Grief and the LGBTQ+ community

5 min read

Few experiences are as universal as the pain and devastation of losing a loved one. Yet each person’s experience of grief is unique, and only they can go through it. Therefore, while it is nice to think that the grieving process will bring families and communities together in a healing way, the truth is that people grieve in character, and loss generally only emphasizes what was already there in our relationships as well. People who were close may draw closer, but any issues or conflicts between them are often deepened as well.

This means that when our relationships with those closest to us are less than harmonious, that disharmony can rise to the surface and add another layer of difficulty on top of our grief, often with traumatizing results. This problem is particularly acute for members of the LGBTQ+ community, who may be faced with homophobia, transphobia, lack of social acceptance, and similar challenges, often from members of their own or their partners’ families and their communities. The effects can be devastating and make the grief process much more difficult to navigate.

For example, for those who are not “out” to their families or whose sexual or gender identity is not accepted by their families or community, gatherings like a funeral can be extra painful and difficult. Even if the family does not outright shut out an LGBTQ+ partner from attending the ceremony, they may tend to dismiss or downplay their relationship to others, displaying their discomfort and lack of acceptance at the worst possible time.

Of course, there are infinite possible experiences, and each person’s family and community are unique. Many families are lovely and accepting, and many queer funerals are beautiful spaces to mourn and heal together. We certainly do not mean to suggest that people in the LGBTQ+ community are doomed to experience more hardship than the average straight, cis-gendered person when it comes to grief and loss. But it is important to point to the kinds of difficulties that may disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ community, and to remind you that if you are experiencing such a challenging situation, you are not alone, and you are deserving of care and support.

Grief and loss can be different for the LGBTQ+ community 

While being gay is no longer criminalized in the U.S., members of the LGBTQ+ community often still face homophobia in the spaces of society associated with loss. Hospitals, clinics, hospice facilities, assisted living homes, and funeral homes are all potential sites of exclusion and prejudice, which can unfortunately lead to negligent care for an LGBTQ+ individual and/or their partner or caretaker.

Especially for older generations, the stigma of homosexuality’s association with medical issues—particularly the historical shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began in the 1980s—can be a difficult prejudice to be faced with, the implication that the gay individual is at fault for their own illness because of their sexuality. While society has made progress toward expelling these myths and falsehoods, and our environment is generally becoming more tolerant, these sentiments are still at large. When all you want is proper care, whether for your loved one in their final days or for yourself as you begin your grief journey, this level of prejudice is extremely painful.

Surround yourself at this difficult time with friends who knew and loved your loved one for who they were, and who love you for who you are. 

Similarly, older LGBTQ+ couples may have relationships that have lasted for decades but are not treated the same as heterosexual unions in the eyes of these institutions. Not only is it frustrating to have your partnership dismissed by heterosexual culture, but institutional homophobia or transphobia can also lead to real medical negligence—and often in these cases the surviving partner, if unmarried, will not have the same rights to claim medical malpractice as a married spouse would. This was the case for writer Sue Rakowski and many others. 

During the exceptionally vulnerable period of grief, it is important to be among those who are empathetic and understanding. After losing a partner, therefore, navigating predominantly heterosexual spaces set aside for mourning can feel overwhelmingly difficult, especially if your loved one’s family refuses to recognize the nature of your relationship at their funeral or memorial.

The importance of grieving with a supportive community cannot be over-emphasized; it’s crucial to remember that if your biological family is not there for you, you always have your chosen family. Surround yourself at this difficult time with friends who knew and loved your loved one for who they were, and who love you for who you are. 

Support resources for LGBTQ+ grievers

Sometimes we all need a little more support than what our friends and families can offer. Joining an LGBTQ+ grief group is an important option for anyone who feels that the collectivity of a group would be healing. Luckily, there are many grief support groups out there, quite a few of which focus specifically on the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, you should join any grief support group that sounds inviting to you. Below are a few links to support groups that are currently open.

  1. HopeHealth’s LGBTQ grief support group meets every fourth Monday on Zoom. Email [email protected] for registration information.

  2. Good Grief is a peer-led discussion group about grief and loss, by and for LGBTQ+ people. Participants are encouraged to share their stories, learn from each other and grow. An intake appointment is required before joining; reach out at [email protected] to schedule one.

  3. LOFT Peer Support Groups are drop-in groups led by facilitators who identify as peers with the attendees. There is no need to preregister and no fee to attend. 

  4. The Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center’s bereavement group, facilitated by Rev. Anne Huey, is a professionally led monthly support group for LGBTQ+ people who have experienced loss. Feel free to contact Robin (they/he/ze), our Cultural & Community-Building Programs Manager. You can email them at [email protected] or call them at (610) 347-9988, ext. 112, to ask questions, introduce yourself, or schedule a phone call, a Zoom meeting, or an in-person meeting, if that would help you feel more comfortable attending the group.

No matter where you turn for support, the important thing is that you find your people. Grief can feel crushing no matter how you identify, but the way that communities—religious, medical, familial—have historically shut out LGBTQ+ folks can add a layer of fear and vulnerability to the already painful experience of loss. Remember that your experience is valid, and you always have your chosen family to support you ●