A Unique Grief

OutReach’s Michal Osier looks into ways traditional grief support groups for bereaved spouses may fall far short of serving LGBTQ widows and widowers by examining our unique challenges and needs.

Some time ago, Agrace HospiceCare asked OutReach to collaborate on making their existing partner/spouse grief support group curriculum specific to LGBTQ needs. What words, for instance, might need to be changed to make things more inclusive?

There were a few that needed work, but as I read through the group’s curriculum, I came to understand that what most needed to be addressed wasn’t the material that was already there. For LGBTQ participants, it was a question of what was not there and needed to be.

What was lacking was the recognition that LGBTQ people’s intimate relationships are at the epicenter of the fault lines where the pressures and stresses of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia build up in our lives.

Discrimination is rife in America, but it’s unique to the LGBTQ community that the discrimination we experience focuses on our closest relationships. When people speak disparagingly of our “lifestyle,” they mean that LGBTQ people have our intimate, loving relationships with people of the wrong sex (and, in the case of transgender individuals, are also wrong about our own gender identity). Implicit in this message is that if we’d only get involved with the right person of the “right” sex, we’d be “normal.”

Our love relationships have been made invisible, misrepresented, and attacked. We have often had to hide them as the price of safety and inclusion in our families, workplaces, and neighborhoods. No matter how loving, committed, and long-lasting, our relationships still fight for legitimacy. This additional layer of anger and heartache compounds the grief, and is unknown to our heterosexual counterparts. 

An LGBTQ partner/spouse loss support group needs to make visible our invisible hurts, and support the strengths that have enabled us to survive them all.

Relationship legitimacy: LGBTQ individuals’ primary relationships have been invalidated, seen as inferior to “real” relationships/marriages—even viewed as corrupting and perverse. We’ve all gotten this message on social/cultural and religious levels; many, if not most, have gotten it from family members as well. 

The bereaved LGBTQ person will have to deal with outside reactions to their loss, which may range from the clueless and uncomfortable to the outright denial of the relationship’s meaning and value. This may be less likely to happen when the couple was legally married, since marriage confers legitimacy in our society, but LGBTQ people have been excluded from the option of marriage until very recently and our right to marry remains under attack. 

Family of origin issues: A spouse’s death throws the surviving spouse into a pit of anguish; it’s then that people need the secure love of their families. Tragically, it is somewhat rare for LGBTQ people to have maintained positive relationships with family throughout our lives. Being rejected by some, or all, family members is a loss most know well.

The resulting schisms may never heal. They may have dwindled in their hurtfulness over time, as the now-adult child moves on with her/his/their life, only to take on new and awful power when the beloved’s death leaves the bereaved person in need of comfort and consolation that they cannot get from the family that repudiated them. It’s not unusual for families to treat the death of a life partner as if it were the death of a friend—sad, certainly, but not life-changing. An LGBTQ grief group member might get messages along the lines of, “Guess you have to find a new roommate now.” 

Legal and financial concerns: Love and financial security should not be tied together, but they are. The marriage contract confers over 1,000 rights to spouses. Bereaved spouses—solely heterosexual until very recently—get Social Security survivors’ benefits, immediate, uncomplicated access to the deceased spouse’s pension, retirement, IRAs, investment income, marital property, veteran’s benefits, and more. In the absence of marriage, none of these income sources and legal protections for the bereaved partner exist. More LGBTQ elders live in poverty than do our heterosexual peers, and that’s one big reason why. 

Caregiving-related issues: Around 85% of caregiving for heterosexual individuals is provided by immediate and extended family members. For LGBTQ people without biological family to call on, caregiving often becomes the task of the frailer individual’s partner (if partnered; more LGBTQ elders are single than their age-equivalent heterosexual counterparts), with, perhaps, help from family of choice (a non-biological family of friends and exes mutually committed to aiding one another).

According to “Caregiving in the LGBT Community” (Daniel B. Stewart and Alex Kent, published by SAGE, 2017), “LGBT older adults are more likely to be caring for one another in isolation… About two-thirds of caregivers provide sole care (43%) or are the primary caregiver (25%).” The stress of unrelieved caregiving leads to exhaustion, isolation, and feelings of guilt for not having done enough. 

These are the issues an LGBTQ partner/spouse grief group must be prepared to name, support, and honor. We deserve no less.

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