It's OK to feel grief when your child comes out

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

I was contacted by a friend recently whose daughter had recently come out as gay. I'm the parent of a 15-year-old transgender son – who is also gay – so she thought I might have some wisdom to share. 

"I want to support her but I also feel devastated," my friend told me. "And that makes me feel guilty – I know I'm not supposed to feel that way."

My son first came out three years ago, and since then I've attended dozens of psychologist sessions, and interviewed several experts for articles I've written on the subject of parenting a transgender teen.

So while I don't consider myself an expert in the matter, I am further down the track and I've processed a whole lot of feelings too.

And one of the most important lessons I've learned, which I shared with my friend, was that as parents, we need to cut ourselves a break and treat ourselves with loving kindness.

It's OK to feel grief, I told my friend. We can't control our feelings and we are all products of our upbringing and what we've been exposed to over the course of our lifetimes. When we were kids, being gay meant being ostracised and being at a higher risk for acquiring that new terrifying disease, AIDS. 

If you were gay in the 80s, when I was growing up, you were always treated differently – and equality was a pipe dream. The world has come a long way since then, which is wonderful for everyone but it can be hard to shake years of social conditioning.

I've always thought of myself as open-minded, but when my son first came out, I felt a sense of grief too, just like my friend – grief for how hard I saw my son's life being for him. Grief for the things that others would say and do to hurt him. Grief for the daughter I thought I had and would watch grow into a woman, and had suddenly lost.

Pyschologist and Monash University lecturer Dr Lefteris Patlamzoglou says it's natural for parents to feel a sense of loss. 

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"While raising their children, parents tend to develop dreams and hopes about them having a heterosexual partner, identifying with the sex they were assigned at birth, or creating families through traditional means," he says.

"The assumption that the child would fit these expectations is profoundly shaken, and the image that parents had of their child is lost. Parents may also grieve the loss of the child's sexual or gender identity or their family identity."

As the years have passed, I've learned some important lessons from the fears that I had in the beginning. 

My son's life would be much harder if he had to pretend to be someone he's not. Also, he can do hard things, and become stronger for the doing of them.

People have said and done awful things to hurt my son – way worse than I had even anticipated – but he has survived, and turned into one of the strongest and most emotionally intelligent people I know, of any age. And I know my job is not to protect my son from awful people, but to give him the skills to deal with them and ensure he knows he is loved.

That same child I loved from birth is still with me – sure, the packaging may look and sound different, but the kernel of that person remains. He is still sharp as a tack, quirky and creative, funny and warm. I haven't lost anything, but I've developed a strong and close bond with my son, and I've grown as a person thanks to him.

Three years on, perhaps the most important lesson I've learned about parenting over the past few years is that it's okay for me to have whatever feelings bubble up, but those are my feelings – and it's my job to deal with them. 

I can talk to friends, a therapist, or journal about it – but it's my job as a parent to deal with my feelings without leaning on my child or reflecting my uncertainty onto him. 

And the second part of that lesson is that it's my job to love my child with a certainty and fierceness that I will support him, no matter what, to be who he is. The world may not be perfect, but my son is, just the way he is. 

Isn't that what every child deserves?