A conversation with "Frank," Loss and GLBT Issues

Erin Neagu

 

Frank eagerly awaited the first of my questions after asking some basic questions about the Grief in a Family Context course. He commented on how he does not discuss or think of "grief" often and was curious to see where the interview would lead. As an interviewer, I knew it would be an interesting session when he was asked to describe himself as a product of his culture and he responded to the notion with fascination. He defined himself as a fifty-one year old, white, Protestant, gay male. He has a middle income and liberal leanings. His social roles in his family include being a proud father, divorced, and in an eight year partner relationship. After a little while he recalled his pastoral background and found it interesting that that was not a part of his identity that came to mind as quickly as the others. Frank is a leader in his local gay community. He served as a Protestant pastor to a rural community for about five years as a closeted gay man. After "coming out" to his very supportive church board and congregation, he served as the pastor for some time afterwards until responding to a new calling. Frank had officiated many funerals and worked as a hospital chaplain for a while, where he was often the first outside support friends and families would encounter after a loss. It was perhaps these experiences to grief in the context of death that restrained Frank at first from associating grief to other forms of losses.


 Frank first referred to rituals performed to commemorate a death as "traditional." He then clarified that this meant a "funeral surrounding religious expression." When asked to think about it further within the context of the GLBT community, Frank recalled the death of Matthew Shephard two years ago. He took part in a candlelight vigil which functioned as way to honor Matthew Shephard, remember the various victims of hate crimes, provide acknowledgement of the very real fears the GLBT community faces, and to comfort the members of the concerned community. This vigil had a very spiritual edge to it, but not religion-based. Some members of the community found chalking sidewalks served as a public acknowledgement of the loss. Others chose to participate in group counseling sessions. Frank was asked to expand on how he feels rituals meant to commemorate a hate-related death might differ from those of a non-hate-related death. He felt that there are similar needs in both communities, but that minority populations probably have a heightened sensitivity to the power of hate, either through first-hand experiences or the fear of such experiences.


The issue of "coming out grief" led to interesting insights into what sort of rituals are related to the losses and potential losses of coming out. He described simultaneous feelings of elation and loss of identity. The elation comes from being free to know longer hide, but along with that means abandoning all of "straight" assumptions about the future, including ever having a wedding. The parents must then grieve for the lost grandchild they will not have. The only tradition associated with the coming out experience that Frank identified was the establishment of a "safety net" in case the coming out does not go well. He emphasized the importance of not being alone in the experience.


As an ex-pastor, Frank had a very spirituality-based belief system that offers comfort to him during times of loss. He definitely believes in an afterlife that is beautiful and full of love and light. He believes that most people will be surprised in the afterlife about who is there. He believes growth continues in death and that people who commit or have committed hate crimes will be there as changed, enlightened spirits, because "love is stronger than hate." Frank does not believe in Hell. The belief in a non-punitive, loving creator makes his reaffirming spirituality that much stronger. Death is a process or passage and the eternal qualities of social connection create an ongoing impact of individuals. He believes the arts contribute toward comforting during times of loss. Reaching out to others is also important for comfort.


The question of how his faith and belief system played into the loss of coming out seemed easier to answer than expected. Frank's strong faith contributed to a loss and gain of status when he came out. He first came out to his church board and was amazed by their supportive response. Soon after he came out to the entire congregation and their acceptance served to enrich his faith. He lost status with other congregations and did not receive any more offers to join other churches. However, the gain in status from within his congregation more than made up for whatever loss there was. The belief that he and his congregation shared that "God values honesty" eased acceptance and dampened any losses. Frank recalled a story about an older couple that came to him shortly after his coming out. The family had a son who had a child out of wedlock several years earlier. The son married the mother shortly after, but the grandparents struggled with issues of love. They did not know whether they should love the grandchild less than their other grandchildren because of his illegitimate roots. This family had not shared this story with anyone since it happened. They were extremely ashamed of their child. In essence, they came out of the closet to Frank, because he came out of the closet to them. His ability to reach that new level with people reaffirmed his faith.


Frank's highly developed level of spirituality made it difficult for him to identify any personal beliefs that add to the pain of loss. In his work, he does know how strong beliefs can contribute toward the pain of coming out. People who he has worked with that come from fundamentalist Jewish, Muslim, or Christian tend to have the toughest time dealing with their sexuality. Their black and white, right and wrong, good and evil assumptions about how the world works makes it difficult for them to see themselves going anywhere but Hell. In coming out they lose their eternal soul. The grief associated with that can be extremely painful. For them the "closet becomes a tomb." Although Frank does not believe in an afterlife Hell, he does believe that these individuals live in a day-to-day Hell.


Flexibility and an appropriate sense of humor are the two keys to dealing with grief associated with oppression. The loss of a wedding is a point of grief for many GLBT couples. Frank recently officiated at a "wedding" of a lesbian couple. At the same time that there was joy in the wedding, there was also an associated grief because of the knowledge that it was not a recognized wedding by the state or church. So the couple combated this by having a wedding certificate that everyone present signed, which exceeded the usual two witnesses required to acknowledge a union. The irony of the wedding was that "bride" in the ceremony was not a traditional sort of woman but she craved a very traditional service. Frank feels this was because of the loss she felt from thinking she could not ever be a traditional bride. She and her partner laughed knowing that if she were heterosexual she would never have had a traditional wedding.


Frank hesitated when asked to expand on his beliefs about life after death. He surprised himself at this hesitation. Other than the love, light, and growth, he believes that it is a moment of ultimate peace, vulnerability, and losing control. He makes a point that he does not like losing control and feeling vulnerability, so those aspects make him uncomfortable. He believes in Heaven and that death involves being welcomed home.


Healthy grief, to Frank, involves acknowledging feelings of grief and being honest about what they are. Whatever demonstrations are necessary are fine, as long as they are genuine. Unhealthy grief involves not being honest or acknowledging the loss in some way. He recognizes that grief responses vary from person to person; but that the important thing is that the grieving individual recognizes them. He definitely feels that the United States culture was negatively influenced by the Jackie Kennedy model of grieving.  The “strong” response where a couple of tears may be shed, but the grief does not last long or influence day-to-day behaviors.  He referred to this culture as “death denying” and “grief denying.” 

 

As a hospital chaplain he had the unique opportunity to witness how a South African woman grieved the loss of her husband.  The husband was a 38-year-old man from a South African tribe.  The couple had several family and tribe members in the United States with them. The husband was dead on arrival to the hospital.  Frank’s hospital emergency room had a special room for grieving families to go to have a quiet room.  The ritual this woman began in that room moved Frank. Frank could not speak the language of the family, but he explained his interpretation of the events. She would shake her finger and yell in anger at the corpse, followed by embracing him and wailing.  She demonstrated a full range of emotions and repeated this act every time a new friend or family member paid their respects.  This continued for approximately eight hours, until the last griever came by. Frank and the other hospital chaplains recognized what a special experience viewing such behavior was. He feels this is a great example of healthy grief, because it allowed the widow to express everything she was feeling openly and not hold back at all.  He felt her emotions and reactions were very genuine.


Frank thinks of himself as a very open person, so it was very difficult for him to identify any differences between his private grief and public mourning.  He admits that he “gives voice” to his feelings of grief publicly and privately. The lines between public and private mourning for him are blurred.  He did talk about a journal that he used to keep, but he has not written in it for some time because he usually shares all of his feelings.  He admits to being very open about crying, especially to his partner.  He recognizes that when acting in a leadership role he may alter his responses some, but he will still cry with the grievers.  Later, he was asked to think about how the stereotypes of men and of homosexuals work to affect his emotional displays.  He thought that most young gay men over emphasize their masculinity in an effort to reaffirm their maleness.  So, his openness to expressing pain made him unique in many respects.  In that sense, how others react to his public grieving probably is the biggest difference from his private grieving.  Ultimately, his belief in honesty as one of the most important qualities a person can have seems to have no exception in grieving.


As a mild tangent, Frank began talking about how the gay community has affected the straight community in grief.  He feels the amount of losses that the GLBT community has experienced and the level of public grieving that resulted, has helped the straight community in their grieving.  Making the emotional demonstrations of grief a public phenomenon has, perhaps, slowly given permission to others to express their grief openly. It also worked to normalize grief more in our culture.  He makes it clear that this is just his theory, but does feel it makes sense.


Grief is a “universal phenomenon.”  Therefore, Frank feels group support, formal and informal, is very successful.  It creates community among the grievers and adds to provide social support.  The community created in grief also extends after the initial crisis of the loss ends, so group support can create a closer community overall.


At one point during the interview, Frank said that it would be a lot easier to talk about his sex life than grief.  This is not a topic that generally creates much open discussion in his life, so he struggled for almost all of his answers.  However, he tried to create as complete of a picture as possible. Frank is an extremely intelligent and articulate man.  As a leader in the gay community he is used to being open, but this interview proved to present an interesting challenge at the start of his day.  He seemed to learn more about himself and was genuinely interested in the topic.  He thought of me as fortunate for having the opportunity to take a course in grief and reaffirmed its usefulness throughout life.  Frank is now one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.


Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Fall, 2001.
(C) 2001, Erin Neagu. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.