Cendra Lynn,
Founder & Director
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GriefNet Library: Professional & Academic Articles
on Grief and Loss

Gay Grief Isn't!
Or
Different Grievers, Different Griefs:
The Mourners Our Profession Shuns
by Cendra Lynn, Ph.D.

Practice Report delivered to ADEC Annual Conference 1992

Doka, et. al, have done an excellent job of detecting and exploring disenfranchised grief. Many in our profession, and even in the media, have begun to legitimize some aspects of grieving that were formerly overlooked or non-existent, such as AIDS victims. But there are types of grief and grievers from which many in our profession actively recoil, for example, the grief of lesbians whose lovers have died, the grief of the homeless and/or mentally ill, the grief of heterosexual unmarried lovers and companions, the grief of the senile elderly, the grief of the criminals.

Assuming that this avoidance on the part of professionals is mostly unconscious, the purpose of this practice report is to raise the consciousness of caregivers. In it I will share of my encounters with bereaved persons who have been shunned by persons in our field for reasons beyond the grievers' control. The bereaved include lesbians, gay men, unmarried or non-cohabiting lovers, the elderly whose pet has died, incest survivors, street people, and criminals. Situations include chronic or terminal illness, death, disintegration of a system (such as a family due to dysfunction), and sudden recall of past trauma (as when an adult remembers a formerly repressed trauma --such as the death of a caregiver or incest).

I will not only describe the types of persons and situations I have encountered, but will articulate the special care needed by these persons. Sometimes in my search for support systems for these people, I have, with due consideration, violated normal professional ethics and boundaries. My goals have been to search for a context of healing for them, to help them develop a legitimized sense of self, and to search for or create appropriate healing contexts or rituals.

I hope by this report to enable listeners to recognize atypically bereaved persons, and to learn methods for responding which will establish an atmosphere of trust and acceptance. I will explore methods of identifying my clients' individual needs and helping them form support systems, especially in hostile environments. I will also help listeners to realize their own social, emotional, or educational make-up which has prevented either their recognition of such bereaved persons or their ability to meaningfully help them.

PRACTICE NOTES

Over the years it has been brought to my attention, often painfully, how some persons are shunned by members of our profession. When I began my career in 1973, I worked mostly with members of the Counter Culture. As time and social movements pro-gressed, I worked with members of many minority or ostracized groups: women, blacks, sensitive males, gays, lesbians, persons on welfare, the wealthy, foreigners, atheists, Jews, unmarried part-ners, drug abusers. This list is not exhaustive, though there are even more sub-groups listed on one of your handouts.

What I will do this afternoon is talk about persons I have known, mostly through my practice but some from the Ann Arbor com-munity, who could not or might not have been able to find help along more tradi-tional routes. I will give a thumb-nail sketch of each case I present. In order to give you some cognitive structure on which to hang these sketches, I have divided the presentations into groups. I have prepared the handout entitled WHYS AND WAYS WE SHUN.

WHYS & WAYS WE SHUN

People whom we dislike
   homosexuals
   foreigners
   people of different religions and atheists
   widely different social class, usually very poor or very rich
   different racial or ethnic background
     - prejudice
     - they have their own resources

Dislike or frightened by that behavior
   unmarried lovers
   unreasonable anxiety
   escape into sex
   women who have voluntarily left their children
   alcoholics or drug abusers
   insanely messy situations
   a solution incompatible with our values
   people who cannot recover quickly enough
   client with MPD
   Non-verbal cues
       body language
       distance
       body odor
Verbal cues
      shouting
       inappropriate language: swearing, criticizing
revulsion

We don't recognize the loss or the need
   - the improbable is, in fact, true
   - ignorance that they exist, that they are grieving
mood disorders in the dying or bereaved
   - belief they don't need help
   - they won't accept help
   - assumption other professionals are addressing the problem

 

OUTLINE

People Whom We Dislike

  1. Homosexuals
  2. People from other countries
  3. People of widely different social class, usually very much poorer or richer than we:
  4. People of different racial or ethnic backgrounds:
  5. People of abhorrent religious values:
  6. People of greatly different ages

Behavior That We Disapprove of or Are Frightened By

  1. Persons with life styles that are different from ours, such as unmarried lovers.
  2. Sexual behavior
  3. Women who have voluntarily left their children
  4. Behaviors or solutions incompatible with our values.
  5. Behaviors or values in conflict with mainstream culture
  6. Street people, alcoholics, other social misfits:
  7. Self-destructive behavior:
  8. People who cannot recover quickly enough
  9. People with non-verbal cues that make us uncomfortable or even frightened
  10. People with verbal behaviors that make us uncomfortable or frightened:

A Loss or Need Which We Do Not Recognize or Do Not Accept as Legitimate

  1. Mood disorders in the dying or bereaved
  2. The improbable is, in fact, true:
  3. We are lured by the obvious into overlooking other loss:
  4. The losses are so many that we overlook some of them:
  5. The truth is so horrible we unconsciously avoid it:
  6. They have their own resources (Blacks)
  7. Belief they won't accept help
  8. They won't accept help
  9. Assumption other professionals are addressing the problem

Let me go through this outline and include the thumbnail sketches to round out the picture for you.

People Whom We Dislike

  1. Homosexuals

    Nancy Silverrod: Woman in her mid-thirties who is still grieving the death of her high school boyfriend. She tells about her grief very movingly in the handout entitled "Love Story." What she does not share is the double ostracism she suffers: from the straight community because she is a lesbian, and from the lesbian community because she grieves the loss of a male partner.

    Ben Winder: Was a gay man in his late twenties. He had been in exten-sive therapy before and a marriage in which the wife felt it was her duty to try to "cure" him. Needed to mourn his abusive childhood, his lost adult years, and his great pain in not having been able to be himself. Because I accepted his reality, he was able to work through these losses and to develop high self-esteem. He realized he would never be happy in the small, rural community in which he had been raised, nor in a marriage devoted to making him into something he could not be. He relocated to California and was last heard of as happily married to another man.

  2. People from other countries:

    Pam was a young adult woman who was having trouble ffinishing college and functioning on a daily basis. Nothing seemed to help her until we uncovered her grief. She was mourning the loss of her early bonding with her grandmother who had cared for her until she was five. Then her mother suddenly took her, fled Hungary, and moved to the States to find the father who had fled earlier. She had lost her grandmother, her home, her language, even her Hungarian name.

    Walt Strang was a blue-collar Canadian in his mid-thirties seeking help to deal with grief from his parents' deaths six months before. His mother had died after a long illness; father two days later from a heart attack. His only relative was a sister with whom he was not close. Had moved here to be with a woman who had multiple emotional problems. The more we uncovered about his relationships to his parents, the more dependent he became on this sick relationship. His girl-friend's therapist, a man whose work I respect highly, threw up his hands in frustration. I hung on, trying to help him build his self-esteem and find some closure with his losses, until Walt disappeared without a trace several years later. He never called, wrote, nor paid his final bill.

    I don't know if my failure with him was because of his different background or if it was inherent in his relationship with the woman. But I include him under foreigners because we cannot be too careful about making suppositions about a person who is greatly different from us.

  3. People of widely different social class, usually very much poorer or richer than we:

    Katie was an extremely wealthy woman about 50 whom I had been seeing for a year, helping her deal with her divorce ten years prior. The divorce had been very messy, involving bat-teries of lawyers, protracted lawsuits, and custody battles. She had developed alcoholism, become a heavy smoker, and was involved in a physically abusive relationship with a middle- class man who enjoyed spending her money. Had helped her get rid of the booze and the guy, the booze immediately and the guy after more protracted legal battles.

    Suddenly one of her daughters-in-law arrived on 48 hours notice from Asia with severe ailments requiring immediate hospitalization. Neither her husband nor any of the many other family members present had taken her ailments seriously and had left her in a hotel in India while they went to climb mountains in Nepal. She was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. My client took on the care of the daughter-in-law and the orchestration of admission of other family members to her home. The situation was instantly out of control and I was the only one willing to pick up any of the pieces. No way I could do this and remain separate. Many would have bowed out, saying this is too confused, incestuous, whatever. I did not because dealing with this immediate problem was all my client could do at the time, and she wanted me to come to the home and talk with her family. One of my lines is, "I like to dance real close with my clients." Perhaps I'm a little nuts!

  4. People of different racial or ethnic backgrounds:

    Corona: black woman in her late teens whose mother had died of cancer. They had been very close and the death was devastating. She had come to me on the suggestion of an aunt for help dealing with her current family problems: father dating a new woman; youn-ger brother and sister left mostly to her care but her discipline was not rein-forced by the father; her perception that he was spending money from her estate improperly; she was getting the racial run-around from counsellors supposedly helping her come to U of M.

    Therapy problems:
    Language--she spoke Black English with very little ability to use White English when she was upset.

    Social class--working class father, professional mother. Trying to achieve the goals her mother had set for her but now living with people who did not value those goals.

    Age--teenager with all the attendant confusion plus her mother's death.

  5. People of abhorrent religious values:

    Marci Wollins was a 40-year-old psychiatrist whom I had known professionally for several years prior to interviewing her for my dissertation. She had volunteered to be a respondent several years before, when I first conceived the idea of studying bereavement. She had suffered many losses since her early twenties: her father died of a heart attack when she was in college, within a few months of the deaths of her grandfather and uncle; when she was in her thirties, a close friend was murdered and another died of unexpected complications following routine surgery; then her mother died of a heart attack. What upset me was her firm and fiercely stated belief that when you die, you're dead. That's it. There is nothing more. I found it difficult just to complete my interviews with her because she was so adamant in this belief and because my own mother had just died.

  6. People of greatly different ages

    Usually those a lot older or younger; often teenagers and the very elderly

Behavior That We Disapprove of or Are Frightened By

  1. Persons with life styles that are different from ours, such as unmarried lovers.

    Maureen was a woman in her late twenties when she came to me for help. Her ex-boyfriend, from whom she had finally been able to separate, had just been diagnosed with cancer. She decided to move back in and stay for the duration. Her story is best told in her own words in the story entitled, "Go Gently."

    My part in helping her was to give her as much reality as she could accept. I was non-judgmental when they sought alternative health cares that drained their resources and were never likely to help. I was later able to help them accept that they needed hospice help and to arrange it for them. Unfortunately, when Bob became too weak, they were forced to move into his parents home, away from any useful hospice resources. The night he died, Maureen called the local hospice and all they did was ask her what she expected them to do and to suggest they call an ambulance. Needless to say, helping her recover from his death was the bulk of our work. Since they were not legally married, finding a support group for her would have been difficult in many areas. Fortunately Washtenaw County has a wonderful support system for bereaved partners in which marital status is no issue. But a person who began with a disapproval of their life styles or a strong belief that only conventional medicine was appropriate would have not been able to relate to this particular couple's pain and needs.

  2. Sexual behavior

    Polly Ann was a woman in early twenties trying to escape the clutches of a verbally and physically abusive mother. She was young and this was still the era of the sexual revolution. She was unable to deal with her overwhelming emotions and sabotaged her work in therapy by finding someone to go "fuck my brains out." With what we now know about the effects of various hormones, she might well have been a candidate for treatment of an endocrine disorder, which is what we now call mood disorders. However, at the time there was no such alternative, and she eventually left therapy for sex.

  3. Women who have voluntarily left their children

    Lonnie was a women in her mid-thirties who was mourning the loss of her three children whom she had left when the eldest was seven. She had married very young and had three children under three in her early twenties. Her husband did not participate in child care and her parents both died during the year after her third child was born. When her eldest child was five, she went on a trip with her husband and realized that that was the first time she had been able to sleep through the night in five years. She tried to engage her husband's support, but this was in the early Seventies and his awareness and her social support system were very deficient. After a great deal of trauma and struggle, she decided the only way she could survive was to leave. He would be much more able to find a woman to marry him and raise his children than she would be able to find a husband to support and care for her emotional needs and also support her children. This was a horrible decision for her, one that she can never fully recover from. "I still remember their faces as they stood on the porch sobbing, 'Mommy, come back!' I couldn't. I just knew I couldn't and go on living."

  4. Behaviors or solutions incompatible with our values.

    Anne was a victim of serious childhood neglect and verbal abuse. Came to me in her late twenties, a drug abuser, mostly heroin. Independently wealthy. Unable to complete college, mostly because she was so gifted her classes were too boring. Read physics texts for amusement. Had several bouts of intense abuse, including shooting up in my office bathroom. Instead of tossing her out, I negotiated an agreement that she would work on her drug problem in her own way, Narcotics Anonymous, and I would help her work on her childhood and future plans.

    We did a good job working together, though no one is more surprised than I. She got and stayed off drugs and decided to join the Army as a way to keep herself off drugs while she learned a profession. Being a Quaker, it was a bit of a struggle for me to be able to support this decision. But I did and she became a P.A. in operating rooms and last I heard she had turned down a chance to become an anaesthetist, on the basis that she wouldn't be able to avoid using with that much easy access to drugs.

  5. Behaviors or values in conflict with mainstream culture

    Diana was a pre-med student who was still on probation from serving a jail term for actions while she was a member of SDS/Weather-men...mourning the loss of friends, who were killed or who just split up. Loss of comfort that group provided, even though she left when her values changed.

  6. 6. Street people, alcoholics, other social misfits:

    Eddie and Charlie: In the eighties AA had our pet millionaire, Tom Monaghan and our pet bums. Charlie and Eddie were winos and street people. They hung out in the local parks, always with each other. One of them had a missing leg and rode in his wheelchair. When illness befell one of them, the other soon ended up in the same VA hospital. Social workers cleaned them up and dried them out enough to find an apartment. They survived another year or two and actually were able to keep living in their apartment. But then one died, and soon after that the other, obviously from loneliness.

    This help peculiar to the situation and to the social climate of the era in AA. We now have many more street people with much more serious problems. They have lost their jobs, their homes, the institutions which previously housed and cared for them, and their minds. Care of their physical needs is all the community is able to manage at present. One of them hikes probably twenty miles per day, carrying all his worldly goods in a giant duffle bag hung clumsily from a shoulder. He is always in the same dirty clothes and always looks a little wild and a little lost. His daily route often crosses mine as I run errands, and I always pause to wonder who he is and what he has lost, whether he has tangible losses as well as the intangible ones he so clearly has. And I wonder whether our profession as a whole thinks about street people at all.

  7. Self-destructive behavior:

    Peggy was women in her early thirties caring for her female lover who has just been diagnosed as having MS. Accepting Tina's death wishes, refusal to try to slow the effects of the disease. Most caregivers who have tried to help have suggested Peggy abandon Tina in some way: nursing home, pushing her to try to help herself

  8. . People who cannot recover quickly enough

    (BB)

  9. People with non-verbal cues that make us uncomfortable or even frightened

    body language
    distance
    body odor

  10. People with verbal behaviors that make us uncomfortable or frightened:

    shouting
    inappropriate language: swearing, criticizing
    threatening language
    revulsion (Maureen)

A Loss or Need Which We Do Not Recognize or Do Not Accept as Legitimate

  1. Mood disorders in the dying or bereaved

    Lou Anne was a middle-class, white mother of teenagers who was dying of cervical cancer that metastasized both because of her failure to get Pap tests and doctor's inability to recognize it. She came to me because she felt she was unable to deal with what she felt were overwhelming emotions because she knew she was dying and her family did not. She described herself as unable to get out of bed and face the day in the morning and having to force herself to get up and cook breakfast. Then, when the family was gone, she would go back to bed and cry. I pointed out that not everyone dying of cancer had this reaction and referred her to a psychiatrist to check her for an anxiety disorder. She was diagnosed as having panic attacks and given a tri-cyclic antidepressant. Her mood improved and stabilized and we were able to deal with her problems related to dying successfully.

    Gerta: mourning death of her father but also suffering an affective disorder, which we see only in retrospect. Unable to absorb the help offered by husband and me. Eventually leaves therapy for psychoanalysis and later commits suicide by jumping out a window.

    Gillian: Young woman in her late teens who was the sister of a long-term client. Found her housemate's body hanging in the basement. This exacerbated her manic depressive disorder, but mis-diagnosed as a grief disorder for months until she was finally in a locked ward and a foreign doctor gave her lithium and she recovered in three days.

  2. The improbable is, in fact, true:

    Claudia was a young woman in her twenties who came to me to help deal with the aftermath of a date rape. We soon uncovered other issues, the gravest one being her tumultuous relationship with her family. She persisted in her belief that her parents did not care about her. It was only after months of trying to help her struggle with this that she received a letter from her father which totally flabbergasted me. He wrote, "I hope you will always consider yourself a friend of this family."

  3. We are lured by the obvious into overlooking other loss:

    Joan was a professional woman in her mid-thirties whose husband had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Had a two-year-old child. Presented with the problems one might expect from this sort of loss plus a depressive disorder that had been triggered by the death. Did not respond well to therapy and support groups until we began looking at the state of the marriage at the time of death and her prior relationships and childhood. Second of seven children with a retiring personality who had been lost in a family where even the outspoken did not get many of their emotional needs met. Had been courted lavishly by the husband who then began criticizing her after the marriage. He had also been guilty of neglecting the child in passive aggressive ways, such as leaving the child asleep in the home and going out to his workshop across the road. When confronted he denied that he was ever out of the house for more than fifteen minutes at a time or that the child was at all at risk.

  4. The losses are so many that we overlook some of them:

    Nun leaving the order because unable to take the emotional abuse from the priest who told her she needed to have sex with him in order to be happy and fulfilled. Loss of her lifestyle, her religion, her plans and dreams, her sense of self.

  5. The truth is so horrible we unconsciously avoid it:

    Sadie is a woman in her thirties who had come to me because she felt stuck with her present therapist in dealing with recently uncovered memories of having been sexually abused by her father. Multiple Personality Disorder

  6. They have their own resources (Blacks)

  7. They won't accept help (Eddie and Charlie)

  8. 8. Assumption other professionals are addressing the problem

    (Welfare People)

CONCLUSIONS

Trying to reach the child within.

Need to be honest about whom we can work with. When we work with a person in grief, one of our main tasks is to treat the child within. We cannot do that if our own child is crying out in fear, rage, or sadness. For instance, I cannot work with parents mourning the death of a living child. Can only go as far as early term abortion or miscar-riage. Cannot work with adults who were severely sexually abused as children.

Have to uncover and confront our own prejudices and fears.

Have to find our healing selves.

Have to open our eyes and our hearts to see the hurt that is around us. Attending this session an excellent beginning, not because the session is so great but because it is a positive step on the road to ending our isolation.

Have to seek support from those who do not share our outlook, rather than from those who agree with us.

Have to open our eyes and our hearts to see the hurt that is around us. Attending this session an excellent beginning, not because the session is so great but because it is a positive step on the road to ending our isolation.

Have to seek support from those who do not share our outlook, rather than from those who agree with us.

©Copyright 1993, Cendra Lynn, Ph.D., [email protected]fnet.org


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