Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Invisible Grief of Lesbian Widows

I have been working on this post for over a year. It is not an easy topic to do journalistic justice to:  sincere voicemail messages don't get returned; subject matter experts go underground (an amazing feat in the cyber age, perhaps only achieved in the literal, 6-feet-under sense;) and even google search results run thin. So during a recent random library browse, I was riveted to a chance encounter with Dewey Decimal spine number 306.7663 W577L 2006 wil (ISBN 1-56023-330-3):

Lesbian Widows, Invisible Grief

This 2006 publication of The Haworth Press, Inc., is authored by Vicky Whipple, EdD.

Whipple, a nationally certified clinical counselor, developed and taught university curriculum on counseling LGBT clients, and wrote this book after her own devastating widowhood. Finally, I had found a richly-storied research study on the grief experiences of two dozen lesbian widows.

Brushed Aside

In 2006, legal same-sex marriage did not exist in the United States, so these 'widows' were committed life partners who, in many instances, abruptly lost rights to the disposition of their beloved's body and shared assets of her estate; this was often exacerbated by the disrespect and animosity of the deceased's family.

Additional hardships were dealt when a partner could not take family leave during illness; invisible widows cannot receive survivor benefits to pensions or Social Security. This issue was dramatized in the 2015 movie, Freeheld; a detective has terminal cancer and wants her law enforcement pension to go to her surviving partner. It is a struggle for equality, simply stated: LOVE IS LOVE.


One of the key benefits of family life is sharing the hardest life moments; establishments such as hospitals and funeral homes operate by a system of regulations that give the trump card of decision making to "the next of kin." Being the Health Care Power of Attorney and/or Durable Power of Attorney for a sick or dying person ends at death. Whipple introduced me to the term 'disenfranchised grief,' "where a partner experiences a loss that is not openly acknowledged." Until same-sex marriage is recognized, a 'life partner' is not only adrift of traditional emotional supports but has no decision making authority in the eyes of a hospital morgue or funeral home. The lack of professional support services such as lesbian bereavement literature and support groups made for a lonely, painfully invisible and sometimes traumatized widowhood.

Not Just a Friend

Sarah Klockars-Clauser
Whipple began her study with one assumption any of us could have drawn:  That the amount of time that lesbian partners had spent together would influence the amount of anguish over the death. Yes, lesbians "date" casually, and may enjoy many great friendships, but when you meet your "soul mate," the measurement of time falls away with the wonderful depth of connection and the special intimacy of a shared reliance, that is common in a lifestyle deemed "alternative." This connection, when severed by death, precipitates greater grief challenges.

Whether or not the couple is "out" to family, friends, and colleagues does impact the degree of isolation and recognition of the loss. After Whipple came out to some colleagues during her dying partner's end stage, she received more support. The visibility of widowed spouses are favored with greater compassion and understanding; even the milestones of a committed but unmarried heterosexual couple garner a better flow of sympathy. There are many considerations to the choice of living openly as lesbian or gay, and doing so is not a blanket de-stressor solution.

Every Loss is Unique

The Condolence Coach visits this concept frequently, and it becomes an important mantra for all condolence:  do not compare. Every death impacts survivors uniquely so one of the best ways to avoid land mines of insensitivity is to direct your sympathy with tremendous focus.
  • Truly consider the person you are writing to. 
  • What have you observed in this relationship between decedent and survivor?
  • If you saw love, say so. If you saw devotion, say so.
  • When you can't imagine living with certain challenges, humbly admit it.
  • Celebrate special qualities of both partners with admiration and gratitude.

Ask How You Can Help 

William Ferrell
Commonly, grief can put a survivor in lockdown:  indecision, inertia, and pain seriously drain a day. Are there kids, pets, chores, shopping, cooking, errands or phone calls that you can offer assistance with? Whether in your note or a conversation, ask how you can help.

Two Months-Two Years-and Beyond

While it is not up to you to share the grief journey, it is up to you to respect it without opinions, advice or judgement. A lesbian grieving her partner deserves compassion and acknowledgement.
  • Ask "How are you today?" and listen to her response, however lengthy. 
  • Remember the anniversary of death and send a note, extend a gesture of memorialization.

Accept the Relationship

Really, it is almost 2016 and I would be delighted if this post soon contains OUT OF DATE INFORMATION on the right to same-sex marriage. Follow the link on this map's caption, to an excellent website. 
June 26, 2015, FreedomtoMarry.org

Thank you for caring!

No comments: