Friday, January 27

3 things I learned while grieving the death of my father…who deadnamed, misgendered & hurt me

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The holiday season always brings many mixed feelings: joy, excitement, anxiety, apprehension, fear, sorrow, anguish, and ones that may be even harder to name.

I believe this is further complicated by being LGBTQIA+ and is rendered downright depressing if one is estranged from their family. 

Some queer people are without part or all of their family due to the loss of those family members: either through their passing or due to bias and hatred. And although chosen family are incredibly essential and powerful, this piece is focused on the loss of biological family.. 

For me, that loss was recently huge as November 26th marked the first anniversary of my father’s death. 

It has taken me a year to write this piece, but I am thankful that now I have the space and time to articulate the lessons I have learned in the wake of his passing. 

Lesson one, you do not need to light yourself on fire to keep others warm. 

“It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.” 

As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew it was just another cliché being replicated in my queer little story. On the other line of the phone, my uncle once again asked me why I refused to take a more direct role in supporting my father during the illness that would ultimately claim his life.

As a queer, trans, biracial person who experienced various traumas related to and because of my family, my relationship with my father was difficult. He was superficially supportive of me and my life but would regularly deadname or misgender me. He would routinely say hurtful statements that would infantilize or characterize me incorrectly, such as calling me lazy. 

I accepted this verbal abuse in my limited interactions with him because I felt obligated to maintain a familial connection. As he was my only father, I believed it was my duty to ensure he was okay, even at my own expense. 

I would call him on his birthday, the holidays he celebrated, such as New Year’s or Christmas, and attempt to bridge the gap between father and son. In return, he would regularly neglect to call me on my birthday, a day he often forgot entirely. 

I often attempted to convey my feelings about the harmful nature of his treatment and our relationship with him in the years leading up to his death. I had, at one time, desired to mend our relationship; it was something my therapist had encouraged as well. During one of these attempts, I shared with him the story of when I nearly died by suicide in our home at sixteen. My mother had recently passed, and I was deeply depressed. He did not allow me to grieve my mother’s death or offer any support during that time.  

“I never noticed,” he said after listening for a time. 

This trend of being unnoticed, unseen, or misrepresented was not unusual in our father-son dynamic. 

In 2020 when he was becoming chronically ill, I believed it was my obligation to step in and arrange his hospital care, work with his doctors, purchase him groceries and food, etc.  I did this in part out of kindness and seeking some sense of validation that I was a good son:worthy of the love that I desperately had craved from him since childhood. Instead, it quickly became an expectation that I would do everything for him and, by extension, my half-sister, who physically, emotionally, and mentally abused me throughout my life. All of which was at the expense of my physical, mental, spiritual, financial, and emotional well-being.

Then, in the hospital, about four months before he passed, he told me that saying harmful things to me is funny because he enjoys it when I am upset.

I ceased my involvement with him. 

So much of my suffering and pain over the years was intentionally designed and applied. Why continue as kindle to other’s fires? There is no joy or kindness there. Step away and heal thyself from the burns. 

Lesson two, others may not understand your complex grief, and that’s okay. 

“How are you feeling? I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Following my father’s death, I received an outpouring of attention from people in my life. Many friends and chosen family, as well as my extended family. 

There are some social expectations I’ve observed when someone passes. People ask you how you are, apologize for your loss, and then ask what they can do to help you. These exchanges are ones I too have engaged in when someone has lost someone in their life. 

It is complicated when you do not view that death as a loss but rather as a sense of salvation or maybe even justice. I did not hate my father. There were times when I was angry with him, but I did not actively wish for him to die, despite the cruelty that I experienced from him. 

There were moments of light amidst the darkness.  When we laughed, he taught me Slap Jack and Solitaire, or when we listened to his Doo Wop tapes while driving around with K-Cream ice cream in the summer. These precious moments still bring a smile to my face and an ache to my chest. He had charisma and was known and loved by many people. 

But despite all this, I also know that he was insecure, which manifested in coldness and how he would use and treat others, including his family members. His duality was stark and rarely seen by those who did not have the pleasure of living in his home or being related to him. 

This experience is not unique to me. I have bonded with others, queer and not, who have family members and, subsequently, stories like the one I share here.

I have also had people who do not know our dynamic’s intricacies, even superficially, who were confused or upset by my feelings. They couldn’t understand why I was not interested in having a funeral for my father or in writing his obituary. They didn’t know why I would not want to be consoled or take time to reminisce about his life. 

Others who have estranged family members may also resonate with this feeling.

Lesson three, mourning that which never was, is normal and also stinks.

“Hello, Dr. Graves? It’s happened. Today at 5:55 PM.”

After being at the hospital for thirteen hours the past three days, I was exhausted. The call came as I sat in the bathtub attempting to decompress from the long car rides, hours without eating, and the constant stress of waiting for the inevitable. 

With my head on my arms, I curled into a ball and cried. I wept. The music playing in the background contrasted starkly with the scene unfolding before it—some happy song overlaid with my tears. 

One part relief that his suffering was now over and one part sorrow. 

Those sorrowful tears were filled with broken promises, forgotten birthdays, missed graduations, lost opportunities, childhood card games, listening to Michael Jackson together in the living room over convenient store fried chicken, and “I love yous” that always felt real but also superficial.

My father had four children, all boys. I was the youngest and the only one my father attempted to raise. He was 55 when I was born, and that was the first attempt he had at trying to love and raise a child. He didn’t know what to do with me, let alone how to love me. 

I say this not as an excuse for his cluelessness but perhaps as an explanation. I ultimately ended up parenting him, a form of trauma called parentification, which I had to unlearn and make peace with towards the end of his life. 

Those tears were for all the things that I never had. Mourning and grieving for someone or something you’ve never had is a strange sensation. It can feel confusing because the thing you lost never existed. It was a dream, but now, that dream is dead too. It can never be regained. 

I had much to process about my father’s passing. But, for me, the loss of the dream was more devastating than the loss of the actual man. 

I believe many people experience a loss like this at different stages of their lives, but I cannot say that we are often given permission (even by ourselves) to grieve that loss in the same way fully. Doing just that is as important and real as any other loss. 

“Maybe I should call him.”

The year-long journey has brought me here. Some moments pass, like Thanksgiving, when I look at my phone and question if I should check on my “old man.” Or, when I travel somewhere far away, to give him a call and let him know I’m alright. 

I’m told those sensations stay with you for a long time. 

These were hard-learned lessons for me through months of therapy and reflection. I hope they are helpful to you or a loved one in their time of need. 🔥

About Author

Dr. Kei Graves brings ten years of experience working in various educational environments with adult learners, young adults, and teens, ranging from higher education, non-profits, and community services. His educational background includes a Master’s of Humanities with concentrations in visual art and media, a Doctorate of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies, a concentration in education and emphasis on social justice, and certificates in coaching, educational leadership, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in workplaces.

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