Queering grief means showing up in all our messy glory

Let's collectively imagine how we might build a world where we all feel abundantly supported when we’re grieving

I once bought a grieving friend a cake with “I’m sorry your mom died” written on the top, each word spelled out in icing in the baker’s careful cursive lettering. I’d never ordered a death-themed cake from the local bakery before, but this particular moment called for one. “I wish someone would buy me a cake,” my friend told me while recounting all she’d been doing since her mother’s death to settle her affairs, care for other family members and grieve the loss of a parent with whom she’d had a complicated relationship. “You deserve a cake when your mom dies!,” I replied emphatically, remembering how I felt when my own mom died several years earlier. While some people might prefer a sympathy card, cake was a fitting choice for my friend, who was known in our local queer community for hosting an annual cake-themed party. Two mutual friends and I presented her with the “I’m sorry your mom died” cake at a small dinner we hosted in her honour. There, we shared stories and cried together, feasting on fried chicken and cake as we co-created a space where grief was welcome and held with care.

“There are a million ways to grieve, as many ways as there are people,” says Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, a Providence, Rhode Island-based disability justice educator and organizer. I agree with Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, yet we’re often bombarded with implicit and explicit messages telling us there’s a “right” way to grieve. These messages convey the idea that grief happens in discrete, linear stages—a common misinterpretation of the five stages of grief Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first wrote about in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Certain ways of expressing our grief are deemed socially acceptable, while others are pathologized or punished. Even who or what the wider society allows us to grieve is subject to restrictions and judgments—just ask any LGBTQ2S+ person who’s tried to get bereavement leave when a member of our chosen family dies. When we’re grieving, we’re often pressured to “get over” our grief and “return to normal,” an impossibility when we’ve been transformed by loss. 

I sometimes wonder if the urge to slot grief into a series of discrete, predictable steps is driven by a desire to control something powerful that moves with its own force and energy. Yet, like queerness itself, grief resists our attempts to restrict or control it. Queering grief is an opportunity to resist and transform dominant narratives about grief and collectively imagine how we might build a world where we feel abundantly supported when we’re grieving. Instead of being told to get over it or that our grief isn’t valid, we’d have the time, space, resources and permission we need to let our grief unfurl into its fullest expressions, for as long as we need. 

 

Like queerness itself, grief takes myriad forms. In a blog post on taking a more inclusive approach to grief and loss, Ontario-based grief educators Michelle Williams and Rachelle Bensoussan define grief as an “involuntary response to loss,” one that happens in our bodies and affects us on “all levels of our being and personhood—physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, sexually and existentially.” Queering grief asks us to honour the many ways grief might show up in our lives, recognize forms of loss that often go unacknowledged and show up for each other in all our messy glory. It’s an invitation to create or reclaim mourning practices that enable us to be collectively held in our grief and to conceptualize grief as a force of transformative social change.

“If we’re thinking about how we’re going to queer grief, we also have to ask what powers are working against us that make it so we can’t hold space for our grief.”

To Kayla Carter, the Toronto-based co-founder of BIPOC Death & Grief Talk, a queer-led collective care group that supports BIPOC folks through grief and loss, creating the conditions where all people are fully supported in their grief is a form of world-building, one rooted in decolonization, abolition, disability justice and anti-capitalism. “If we’re thinking about how we’re going to queer grief,” Carter says, “We also have to ask what powers are working against us that make it so we can’t hold space for our grief.” Carter’s co-founder, Carmen Galvan, is critical of a dominant society mired in toxic positivity in which there often seems to be an urge to problem-solve others’ grief—and our own. “Grief takes patience, understanding and empathy, and it doesn’t necessarily have an end date,” Galvan says. 

“We’re very quick to jump to thinking that we know how much grief somebody else should feel about something,” Galvan adds, a tendency she connects with being conditioned to constantly police our and others’ feelings. Researcher Dr. Tashel Bordere, who studies grief and loss among Black youth, developed the concept of suffocated grief as a way of describing how some people and communities’ grief reactions are dismissed, negatively labelled and punished. Galvan points to how people experiencing systemic oppression—BIPOC, Mad, disabled, LGBTQ2S+ and unhoused communities, for example—are often pathologized and criminalized in their grief. This includes involuntary hospitalization and forced treatment in psychiatric facilities, incarceration in jails and prisons and being subjected to violence at the hands of law enforcement. Queering grief demands resistance to the pathologization or criminalization of grief. It asks us to abolish the cop in our heads.

Queering grief also requires a more expansive understanding of who or what we might grieve. Connor Sarazin, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, and who is part of the Indigenous Death Doula Collective, points to how settler colonialism limits our grief, which shapes people’s mindsets and institutional policies. “Who does your employer or the insurance company deem as legitimate?” Sarazin asks. “Is this person classed as family?” By contrast, Sarazin says, Indigenous cultures have a much more expansive conceptualization of family, kinship and relations and thus whom we might grieve or mourn. Losing a cherished four-legged being like a horse could have a significant impact on someone in an everyday relationship with this animal, while a whole community might grieve the loss of a sacred medicine. “If fire ripped through and completely wiped out all of the sweetgrass that your community has harvested for generations,” Sarazin says, “that’s a huge, huge loss.” Yet dominant society and its institutions seem incapable of more expansive conceptualizations of grief that reflect the diversity of our relationships, including those we might have with the lands and beings around us.

The losses LGBTQ2S+ people experience take many forms: We lose friends, lovers and relations to death or estrangement; we shift and shed identities; we leave places we used to call home, never to return. While these experiences of loss and the grief that accompanies them are common across many communities, they may carry added intensity for LGBTQ2S+ people whose survival and flourishing are often dependent on asserting our identities and forming relationships and chosen families in defiance of social norms. Yet our grief might not always be recognized or validated, an experience sometimes called “disenfranchised grief.” In a blog post on disenfranchised grief for the website What’s Your Grief, social worker and grief educator Litsa Williams explains that our grief becomes disenfranchised when we “don’t have societal validation of our loss and subsequent grieving process. Society says you shouldn’t be grieving, or shouldn’t be grieving so much.” We sometimes internalize this thinking, Williams explains, leading us to deny or invalidate our own grief.

Inside the Queering Death series…

1. Xtra senior editor, politics, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk interviews series writer Zena Sharman on the scope of the series, introducing readers to the topic and upcoming themes 
2. We live queer lives, and thus should die queer deaths. Find out what exactly this means, and about some of the people who have already done so. 
3. End-of-life planning doesn’t have to be the beige and bureaucratic; it can be “wonderfully queer,” and we explain how. 
4. The death care industry wasn’t created for us, our families or our relationships—but we can take matters into our own hands and away from these institutions.
5. It might sound taboo, but it is possible to bring pleasure and eroticism into the end stages of life. And why not increase queer joy whenever we can? 
6. Dominant narratives of grief don’t suit our realities, so let’s turn them on their heads and figure out what grief looks like from an LGBTQ2S+ perspective.

There are many situations in which LGBTQ2S+ people might experience disenfranchised grief: we might lose a loved one to stigmatized causes of death like suicide or overdose, or because we aren’t recognized as a “legitimate” griever. For example, we might lose a friend who’s like family to us, a partner or metamour in a poly relationship where we’re not recognized as a spouse or primary partner, or a significant romantic, sexual or play partner whom we need to keep quiet about because we aren’t out to most people in our life. In these and other circumstances, our families of origin, friends and neighbours, workplaces, schools and the wider society might not acknowledge the magnitude of our loss or validate our grief, either symbolically or practically through things like bereavement leave.

In the face of these challenges, it can be a powerful act of resistance and care for LGBTQ2S+ people to validate each other’s grief and offer non-judgmental emotional and practical support to people when they’re grieving. Informed by their experiences as a disabled and neurodivergent person who’s a survivor of the medical and psychiatric system, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu points to the importance of not pathologizing grief or dictating what “healthy” and “unhealthy” grieving look like. They underscore the necessity of showing up for each other. In disabled communities, we “don’t forget the moment after the big impact has passed.” They add, “Most people have the capacity to show up and respond for only a very short period of time,” like in the immediate aftermath of a death, an injury or a life-altering diagnosis. Being part of disabled communities has taught Kaufman-Mthimkhulu about the importance of “continuing to show up in the most regular of situations, whether or not we directly talk about the loss or the death.” This might look like text check-ins, recognizing death anniversaries or other significant dates, quietly drinking tea together, or helping with everyday tasks like meals. Whatever forms it might take, showing up for each other in the weeks, months and years after a death helps strengthen relationships and deepens our capacity for interdependence.

The grief support skills Kaufman-Mthimkhulu describes are examples of the “disabled grief technologies” author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes in their 2022 book The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs. There, Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about practices like applying learnings from living with chronic illness to grief and collectively stewarding grief in community. When I ask Pasadena, California-based transition doula Tasha Fierce, who supports clients through a range of transitions including end of life, about the disabled grief technologies they draw on as a Mad, neurodivergent, sick and disabled person, they point to the importance of accepting that “sometimes it never gets better. Sometimes, it just gets worse.” Fierce accepts impermanence and non-linearity as foundational aspects of our lives; to them, grieving calls on us to just move with the moment and do what it calls us to do. We need to “honour the mess as it is” when we’re grieving. “You’re fucked up, it’s okay. You can be messy as fuck and still be worthy of love from yourself and others,” Fierce says. They encourage us to learn from disability justice by “moving slowly and moving at the pace of what is needed in our bodies.”

How we grieve can also be an act of resistance and a force for change. Sarazin points to the significance of cultural reclamation in his work with the Indigenous Death Doula Collective, where he holds ceremony with younger Indigenous community members who are grieving. “With the young people who are looking for these teachings and bringing them back to the community, it all comes back to reclaiming the culture and reclaiming who we are, the practices that, pre-colonialism, were just part of the day-to-day,” he says. To Sarazin, who says his Two-Spirit identity is integral to his work as a death doula, as is a lifetime of experiences with grief, loss and proximity to death, mourning collectively through ceremony is an act of Indigenous resistance and cultural reclamation in a context where, for decades, the Canadian government deemed many Indigenous ceremonies and cultural practices illegal as part of its white supremacist settler colonial project. “Taking back death is taking back who we are and embracing it,” says Sarazin.

Oakland, California-based author and media justice activist Malkia Devich-Cyril, who writes powerfully about loss and the place of grief in social movements, tells me they believe that “grief is inherently transformative.” We can direct this power toward what Devich-Cyril calls “a more revolutionary transformation or a more reactionary transformation.” As we continue living through a pandemic that has caused almost seven million deaths worldwide—with BIPOC, disabled, poor and incarcerated people bearing a disproportionate burden of these deaths—Devich-Cyril asks what we as “activists and as people who care about the planet, justice, rights and transformation will do with this moment of profound loss of life and shared grief.” They see opportunities to “engage in new public narratives, repair bonds that neoliberalism has broken, make reparations and create new forms of belonging” by collectivizing and democratizing grief. Devich-Cyril calls on social movements to “defend our right to grieve” and to “engage grief practices as a conscious part” of our activism and organizing for change.

“Like LGBTQ2S+ people ourselves, our grief is powerful and sacred.”

I notice conscious engagement with grief practices in the politicized work of groups like Marked By COVID, a U.S.-based non-profit led by two queer women intent on mobilizing a national movement for pandemic justice and remembrance whose work includes vigils and memorials as well as organizing for pandemic accountability and justice. In Canada, the queer-organized Wish You Were Here, Wish Here Was Better project created a mobile public memorial for people impacted by the ongoing overdose crisis and its cascading systemic issues of precarity, houselessness and criminalization. In April 2023, they released a free publication called Organizing Our Grief: A Collaboration in Response to the Overdose Crisis, a collection of strategies, reflections and organizing principles gleaned from their work. There’s the work of activists like Liz Kessler, who created a crowdsourced database of disabled Canadians who have been killed by the Canadian state through the ableist expansion of medical assistance in dying (MAID). I’m also reminded of historical examples of politicized mourning like the visionary organizing and activism of groups like ACT UP. During the AIDS crisis, they protested genocidal government policies by organizing protests like the Ashes Action, a political funeral held in 1992 in Washington, D.C. There, mourners marched, chanting and drumming through the city streets, fending off police on horseback to throw the ashes of loved ones they’d lost to AIDS on the White House lawn.

Like LGBTQ2S+ people ourselves, our grief is powerful and sacred. I dream of a world where we feel equipped to take hold of its transformative potential, directing it to more revolutionary ends. I dream of a world where we all feel supported to embrace grief’s wild unruliness and myriad expressions and where no one asks us to deny it or box it in. When I think back to my own experiences of grief and mourning, I remember what—and who—got me through it: other queer people, who brought me food, sat with me as I cried, did mourning rituals with me and helped me reinhabit my grieving body in ways that centred healing, pleasure and aliveness. While at times I may have felt alone or isolated in my grief, I grieved in community, held with care by other queer people.

Zena Sharman is a writer, speaker, strategist, LGBTQ+ health advocate and death doula. She's the author of three books, including The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021) and the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).

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