Coming Out of a Different Kind of Closet

I’m usually quite comfortable talking about my life-partner Kate. But sometimes, especially when I meet new people, I find myself hoping the conversation doesn’t bring me to mention her name. My hesitation doesn’t come because she’s a woman. My hesitation comes because . . . she’s dead.

Even if I share this news in a softer way, people are often caught off-guard, which isn’t my intention. Whether I’m coming out as a lesbian, or coming out as someone who experienced the death of a soul mate, my intention is to be honest about my life.

Similar to my experience of coming out in the 1990s, talking about death means anticipating people’s potential discomfort. Sometimes people don’t know what to say or do. Or I can feel their pity and the assumptions they make about what it’s been like for me. This often shifts the energy of the conversation.

I don’t want to feel awkward about withholding a significant part of my life. And I don’t want to make other people feel awkward either. Rather than being self-conscious when I speak about Kate, I do my best to be conscious and real.

Deciding what to share with others

It’s amazing how quickly a conversation with someone I’ve just met can turn into a choice point about coming out of this other cultural closet.

An example goes something like this:

New person asks a question, such as: How did you end up in Mt. Shasta?

I reply with a variation of these options, such as:

  1. My life-partner Kate and I were traveling and fell in love with the area.
  2. I was traveling and fell in love with the area.
  3. Oh, just lucky, I guess!

If I mention a life-partner (option #1), I have to decide what to say when they ask about her. I don’t say “former” partner when I answer the question because Kate isn’t an “ex.” I don’t say “I was traveling with my-partner-Kate-who-died-a-couple-of-years-ago” because that seems weird and excessive. Of course, people may assume she’s still physically alive.

I’m not trying to hide that she’s no longer here in a body, just like I don’t want to hide that she’s a woman. So I talk in general terms until it feels like time to say the “D” word.

Similar to avoiding the use of pronouns in the days when few people talked about same-sex relationships, I sometimes avoid using the past or present tense. Saying Kate “was” implies that she and I are no longer lovers. To me, this doesn’t honor our partnership. Saying Kate “is” implies that she’s still my physical partner, that we still live in the same house and travel together. I don’t want to mislead people, nor do I want to wait too long for the “she died” punch line. It can be tricky.

If I respond to the question saying “I” did something when Kate was actually with me at the time (option #2), I feel like I’m erasing her from my life. I used to use this avoidance technique on my grandfather, who didn’t approve of same-sex partnerships. I’d say “I” went to the coast of Maine, or “I” refinished an antique dresser to avoid referring to my female sweetheart. It didn’t feel good then, and it doesn’t feel good now. And yet, saying “we” requires further explanation of who I’m talking about.

If I offer a quick answer (option #3) to any such question, I can skip the death conversation altogether. Sometimes “coming out” feels like work, and I choose to bypass it.

Creating a culture that’s open

Years ago, the unspoken understanding was to keep sexual orientation quiet so people wouldn’t have to come face-to-face with something out of their comfort zone. Then “don’t ask, don’t tell” became an actual US policy, and reinforced the message to not talk about being gay. I find this social habit can apply to deceased loved ones: people generally choose not to ask about them and we tend not to tell many details so that no one squirms.

To me, this silent cultural agreement to not talk about death occurs every day – in hospitals, care facilities, and families’ living rooms – even when the likelihood that someone will die exists. It’s as if talking about death, or the possibility of death, might jinx someone’s life.

Perhaps the unspoken fear is that Death will recruit us or our loved ones if we speak about it?

Of course, the idea that death is on a mission to recruit is as flawed as beliefs that gay people recruit. We are all already somewhere on the Death Continuum by simply being born.

The more we as a culture “ask and tell,” the more the closets we are now coming out of will disappear. For me, it’s more awkward to reveal that Kate is no longer in the physical than it is for people to know I’m a lesbian. I find this a testimony that social transformation happens.

By speaking up and coming out as gay, bisexual, bi-curious, transgendered, queer, questioning and so forth, people have shifted the collective conversation about sexual orientation. We have created more awareness and less judgment. In most situations, I feel comfortable sharing this part of myself freely. By being open, we validate our life experiences and acknowledge the common human family we all belong to.

My hope is that talking about death is accepted and normalized too, to the point where we forget it was once taboo territory. As we become less self-conscious speaking about deceased loved ones, cultural consciousness will follow. There is a wide range of us who have experienced the death of someone dear to us: parents, children, siblings, lovers, best friends. Our percentages are larger than we may imagine, which is why “coming out” is significant.

Coming out connects us.

Coming out reminds us we are not alone.

Coming out celebrates our relationships.

Coming out increases our acceptance of death.

Together, we can create a culture that talks openly, shamelessly, comfortably and unapologetically about death and people we love who have died. No matter how they died, when they died, or at which age. The more we have these conversations in casual and balanced ways, the more fully and freely we can live our lives.

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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5 thoughts on “Coming Out of a Different Kind of Closet

  1. Great post, Jen. I, too, have to decide how much I talk about my lover who died, and how much I leave him out of conversations…more because I’m getting used to the idea of “moving on” with my life – but not leaving him behind. Pete is with me, loving me and being loved by me. We are not bodies – we are souls. The more we talk about life and death, the more conscious of Reality we become. Thank you for leading the conversation with your wisdom!

  2. My David has been gone for 28 years now and I have gotten used to talking about him in the past tense. Sometimes I will refer to “my deceased husband” when I bring him up – but not usually. I will say something like “David would have done so and so…” and people ask where he is or are you divorced. I just say “Nope. He died.” and keep right on with the conversation. They always say “Oh I’m sorry” as if they committed some social blunder. Sometimes they ask “How” and I just say “lung cancer, not a pretty way to go” and that stops the conversation.

    We are not comfortable with death in our society.

  3. What, we don’t recruit? How do you think I got that toaster oven? Okay all joking aside, I love this topic and never actually thought about it in the way you have presented it. I didn’t realize you were dealing with this issue and I appreciate hearing about it. I think the more we all say “the unspeakable” the more comfortable we all get over time. Thanks for the discussion!

  4. Hi Jen

    What a truly beautifully thoughtful piece. I love the tenderness and the Truth in it and how close you mindfully hold all of it to your heart.

    Thank you for writing! Your words enrich my life.

  5. Hi Jen! As always your post is thought-provoking. I love the comparison to coming out as GLBT… it makes a ton of sense and expands the possibility of awareness, compassion and empathy. Thank you, my friend. xoxox