Someone I Love is Gay: How Family and Friends Can Respond
Chris MacKenzie can vividly recall the day, 16 years ago, when she found out about her oldest son's homosexual involvement.
As a young adult, Damon had moved from the family home in Illinois to Florida. "Damon and I had always been close," this single mom says, "so it was difficult to see him go, but I knew he had to live his own life."
Several months later, Chris received a long letter from him. Damon shared some exciting news: "I found someone that I care deeply about and I'm in a relationship that is completely fulfilling."
As Chris read further, however, her stomach lurched and she could hardly swallow. Damon confessed that this 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.
Chris 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."
Whether the confession comes from a son or daughter, spouse or close friend, the admission of homosexuality hits like a bombshell, especially in the Christian home.
"Finding out about a gay child is agony," says Barbara Johnson, whose story of discovering her own son's involvement in homosexuality is told in her book, Where Does A Mother Go to Resign? (Bethany House; available at our online bookstore; see "Resources" on this website). "It's almost like having a death in the family. But, when someone dies, you can bury that person and move on with your life. With homosexuality, the pain seems never-ending."
Barbara is speaking from firsthand experience. In 1968, her 18-year-old son joined the Marines and was killed in Vietnam. Exactly five years later, another son died in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Barbara managed to move through these crises with her emotional health intact.
Then, on a hot June day in 1975, Barbara was on her way out the door when the phone rang. A friend of her 20-year-old son, Larry, wanted to borrow a book and Barbara went into his bedroom to find it.
Opening a desk drawer, she spotted the book and pulled it out. Hidden underneath was a stack of homosexual magazines. A wave of nausea swept over her. She managed to conclude the call, then hung up the phone in a daze of emotions.
She returned to Larry's room and fingered through the ads for gay films and other materials. Some of the material was in envelopes, all addressed to her son at a post office box in a nearby town. As the impact of the discovery hit her, Barbara was overwhelmed with a tidal wave of emotions.
"I threw myself down on the bed and a terrible roaring sob burst from me," she recalls in her autobiography. "I was alone in the house, and for several terrifying minutes sobs from fear, shock and disbelief shook me. Flashing in my mind was this wonderful son who was so bubbly and happy--such a joy to have around. Thinking of him entwined with some other male brought heaves of heavy sobbing from deep wounds of agony."
The Grief Cycle
Grief--often overwhelming and crippling--is the most common emotional reaction to the discovery of a close one's homosexuality. This grief cycle has been described in many different ways.
One representation of the grief cycle has four phases: shock, protest, disorganization, reorganization. Although some people move from one phase to the next in sequence, life is rarely that simple. It's not unusual to move back to a previous phase for a time. And it is extremely common to go through some phases more than once.
Let's take a few minutes to examine these phases of the grief cycle in more depth, in order to better understand where our emotions fit in the cycle and to learn how others have experienced it.
Loss: The "Trigger" to Grief
Grief is triggered when people experience a major loss in their lives. It's easy to understand this phenomenon when a dear friend or family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness or is accidentally killed. But why does learning of a loved one's homosexuality trigger such deep feelings of loss? There are numerous possibilities, some of which include: * Loss of security. Even though your friend or relative has probably been aware of homosexual feelings for years, this is a new revelation to you. Suddenly, you feel like you are talking to a stranger, as this unfamiliar aspect of their personality is revealed. The sense of betrayal can be devastating.
* Loss of control. Suddenly life seems totally out of control. Events are pushing you in a direction you never thought you would be going. "If he was seeing another woman," one wife said, "I could fight it. But with this situation, I felt helpless--and totally lost."
* Loss of future dreams. Before this discovery, the future may have seemed so bright and certain. Now you wonder what will happen to your family, your marriage, your children, your friends.
* Loss of reputation. This can be a major issue, depending on your perceived "status" in the community or your local church. For example, if you are a pastor, you may feel insecure about your future employment opportunities
* Loss of relationship. Perhaps this is the core loss of all. The deeper the bonding between you and this other person, the deeper your hurt upon discovering their homosexuality. You know that this relationship has changed forever.
Whatever the exact losses you have experienced, the net result is the same: you are thrown into the initial stages of the grief cycle.
Initial Stage: Shock
For many people, the discovery of a loved one's homosexuality is the emotional equivalent of being hit over the head with a baseball bat. Nothing was ever the same for me (Anita) after my son, Tony, admitted he was sexually involved with another man. Much of my self-worth rested on the great job I had done in raising him as a single mother. Suddenly I was deeply ashamed of this son who had made me so proud the previous day. What would people think of Tony if they knew? I wondered. And what would they think of me? My son and I had been so close. How could he do this to me?
Many spouses react with similar deep emotions. One wife said she felt like a fragile heirloom vase which had been dropped. "I shattered into a million pieces inside."
Other symptoms of shock include--
* Numbness. Some people react by going into a state of frozen emotions. They become like a robot, putting one foot in front of the other, going through the motions like a zombie.
* Physical symptoms. All kinds of stress-related symptoms may begin appearing: nausea, migraines, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and disinterest in marital intimacy.
"When I found out, I was so nauseated that I threw up for three days," recalled one mother. "Every time I tried to be intimate with my husband, I couldn't stop thinking about what my son might be doing with his partner. The images in my mind were so awful that I couldn't function in my own marriage."
Often stress brings an inability to sleep, which can be detrimental to your health. Your days are filled with anxiety and nights bring complete exhaustion. If you sleep at all, you have disturbing dreams.
The main thing to remember is that all these emotional and physical symptoms are typical for this type of stressful situation. You are not going crazy! And these symptoms will diminish over time. You are normal, even healthy. It's much worse when all the emotions are "stuffed" inside, where they fester and remain unresolved.
Some family members, especially men, react by denying that any problem even exists. This can be caused by ignorance of homosexuality, or it can be a symptom of hoping for the best in a bad situation. When one wife confided to her husband about their son's homosexual activities, he retorted, "It's just a phase he's going through, honey. Don't worry so much. You always get so worked up about things!" With that pronouncement, he turned his attention back to the football game on television.
Denial is a form of instinctive protection, a way of coping with something too distressing to acknowledge. Sometimes it is a regular behavior pattern in a person's life.
Homosexuality or lesbianism is usually deep-rooted and persistent without outside intervention. Hoping that this issue will somehow resolve itself is unrealistic.
Second Stage: Protest
As the shock symptoms begin to diminish, new and powerful emotions can arise:
* Grief. There is an outpouring of sorrow, with endless tears which seem to last forever. "I'd sit at my desk at work, hoping no one would see the tears trickling down my face," recalls one mother. "I felt if I ever let go and really wept, I'd never be able to stop." Other people find themselves crying at odd times, their emotions triggered by associations only they understand. A certain color of car, a particular city park, or a specific restaurant may trigger important memories of the past, prompting a flood of tears.
* Anger. It's normal to feel deep anger and even rage over this situation. How dare my son do this to me? How could my daughter throw away her Christian upbringing like this? Doesn't my husband care about how I feel? All my friend thinks about are her emotional needs--how selfish!
Sometimes our anger will be directed at God. We have had certain expectations of how our life would turn out, and homosexuality was certainly not in the script. We may have taught our child the Scriptures almost from birth. Doesn't God promise to protect the children of the godly? Or we have discovered that our husband has unresolved homosexual attractions dating back prior to marriage. Now we feel deeply betrayed by God. We wonder, If God knows everything, why did He let me marry this man?
* Panic. Some people are scared to death of others' reactions. Immediately they begin plotting how to keep this news a deep secret. They worry about the possible health consequences of immorality, especially the terrifying prospect of AIDS. They wonder if their daughter will end up on the ten o'clock news, spouting pro-gay rhetoric during a march for lesbian rights. Suddenly it may seem like homosexuality is everywhere
* Searching. Many loved ones begin searching for a solution by contacting local pastors and Christian counseling centers. Parents can be very demanding because they are feeling out of control. They are desperate to save their child from harm. The quicker the solution, the better! They become fixated on this one problem and can think about nothing else. Their focus becomes centered around finding a solution to this overwhelming problem that has derailed their family life.
Stage Three: Disorganization
During this stage of the grief process, days, weeks and even months can pass in our lives. The immediate shock is gone and the emotional outbursts have eased off. Now it's almost as if our whole emotional being goes into hibernation, and we are on "hold," fixated on this one issue. The inner pain seems never-ending and too deep for words.
Externally, things may fall apart. Why does it matter if my house is a wreck? a mother will wonder. My son is gay! Often the outward activities of life which previously brought such joy seem totally irrelevant, even frivolous. Nothing seems important anymore.
* Yearning. We experience a deep emotional longing for "the way things used to be." In reality, our family relationships may not have been good but they seemed good at the time--or, at least, better than now. I can remember thinking, If only we had not moved to the town where that counselor came into Tony's life... But later I was able to see the truth: That counselor did not turn my son into a homosexual. Tony had problems in his life long before that day. This realization enabled me to take my sorrow to God and let him heal it. Gradually I began to look forward again, rather than spending all my time longing for the "good old days." Facing the truth about the past gave me the courage to move on.
* Isolation. Knowing of our loved one's homosexuality can put us into an extremely awkward situation. "How is your son doing these days?" is such a natural question. What should we say? That he's "fine"? That he's "busy with his new career"? Some parents conclude that the awkward questions are avoided most easily by staying away from the people--such as friends at church--who have a tendency to ask them.
* Loss of interest in life. It's common to lose interest in the other events of daily life upon finding out about someone's homosexuality.
"I obsessed on that one issue," said Jane, whose boyfriend told her about his struggles after she pressed him for a deeper commitment in their dating relationship. "I couldn't think about anything else when I thought of John."
As we focus on this one issue, we may stop doing other things that could actually help us move through the pain. Our obsession with our loved one cuts us off from other meaningful relationships. Others are depending on us, particularly if we are married with a family, but we become incapable of meeting their needs. Unfortunately, others become a sacrifice on the altar of our wayward child.
* Resist returning to normal. In this phase of grief, we may resist resuming normal activities. How can we move on with life? Should we accept the fact that things will never be quite the same again? Does that mean we are giving up hope? "How can God expect me to go on," one mother asked, "just living as though nothing had happened? How can I return to normal? Nothing will ever be normal again!"
If we get stuck in this stage of pain and immobility, we become like the demanding child who holds his breath, trying to force his parents to yield to his demands. Our attitude says, "God, I want You to fix this problem--right now! And I'm not going to budge until You do!" God is vitally concerned about your loved one's struggles--and your own pain as a result--but experience has taught all of us working in this field of ministry that circumstances rarely change as fast as we'd like. God does not "fix" this problem according to our timetable.
Unfortunately, a child's decision to seek help rarely comes quickly. Long-term change comes as the result of a deep commitment, which takes time to develop. And the primary motivation must come from that person--not from a loved one. Most ex-gay ministries will refuse to contact your loved one directly, especially if he or she is not interested in help. Over the years, we have found that such an approach is virtually useless, and occasionally brings us an angry threat of a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.
Stage Four: Reorganization
Eventually, like a deep wound that heals, our feelings of being emotionally raw begin to disappear. Like a bear coming out of hibernation, we feel alive again in ways that have been absent for months. The scattered pieces of our life begin to fall into place again. We have passed into the phase that we call "reorganization." What are some characteristics of this stage?
* Decrease of deep sadness. One day we wake up and recognize that the internal weight of grief has decreased. Perhaps we will realize one afternoon that it has been several hours since we have thought about our loved one's situation.
"I can remember having several hours, then several days, go by without this huge wave of sorrow sweeping over my life," one mother recalled. "Soon my joy began to return. I was so excited. The air seemed fresher, the sunshine brighter and I even recaptured my sense of humor. I felt alive again!"
* Finding hope again. Another sign of healing is the presence of hope. We no longer dread the future; we sense that good things can still be ahead. When we are weak and afraid, we can be honest with God. He says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that His power shows up best in weak people. That is wonderful to know!
Another verse that encourages me is Psalm 31:24: "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord." This passage reminds me that my hope is not dependent on the shifting circumstances around me, but on something unchangeable: the character of God and His love toward me. I can draw inner peace and strength from remembering that perspective.
* New spiritual growth. As we move through grieving, we have an opportunity to stretch our spiritual muscles. They may be flabby but we can exercise our faith daily. We can choose to walk one day at a time, not looking ahead into the future. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34). We do not have the grace to bear the burdens of tomorrow; the load we are carrying today is all we can handle right now.
As we emerge from grief, we may be surprised with a sense of new inner strength. Just as a tree endures through a hard and bitter winter season, then emerges with new vigor and growth, this situation gives us the opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually.
We have had to trust God in a whole new way because we have come face-to-face with a problem that we cannot fix ourselves. Since finding out about my son, I have turned to God in deep sorrow, great fear and intense frustration. Often He gives me just the comfort and direction that I have needed for the situation. Then I can trust Him even more the next time a problem arises.
One morning I was praying about a situation that filled me with grief. Then, in my Bible reading, I came across John 16:33 where Jesus is speaking to His disciples. He tells them, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." These words encouraged me. Troubles will come, Jesus said, but He can give us peace in the midst of trying circumstances. When we learn how to put that principle into practice, we grow spiritually as a result.
* Facing reality. We acknowledge that things will never be quite the same again. Life has changed forever. We will never view our loved one with the same eyes of innocence again. Although this fact is painful, we must accept it and grapple with its implications.
As we gain a new spiritual awareness, we are able to face the future as it really is. Our loved one may not come "back into the fold," at least as soon as we'd like. But we can go on with our life, even while knowing that our loved one is making wrong choices. Usually by this time, we have tried everything humanly possible to get them straightened out! We are left with no other choice but to release our circumstances to God. Eventually we can use what God has shown us to reach out to others who are hurting. We begin to find some good in a bad situation (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
God says that only through our weakness will we know His strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). That's a truth that Barbara Johnson has learned. After finding the gay magazines in her son's room, she confronted him--and 20-year-old Larry disowned his family and disappeared into a homosexual lifestyle. After almost a year of deep depression, Barbara had a breakthrough. "Whether Larry kills himself," she told God, "or if I never see him again--whatever, Lord--he is yours." She had said it many times before, but this time she felt relief from the crushing grief. "My teeth stopped itching and the elephant got off my chest for the first time in almost a year."
After another decade of silence punctuated by periodic contact, Barbara's son visited her in May 1986. "I want you to forgive me for the eleven years of pain I've caused you," he said with tears in his eyes. "I've rededicated my life to the Lord. I'm released from that bondage and I can stand clean before the Lord." Today, his mother travels widely, encouraging other parents through her speaking engagements and bestselling books.
Barbara says that, because of Christ's death for us all, there is always hope--no matter what our life's circumstances. "God can take your trouble and change it into treasure. He offers you an exchange. It's your sins for His forgiveness, your tragedy and hurt for His healing, and your sorrow for His joy."
Copyright © 1996 Anita Worthen and Bob Davies. Excerpted from the book Someone I Love is Gay by Anita Worthen and Bob Davies, IVPress. You can buy this book on-line. Click on the link below.