I gripped it tightly, that cold stone. Empty eyes staring back, unmoving wool between its paws. Fixed to its pedestal, ears ever-alert. No colour, just bare rock chiselled to that small creature. There was no doubt – this was my “precious item”. But I couldn’t do it. The walk out the door, across the roads to university, the walk up the stairs... My cat was a fragile creature, too close to my heart and equally fragile state of mind.
“The bracelet will do.” I thought it a symbol of trust at the time; an item close to another’s defining moments, given to me in the trust that it would return as I did. I couldn’t see it for the icon of my entrapment that it truly was. Not then, at least. It, too, was an icon of loss.
We sat in a circle, that small band. Some ready to profess the deeper meaning behind their objects, others ready to share only the minimum needed – private depths not ready for being thrust into the open. About halfway round. My turn. I fumbled a little. Then a lot. I changed my mind, simply telling people that this object’s story was not mine to tell. It was not my loss to share, and its value was lost without it. I set to describing that cat. That little statue, a final gift from my granddad. The last piece of him I physically held. But the words left my mouth confused and unresolved, making just a little too much straightforward sense. Two years. Why was he still here? Why did I still cling to him, never allowing him to move? Why couldn’t I move?
Loss is something that we all experience at some time; an inevitability of our limited time and the fragility of life. But all too often losses other than death are forgotten, downplayed, pushed aside. We acknowledge them as losses, but all too often expect to simply continue – we do not acknowledge or respect the grieving process of these “other” losses. They are viewed as lesser, not a “true grief”.
In what has now been almost two years I have had to confront my losses, and my grief, in ways that I never really expected that I would have to. Or perhaps in more specific terms, if looking at this from the perspective of Kübler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: I finally moved past long-held denial. An abundance of refusal to acknowledge that which I have lost or may lose or will lose in simply being as I am.
I would have been 11 when I first started questioning my gender. My behaviour became increasingly out of place, becoming more and more “deserving” of ridicule. I became more and more shut out as the confusion and tension built. I didn’t have the words or understanding at the time. It was too big and complex to contextualise in terms of my past; I had only that moment in the present.
My questions continued to grow, and my mind constantly screamed louder and louder to be anything else – anything other than the change that I was seeing in others and that I knew was coming for me. I felt increasingly more inhuman as the social and physical changes constricted more and more, threatening constantly to tear my mind from my body.
I eventually came to find a community, an old website clad in a hideous black and orange. For all it’s alarmingly clashing design, and the horrible way that it scaled on my phone when I slid the landscape keyboard out, it began to feel like home. A space to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling out of place. I absorbed the words and experiences of others, and sharing my own. They all had their own words. I wasn’t certain what mine were.
The questioning amounted to “gay”. I wasn’t ready for the existential threat posed by the truth. And so there lay bargaining. Still different, but something less earth-shattering. There were too many stories of abuse, homelessness, assault, isolation, excommunication, exclusion...
And so questioning became denial.
It was never long before questions resurfaced. Sometimes I would quietly play with a less threatening label, sometimes I simply sat with thoughts, sometimes I made plans – to come out, to go to my doctor in secret, to go to my doctor when I move out, to change my presentation subtly in hopes that only few would notice...
But understanding, too, became denial.
And so this was the cycle I became stuck in. Forever questioning and accepting and shutting away with traumatic force.
What I didn’t understand is that this wasn’t just simple fear. Fear played its part but – more than anything else – it was mourning.
The denial was there, that much is plain to see. To say that I was angry would be an understatement, lashing out and rejecting everyone around me; sometimes a perceived threat to my safety, other times representative of my internal struggle regardless of those outside of me. Bargaining was evident in my search for labels that felt non-committal or less threatening. And depression? Practically boundless, seeping into every other stage, and only ever worsening as time moved further and further on without my input.
But for what was all this grief? What exactly did I lose?
Perhaps the most obvious losses are those of security, of friends, of family, of the easy life it was assumed I would always have. And notably: safety.
These were all things that I was reasonably assured of at a basic level growing up. Certainly not guaranteed, by any stretch of the imagination, but enough to have confidence and faith in those. But transition represented a loss of all of that. There were so many stories of rejecting families, so many stories of being unable to make and keep friends for noticeable queerness. Tragedy seemed to engulf every facet of the lives of trans people; all I heard was homelessness, and assault, and rejection, and unemployment, and hatred, and isolation, and poverty, and hiding.
Why wouldn’t one mourn the loss of a life perceived to be relatively free of all that?
Then there are the losses that most people don’t recognise. Things that others can express confusion at, having never understood or experienced my mind and my expectations.
Certainly at the point I started to struggle with my gender, there was a deep feeling of being stripped of bodily autonomy. I became more disgusted and more sickened by ever-notable change. Change that I never asked for, never consented to. Change that I logically know would be coming, but I was never going to be emotionally prepared for even if you gave me all the time in the world. Change that I resent even now, all these years later. Change that could have been halted, were it not for the paradox of my grief causing my grief.
So I grieve for the adolescence I never really got to live; too much time spent battling with the immense struggles with mental health that came as a result of this unrelenting change and growing disgust. I grieve for the childhood that came before it, largely forgotten to me and with so few shards remaining that these memories may as well belong to somebody else. I grieve for the early life that this struggle against myself has denied me.
But there is one significant grief that stands out among all societally unacknowledged grief. One that is perhaps only understood by other trans people; it always seems bizarre and illogical to those that don’t have trans experience themselves.
There was a time as a teenager that, as with most of my experiences between 12 and 16, I can’t exactly temporally pinpont which always stands out. I would spend nights desperately muffling my cries, praying that my brother wouldn’t hear, until I passed out from the exhaustion. At that point my physical reality caught up with me: I would never carry my own child.
How can one grieve for what they could never have expected? Logically I must have known. And that’s true; I did know. But what I logically knew and what I emotionally expected were two completely different things, and it took many years for my emotional expectations to align with that physical knowledge. Emotion and longing are not things that operate on concrete physical knowledge; but the “loss” that comes with the development of emotional alignment to the known fact can hurt as much as a physically observable loss.
Despite it having been a long time since then – I still struggle. I may not be crying to the point of exhaustion, I may not feel that grief so often and so keenly as those earlier years . But there are days it still creeps up to surprise me.
The true difficulty of this “irrational” grief is that there’s very little support or sympathy available. Those who have lost a pet might know the feeling; people spend time diminishing the significance and importance of that loss. What I find here is the more potent and aggressive forms – the denial that there is any grief to be experienced at all. “It’s just an animal” replaced with aggressive accusations of “stupidity”, or “attention-seeking”, or reassuring me that I couldn’t possibly be upset over something that could never rationally happen.
Unfortunately, I’m well aware that this response is far from unique to trans people. Although one would hope that it’s generally considered absolutely vile to direct these kinds sentiments towards cisgender women who discover they may be infertile, or to gay individuals – it still happens: “You can always adopt.”
Certainly, that’s true. And adoption is a wonderful thing, offering people a chance at raising a child where they may not otherwise be capable and providing a child with the opportunity to spend at least some portion of their childhood in a (hopefully) loving home.
But adoption simply isn’t the same thing. I’m glad for it to be an option, as are many, but the experience is something different. There is a certain image in society that comes with the experience of raising a child that is of your own making – the images and narratives of pregnancy, and birth, and those first few weeks. That is what many of us grieve for – those early moments that we are denied.
As much as I could expand on all the different forms of grief I have experienced, and may continue to, there is another loss that has significantly impacted my life as a trans person – and one that may perhaps be more familiar to those who are not of trans experience themselves.
That cat that I so deeply valued held more meaning than I had acknowledged for a long while. It was more than memories of him, more than just a final show of thoughtfulness from him. It’s a symbol also of the desperation and shame that I have overcome.
Those secret plans of mine were not just fantasies – they had flesh and meat to them, full of unrealistically meticulous detail that would never have held up in practice. They may have been developed from a place of ignorance about the difficulty and reality of transition, but they were no less significant for it.
My last year of college represented the most “final” of my plans. I had spent the past two years (very) subtlety shifting my presentation; speech, posture, trying to take more control of my body...
At times I recognised it as the necessary relief from gender dysphoria it was. At other times denial crept in – I was just a young man embracing his feminine side. I had found some semblance of acceptance, but it came with a great deal of shame.
Regardless of the meandering path, the end of that year left me with acceptance. I felt ready. I would be going to university. I would be free of the dependency that left me feeling so caged. I would go immediately to my doctor, and begin my journey in hushed whispers.
Or so I thought.
That was the Summer my granddad passed away after a battle with cancer. Although not my first bereavement, it was the first time I’d been particularly close to a death. It was the first I’d seen somebody at that lowest point.
Yet something felt strangely familiar about those feelings; I felt capable in moving forward through my significant upset. What affected me far more was how others were handling the loss. Seeing the grief of others was far more painful than my own.
That familiarity didn’t hold much meaning to me at the time, but if it did perhaps I may have acted differently. Although the situation was significantly different, the process is the same one that I’d spent a huge portion of my life already going through, albeit to a different end.
Regardless of the hypothetical actions I might have taken , there was a genuine response that significantly shaped my life in a way that I believe to be for the worst. I took the grief that I saw in my father and related it to those stories I’d read and heard growing up – the ones of parents bereft and enraged by their children coming out; to act as if their child had literally died. It only heightened my shame – how could I do that to him?
Then I took that shame and transposed it onto my lost grandfather: “he would be disgusted and ashamed were he alive.”
Did either of them do anything to deserve such a suggestion? Did either of them express anything that would suggest a truth to my thoughts? No.
In that heightened emotional state I dived further and further into irrationality and projecting my own emotions onto those around me; filling them with my shame and disgust for me.
They came to embody my antagonistic relationship with myself, entirely without their knowledge, consent or input. They became my excuse for denial once again.
I never made it to the doctor.
It would take a profound snap several years later for me to take that leap. Until then, a granddad who never had the chance to judge me constantly looked over my shoulder, scrutinising and filling every crack that would appear.
From all this it would seem that my experience has been all shame and grief and suffering, and that this is all just something that’s worth it. But I think I’ve been giving grief a bad reputation. Grief and loss make for excellent companions through such significant change. There’s such a broad spectrum of emotion contained within. It didn’t halt me where I was – the way I chose to respond to it did.
Working through denial gave me certainty. I may not know every last facet of myself, or even the very basics – I spent so long in that shell that I’ve little idea what’s on the outside. But for all my other faults – I am certain of one simple fact: I am trans. Anger prepared me, readied me for the constant battles that I’ll likely face for the rest of my life. I found ways to channel that ever-constant rage to the betterment of so many others in my position. I hope that one day it serves to deliver the change we so desperately need. Bargaining offered me a chance to explore before I was ready to commit. I found ways of somehow managing to move forwards under mounting pressure and perpetually increasing hurt. Depression is perhaps the hardest of all to justify. Perhaps I stretch here; perhaps this one small part is nothing but menace and cannot be redeemed. But part of me would like to think the depression forced me to slow down, to take some genuine time to respond to myself, and to acknowledge both my suffering of that and others. Sometimes it went far to far, causing me to stop entirely. Sometimes that stopping induced a desire to simply finish. But sometimes it gave me rare insight into emotion, and into others. It let me see more.
And all of that, no matter how painful, was necessary to find the acceptance I find now. I could harp on about all the ways in which I failed. I could continually bash at the regrets I have over missed opportunities – over teenage years never lived, and a university experience wasted. And those feelings are certainly there.
But there’s this common narrative among trans people – that if we could go back in time to our younger selves and explain all then we would. In doing that, we would change our lives. A body better fitting, and a life more aligned with our desires and our feelings of what should be and should have been. In my month writing this, I’ve come to realise I disagree. I wouldn’t do that.
I’d love for a younger me to have made a start and live the life I want. But I don’t believe I’d listen. My experiences of grief signalled a fundamental unreadiness.
At that time, I simply wasn’t strong enough. Even if I had believed some grand sign dropped in front of me: who’s to say I would have acted on it? Perhaps having that path laid out for me, absolutely undeniable, would simply have been too much to bear.
What if I did act, but was dismissed? What if I couldn’t face being more ostracised than I already was? How much doubt would I have in my control over my own life if I did everything I could, but all remained out of my hands? Would I have been able to suffer through such immense difficulty at that age, knowing that would be what remained throughout my life? Would I simply feel the same about a wasted early childhood – just refocusing my grief to what was there to grieve for?
As much as it hurts, I argue going through that process has been good for me.
I’ve a sensitivity and understanding that I’d not otherwise have; those experiences have significantly shaped the person I am today.
Transitioning as an adult carries a unique set of difficulties that don’t apply to younger people – just as the inverse is also true. But for me personally, knowing the places I’ve always struggled, these adult-specific challenges are the only ones that could have given me the strength I have today.
Without the challenges of perception, of justifying myself against traditional narratives, of fighting for others, of learning about myself and my community only at the point most people would believe that one should be somehow “whole” or “complete”, I may never have become the outspoken person that I am now.
Grief didn’t hurt me.
It forced me to become unashamed.