love, Life and Grief - Dan lost his partner Michael in September 2009 and blogs about his life as a single dad in the aftermath. In his Introduction he writes, “I am a recent widower, having lost my partner/husband Michael on September 13, 2009 due to a brain tumor. Yes, I am a gay man, a parent of three children, ages 11,16 & 18, and a servant to one large cat and one small dog. While only given 3 1/2 years with my beloved, we were able to travel, enjoy our family and friends, experience joy, comfort eachother in grief, and be legally married in a beautiful ceremony on October 19, 2008. In reading my blog you will likely experience my sorrow. Know that throughout each day my sorrow is at times interrupted by small wonders of laughter and joy. I long for the day when joy occupies more space. Until then, here I am.”

Book, Partnered Grief: When Gay and Lesbian Partners Grieve, by Harold Ivan Smith and Joy Johnson -“In a culture that expects grievers to get over it and move on, how do you intentionally and deliberately express your grief for a partner? This book provides the much needed comfort and support.”

Book, The Loss of a Life Partner, by Carolyn Ambler Walter - "Walter offers 22 stories of individuals whose life partner died, presenting them against a tapestry of bereavement theories and issues. The widows and widowers describe the challenges of reframing their identity and life; particularly powerful are narratives and experiences of gay men and lesbians, because as disenfranchised grievers they lack the access to the legal benefits, supports, and social rituals of mourning... The captivating struggle of grief involves a crisis in meaning as bereavement shatters assumptions, support systems, coupled identity, and patterns of life."

Book, Lesbian Widows: Invisible Grief, by Victoria Whipple - Reveals the touching and very personal stories of twenty-five women, including the author, who were widowed at a young age and forced to create a new life without their life partners. The book follows the widows from the time the couple met, to the time when one of the partners died, and beyond, to show how the surviving partner coped with her loss.

Book, Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice, by Kenneth J. Doka (Ed.) - From the grief expert who in 1989 first described the phenomenon of disenfranchised grief.

Book and Web Site: Finding My Banana Bread Man - Author John Davis’s Web site chronicling his journey through mourning; the story of two men in a 27-year committed gay relationship, including not only the 10-month illness of his partner Jack, but also the period following his death and the turmoil and grief the author endured.

The reader writes: Thanks Marty, I did visualize you lifting me up and supporting me as I used my voice. I wish it was not so hard for me to use my voice and I pray it just gets easier and easier. The woman who made the comment was not there. A couple people expressed that they welcome me to the group and I have a right to be there and hoped I would continue. The facilitator apologized to me in front of everyone for not addressing this in the moment. I am feeling proud of myself at present. I was overcome with tears on my drive home and had to pull over for a bit. I am not sure what I will do now. I need to take some time and process it all some more before I make a decision about this group.

My response: I'm so glad to know that now you're feeling proud of you! That's even better than my feeling proud of you! HOORAY for you for standing up for yourself. I think that, through your experience, your courage and your willingness to share your story with them, those group members (and the facilitator) have learned a very valuable lesson. ♥

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