When a Loved One Says, ‘I’m Gay’: The Stages of Grief

Man sitting on side walk

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

Psalm 46:1-3 (ESV)

Focus on the Family has received thousands of letters, emails and telephone calls from parents who discover that their son or daughter identifies as gay or lesbian and is pursuing same-sex relationships. Grief—often profound and turbulent—is a common emotional response for many parents. Suddenly life seems totally out of control

A Mother's Pain

Judy vividly recalls the day when she found out about her oldest son's homosexual involvement. As a young adult, Darryl had moved from the family home in Texas to California.

"Darryl and I had always been close," she explains, "so it was difficult to see him go, but I knew he had to live his own life." Several months later, Judy received a long letter from him.

Darryl shared some exciting news: "I found someone that I care deeply about, and I'm in a relationship that is completely fulfilling."

As Judy read further, however, her stomach lurched and she could hardly swallow. Darryl confessed that this romantic relationship involved another man. "I have had these strong feelings of attraction to men for as long as I can remember," he wrote, "and I've always tried to hide them." Now he was "coming out of the closet" and living as he believed God intended.

Judy was completely devastated. "I screamed, I ranted, I cried. I felt like I was bleeding deep inside, and there was no way to stop the gaping wound in my soul."

Grief and Pain

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
    it grows weak because of all my foes.

Psalm 6:6-7 (ESV)

Learning that a loved one is struggling with homosexuality is extremely painful, for several reasons:

  • Homosexuality often involves the person's entire identity.
  • Those who decide to embrace a gay identity may abandon beliefs and values that they once held dear.
  • Some Christians mistakenly see this as the worst sin possible.
  • People mistakenly believe that "being lesbian" or "being gay" is unchangeable.
  • Parents often feel responsible for their children and their children's choices.

Barbara Johnson, author of Where Does a Mother Go to Resign?, says, "Finding out about a gay child is agony. It's almost like having a death in the family. When someone dies, you can bury that person and move on with your life. With homosexuality, the pain seems never-ending."Anita Worthen and Bob Davies, Someone I Love is Gay: How Family and Friends Can Respond (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) p. 22. Her son stayed away from the family for eleven years before returning.

Stages of Grief

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

Psalm 13:1-2 (ESV)

A Father's Story

"Mark," I hesitated, not knowing just how to ask; then I blurted out, "Mark are you involved with other men?" for a moment Mark was too embarrassed to look at us directly; then quietly said, "Dad, Mom, I must tell you now that I am gay." His answer was not offered in pride; actually, he almost seemed to cringe.

"Our hearts fell. Until a few days earlier we had no suspicion whatsoever that this was the case. Furiously, the questions raced through our minds. How could our son, so active in his Christian witness only a few weeks before, suddenly reject the clear teaching of Scripture? Who had seduced him? What kind of a person was he? Where had we failed him? Had we not reared him to be God fearing? Why Mark? Why? Why?"Norman Carson, Precious Son: The Impact of AIDS on an Evangelical Family, (Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2012), p.27.

Whatever the losses you're experiencing, the result is the same: You're thrown into what researchers and therapists—building on the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross—call "stages of grief" or "the grief cycle".Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying, (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

As you consider these stages, remember that while acknowledging the cycles of grief may be helpful, it is woefully inadequate to describe what is going on in the heart—to portray the pain you may feel, the rush of thoughts and questions, and the waves of emotions. Kübler-Ross' model simply gives us a framework and some language for understanding what's happening inside those who grieve.

A Mother's Story

"I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. All of my air went out of me. I wanted to die. I am not sure how long I was silent, but think that I finally got the courage to say, something like, OK….how long has this been going on...or something like that. I honestly am not positive. I know, for sure, that God gave me the grace to not scream, (as I wanted to do…that agonizing scream that only a mother who has lost a child can scream) but God enabled me to talk calmly."Carroll Klingbile, personal response to questions from the author.

The first stage is Denial: You feel numb and shocked; you think, "This can't be happening." When Barbara Johnson first found a stack of gay pornography in her son's bedroom, she said to herself, in spite of the evidence, "Surely he was using this material for some school project on the subject. … Perhaps he had a friend whom he was trying to help. That was Larry, always wanting to help someone else."Barbara Johnson, Where Does a Mother Go to Resign? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1979) p. 10.

The second stage is Anger: You are mad at yourself, God, your loved one, your spouse, other people—or the whole world. You might berate yourself, "Why didn't I notice? How could I miss what was happening?" You shout at God, "How could you let this happen?"

Often underneath anger is pain, fear or frustration. The Book of Psalms contains examples of others who have expressed anger, questions or pain to God.  Reading these may be helpful.

When Job is grieving over all his losses, he answers his "comforters," saying, "Do you intend to reprove my words, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind?" (Job 6:26). He means when people are caught up in anger, grief and despair, we shouldn't get analytical and critical about the words they use. Let them go to the wind. Don't try to argue yourself out of your feelings, but acknowledge and recognize them.

The third stage is Bargaining or Questioning: This is where people might try to bargain with God on behalf of their loved one or question themselves repeatedly about the past. Guilt, shame or blame often  drives this phase:

  • God, how could you let this happen?
  • We'll go see a counselor and get this fixed right away.
  • Dear Lord, if you heal her, I'll serve you forever.
  • How could I not see what was going on?
  • What do we do to fix her?
  • God – take me, but heal my son.

Questions may also arise about your faith and about God's design for sexuality, relationships and marriage:

  • What if I'm wrong?
  • Is homosexuality really a sin?
  • But she seems so happy…
  • What if it's okay to be gay?
  • Does the Bible really say that?

Questions may also arise about your relationship with your child or spouse:

  • Whose fault is this?
  • Is this all my wife's fault?
  • Did God make my child gay?
  • What did I do wrong?
  • Did my husband do something wrong?

The fourth stage of grief is Depression. This is where you really feel the weight of sorrow and grief. The loss is driven home. You might feel waves of sadness at unexpected times. It might be difficult to complete tasks or to keep going with what you would normally do. Life feels overwhelming. You are feeling the real pain of the loss.

The fifth stage is Acceptance. This is where you come to terms with the losses and with the reality of where the person is. It doesn't mean you accept homosexuality as a "gift" or believe it is not a sin. You come to some sort of resolution about the loss.

By acceptance, we simply mean "acknowledging what is" or "acknowledging what is true." This is not the same as "approval," which means "affirming something as good or right." Accepting your loved one as they are is not the same as approving their behavior—although this may be a tough distinction for some gay-identified people to understand.

Working Through to Faith and Peace

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust."

Psalm 91:1-2 (ESV)

In many of the Psalms, we see David reveal his fears, questions, sorrows and anger. But he also works through those thoughts and emotions to worship and faith, expressing his deep belief in God. For parents moving toward resolving their grief, this article is a beginning. There are also other resources that give more guidelines for dealing with your child's homosexuality.

Our free resource, "When a Loved One Says, 'I'm Gay' – A Guide for Parents," has information about navigating grief and loss, focusing on your own growth and healing, and clarifying your goals for relating to your child. In addition, the following are some helpful resources.

Counseling

Focus on the Family offers one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. We also offer referrals for licensed Christian counselors in your area.

To reach Focus on the Family's counseling service by phone, call 1-800-A-Family (232-6459) weekdays 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time). Please be prepared to leave your contact information for a counselor or chaplain to return a call to you as soon as possible. The consultation is available at no cost to you. You may also reach our counselors online by filling out our Counseling Request Form.

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