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Lesbian And Gay Issues At End Of Life
A little thing like death isn't enough to end the discrimination lesbians and gay men face. In fact, discrimination often increases at end of life when loved ones are most vulnerable. Sometimes this is due to hatred, but more often it due to heterosexual friends and relatives simply not realizing the special issues that are involved. Even caring friends sometimes just don't know what to say to help a lesbian or gay man work through grief.
The presumption that everyone is heterosexual is annoying at best. But when life and death issues are at stake, homophobia and invisibility can add tragic complications to life's culminating moment.
As Arthur Schopenhauer said, "The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped." It is sad that many loved ones and family members only learn that someone was lesbian or gay when there is little time left to amend past distances.
Lesbian and gay families with children may need to work on helping children grieve. Children in alternative families may face special grief issues when someone in their alternative or extended family faces terminal illness or dies. Please see our page for lesbian and gay families. Gay teenagers struggling with social hostility and isolation may turn to suicide as a solution to their pain.
The lesbian and gay community has been hit hard by AIDS, leaving many with unremitting grief due to multiple loss. Sustained, repeated loss due to death is a common part of eldercare, but is unusual among younger people outside of wartime. Some grief programs now include multiple loss programs and AIDS grief support specifically designed for those who are hammered again and again to the point where they may have lost count of friends who are gone.
Survivors of AIDS loss may also experience social stigmatization, shame, and disenfranchised grief. Support groups have emerged to help heterosexual family members heal from AIDS grief. Survivors struggling with disenfranchised grief may wish to read the book "Recovering From the Loss of a Loved One to AIDS".
It's essential that lesbians and gay men understand their legal rights and take assertive steps to enforce them. Courtesies and decisionmaking authority that would be automatic in heterosexual relationships may be actively denied when a lesbian or gay relationship is involved. Life partners may be denied access to one another at the deathbed unless they have made advance directives expressing their wishes, with appropriate power of attorney relationships expressed in writing and kept on file with all health care providers. Please review our links for empowered health care and death with dignity. In hospital settings insist that the power of attorney form granting you access be placed on file at the nursing station as well as the central office, and insist that each physician who provides care has read and agrees to your expressed written preferences. Do not accept any resistance to these directives, and don't hesitate to involve an attorney immediately if there is any question about your legal rights. It's better to cement your position before the crisis rather than allow yourself to be victimized when there is no time to react.
After death occurs, discrimination still may continue if funeral homes refuse to respect the reality of gay relationships. For consumer information and a special article on lesbian and gay issues when death occurs, see our page for funeral and memorial planning.
Early in the AIDS epidemic some funeral homes refused to handle AIDS cases. Today, open refusal will result in a lawsuit. Post-death AIDS discrimination can be particularly severe in some countries with very traditional cultures. We know of one astonishing case where a Mexican cemetery would not inter the cremated remains of a gay man who died of AIDS.
Planning a memorial service presents special challenges if there is great tension between the needs of heterosexual family members and lesbian and gay loved ones. Sometimes the simplest solution is to arrange two or more memorial services, each meeting the needs of divergent groups. Cremated remains may need to be physically divided up according to guidelines expressed in writing prior to death. We know of cases where life partners were denied a portion of the cremated remains, or bodies were buried in distant states, due to hostility of the biological family.
Obituary notices routinely continue the pretense that homosexuality does not exist. In many cases the final record of life is carefully cleansed of references to same-sex life partners and accomplishments that pertain to the lesbian or gay community. It may be necessary to arrange for obituary notices in the lesbian and gay press to ensure that important facts are memorialized.
Unless you have an ironclad will, your "family of choice" can kiss your estate goodbye. Few states recognize same-sex life partners, although this is beginning to change. It's not uncommon for life partners of many years to be literally out on the street when the family of origin grabs the family home, furniture, car, and cat. It's cheaper to get a lawyer to help you with your will before you're dead rather than fight about it in court with relatives when it's too late to speak your mind. And don't rely on verbal arrangements. Get it in writing!
Most web sites addressing grief and end of life issues seem unaware that many of their visitors are lesbians or gay men. It's always a refreshing change of pace to find sites that at least acknowledge the diversity of their visitors. Sites directed at general audiences can make everyone feel welcome by adding a brief welcome notice that acknowledges diversity issues. For a simple and effective example, visit WidowNet, which is respectful of all visitors while keeping focus on their own core content. You can read our own diversity statement here. If there's nothing at your site that addresses lesbian and gay issues, consider adding links to sites that do. Because our policy is to celebrate diversity rather than segregate, we have chosen to place links to lesbian and gay resources openly throughout the site rather than clustering them in one place.