O Come, All Ye Faithful, Broken and Defeated
The holidays are NOT the most wonderful time of the year for many of us PITT families. The Christmas hymn O Come All Ye Faithful beacons us to come joyful and triumphant. However, for parents, grandparents and siblings of trans-identified family members, there is no joy to be found and no triumph to be felt.
Instead of Joy to the World, we want to sing
“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you. I’ll be so blue just thinking about you. Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree, won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me.” – Blue Christmas
The holidays are the time when families get together to express the joy of the season. Family members travel great distances to come home. Parents eagerly await the return of their college students and grandparents count the days until the children and grands arrive at their doorstep to receive the warmth of their hugs and kisses. We sit around a bountiful table and break bread together. Gifts are exchanged as expressions of love and generosity.
Then, there’s the anticipatory preparations before the holidays. They are both exhausting and exhilarating. We shop for our loved ones with excitement and nervous energy trying to cram it all in a few weeks. We picture how our son will look in his new sporty jacket and smile anticipating the look of delight in our daughter’s face when she opens up her present revealing those much-coveted brand-name boots.
We shop until we drop and we prep food for days all in anticipation of those small windows of togetherness that will make sweet memories that will last us a lifetime. Even when things don’t go as planned and the kids fight or the in-laws argue, we store away the good memories and remember those moments fondly.
So, what are we to do when we find ourselves dreading the “happiest time of the year?” Instead of joy and peace, we experience sorrow and anxiety. We find ourselves exhausted, disappointed and with no energy or desire to shop, cook or celebrate the holidays. Shopping for the child who’s declared that he/she is not our son/daughter feels as if the floor of the mall has become lava. We tip-toe around, trying not to get burned. We look for neutral items which makes finding a present an impersonal and painful task. Then, what do we write on the name tag? We either lie to ourselves to make them happy or write the truth and create and explosion of anger. So, we settle for “To: My dearest second child”. We dread not seeing the estranged or distant child and we dread seeing them and the potential scenes that will take place if anyone “deadnames” him/her. We anticipate the gray cloud that will settle over the table while everyone is trying to enjoy a holiday meal that will taste bitter to us.
Why celebrate when we will be painfully reminded that our families are broken and incomplete? How do we reconcile the bustle and hustle of the season with the emptiness that we feel, not only inside, but tangibly through the empty seats at the table? Even if a chair is not empty, there’s one that might as well be because the child or grandchild who sits there is as absent and removed as the one who doesn’t come home.
Dr. Miriam Grossman, an author, speaker and psychiatrist, met with dozens of parents in Zoom meetings before the holidays in 2021 and 2022. She talks about these experiences in her book Lost in Trans Nation: A Child’s Psychiatrist’s Guide Out of the Madness which is a must read for everyone, but especially for parents and grandparents. You can order it here: https://a.co/d/fTsZ8RB or in Audible here: https://a.co/d/ea3KhEe. Of particular relevance is Chapter 10 Mourning the Living where Dr. Grossman acknowledges the parents’ grief and lists the losses that parents told her they have experienced.
Parents sought Dr. Grossman’s advice as the holidays were quickly approaching. The information below has been adapted from Dr. Grossman’s talks to parents.
Dr. Grossman started by describing complicated grief….
Compared to simple grief, complicated grief can include anger, guilt, shame, uncertainty and other difficult emotions. The grief is compounded by the complexity of emotions, and because the ultimate outcome is unknown, the entire experience can be unbearable at times. There is a sense that we have lost our bearings. Everything we believed in has been shaken up and there’s a sense of things crumbling.
Parents with trans-identified children experience complicated grief. Those people or professionals we used to trust (family, friends, doctors, therapists) can’t be trusted any longer. The grief is disenfranchised because other people don’t acknowledge it. If our child had a catastrophic illness, people would flock to us with compassion, cards and meals. Yet. our children are experiencing a catastrophic mental health crisis but people don’t acknowledge it or worse, they shame and blame us for not accepting our child’s delusion.
As parents we should not disenfranchise ourselves. We need to acknowledge and honor how we feel. The more we honor how we feel, the better we will be able to cope.
So, what do we do about the holidays?
1. You can opt out. You don’t have to celebrate if you don’t feel like it. You don’t owe anything to anybody.
Reframe the situation that you are in. If your child was in the ICU, you would not put pressure on yourself to participate in celebrations. Tell people that you are going through a very difficult time and this year you don’t feel like celebrating. You will come back in the future and celebrate together but not this year.
2. You have the right to feel what you feel.
Try to step outside of the stress and acknowledge what you are feeling. It can be helpful to name what it is that you are doing. “I am catastrophizing”. Try this mental exercise - ask yourself: “What am I doing at this moment”? Look around you and tell yourself “Right now I am at work. I am with people with whom I am safe”. Ground yourself in what you are doing at the moment.
3. You have a right to feel out of sync with all the celebrations
Anticipatory stress can be worse than actually being in the situation we are dreading. Feelings of overwhelming sadness and anxiety about the upcoming holidays may start early in the season and last for weeks. Give yourself permission to step away from the celebratory mood that everyone else seems to feel.
4. Recognize that your grief will be magnified. You may feel like you have a hole in your heart.
Learn how to cope with your emotions. Difficult emotions come in waves and you may think that you will always feel this way. When you are at the top of an emotional wave, remember that you will come down from the wave. So, ride the wave and practice coping skills that will help you navigate the emotional roller coaster. Reassure yourself that emotions are fleeting and won’t always feel this way.
5. Recognize what is under your control and what is not under your control
To keep some things under your control you have to plan ahead for how you will cope when those overwhelming emotions hit. Plan for what you will do if you get triggered. Go outside to get some air, go for a walk or go to the bathroom to collect yourself. Drive your own car in case you have to leave early. Alert your spouse or someone you know ahead of time that you may disappear along with instructions on where you will be going to take some time to yourself. Have some statements ready to explain your behavior.
6. Think about what part of the day is going to be the most difficult and have a plan.
Is it seeing your friends or family and their children who might be moving on with their lives? Is it seeing or not seeing your child? Is it being afraid of what might be asked or said to you?
7. Take time for yourself every day.
The holidays are a time of rushing around. Treat yourself as you would treat a grieving friend and do what you would do for them. You would be present for your friend. You would acknowledge their pain. So, do that for you and allow yourself to take it easy.
8. Know when to ask for help
If you feel as if you are always riding the wave and never coming down or you feel that your skin is very thin and everything makes you cry, you may benefit from talking to a professional counselor or psychiatrist. But make sure that you go to a trusted physician who would be compassionate. Don’t go to someone who would re-traumatize you by dismissing your reasons for being in pain.
There are support groups for parents and grandparents that can be very helpful for those dealing with the stress of having a trans identified-child. Here are a few:
9. Have sources of meaning in your life.
Having a belief in God or a transcendent source of meaning in our lives, is what gets some people through horrible situations. Viktor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning” observed in the concentration camp that people who had the internal resources of spiritual meaning coped better than those who didn't. Look for the spiritual meaning in the holidays and meditate on that. Focus on what gives you meaning in your life.
10. Never Ever Give Up Hope
Every person has a story that fits within his/her family. Your child and your family’s story are not over. Do not give up hope.
While we wait for the day when our family’s celebrations will be whole once again, we sing with hope…
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light,
O Come O Come Emmanuel