My oldest daughter, now 15, has for most of her life lived and acted like a tomboy, rejecting most everything traditionally associated with femininity: dresses, long hair, girls' sports, etc. None of this was really an issue . . . we simply accepted her for who she was.
About two years ago she began to develop some mental health issues and after seeing a number of specialists, it's been determined that my eldest is actually transgender, a boy born into a girl's body. Knowing this and what happens next is, of course, complicated.
Part of the initial course of acceptance - and we accept this without condition - is that we all make the shift of referring to her now as "he" or "him". He has legally changed his name to a boy's name and his new birth certificate indicates he is male. He will be able to get a driver's license and passport that shows his gender as male as well. Meanwhile, nothing is being done surgically and he is not even taking testosterone.
I've had a few discussions with my rabbi about things like a name change, having a bar mitzvah, etc. but it is early in the process. That said, it's dawned on me over the past few weeks that I no longer have a daughter. She is gone. The person, the life I thought would be there is no longer. It's not a death, per se, but it is a growing emotional loss.
My question is "How do I mourn or grieve this loss?" It obviously doesn't rise to the level of sitting shiva but I've recently felt tempted to stand for the Mourner's Kaddish. Is that too much or inappropriate?
I want to begin with some words of blessing. I want to bless you with strength and faith. May the kindness and caring you have shown for your child pervade the entire world. He is lucky to have someone like you in his life – and we are lucky to count you as part of our sacred community.
I know that for many folks in transition, the idea of using the rituals surrounding death and kaddish are quite powerful. There is a wonderful website: http://www.Ritualwell.org which has several rituals written to mark and celebrate the process of gender transitioning (http://www.ritualwell.org/categories/398). At least two include significant moments focusing on the traditional rituals of kaddish and taharah (ritual purification) as the vehicle for transition. I think you are asking the right questions and, again, I am so grateful that you are asking with such a sense of love and caring!
I would encourage you to talk with your child and to ask them how they would feel about a ritual to mark this period. Gender transition is not about a physical surgery or even a name; there is a lot going on and my own sense is that timing for the individual is important. I would also encourage you to speak with your rabbi or to reach out to some of the rabbis in our community who have more expertise in developing ritual moments for transition. We are blessed to have wonderful groups doing this sacred work. Keshet, based in Boston, and Nehirim, based in San Francisco, are just two of the many Jewish groups working in this area of Jewish life.
You are asking a question that, truthfully, only you can answer. How you mark the loss of who you thought your child would become is something that no rabbi, no matter how experienced or talented, can guide you through. Rather, I encourage you to find a rabbi to walk with you through the process – to provide you and your family the emotional and spiritual support that you need to help your child in their transition. There is no one right path.
I would suggest, in addition to reading some of the rituals on Ritualwell.org, that you consider how to ritualize smaller moments in addition to the bigger changes that have occurred and may continue to occur. Ritualizing the purchase of new clothes, or the gifting of old clothes to a charity, as one example, might help you to see God’s presence in the midst of this process.
Lastly, I am reminded of a blessing in the morning liturgy – baruh atah adonay eloheynu meleh ha’olam she’asani betzalmo – blessed are you Adonay our God, sovereign of the universe, who has made me in your image. Your child is created in this beautiful Divine image. If you hold that during this period of transition and beyond, my belief is that you will not feel only a sense of loss but rather be nourished by a sense of joy in seeing your child for who they really are – beyond their physical gender.
May you and your child go from strength to strength. And may they continue to grow in strength and in torah, in love of others and in love of Judaism. May they bring honor to your name and to everyone they encounter. And may they be a source of joy, pride, and love for you always.
What you appear to be mourning is the “what might have been”. This is a common grieving issue for those who have lost a child. However, though you are experiencing true grief, it is important to note from a Jewish legal perspective that in fact your child has not died, and so specific acts of the mourning ritual for your child would be inappropriate. I also fear that such an act would be very misunderstood by your child, no matter what this young teen might say. In truth your child is still the same person, but with a continually developing identity that all teens grow through, admittedly with less upheaval to the family. I can not tell you how many parents have told me in my practice how they no longer recognize their teenager, and how different he/she now is from that cute, cooperative little child of the past. Furthermore, I would suggest that saying Kaddish be left for those you actually physically lose (may Hashem spare you from such grief), leaving that Kaddish as an act of respect for those who have passed. At present you seem to want to use this ritual as a therapy for your loss and a way to let go of childhood memories of a daughter, rather than as a way of holding on to the positive memories of a loved one, whose life we come to celebrate, though with some tears, through the Kaddish.
Practically speaking I would suggest you see a grief counselor to help you deal with this issue. However, you never mentioned your child’s view of this change in status, or whether there is a contemplation of marriage and children. I think it was wise of both of you (at the time of this question) for not having done anything hormonally or surgically to yoir child’s still developing body. You are still dealing with a teenager, a child, and any medical actions now taken could greatly complicate the possibility of physically following the original gender identity should the specialists turn out to be wrong.
Finally, I do not want you to be left with a wrong impression of Halachah from an orthodox perspective. I think it would be difficult if not impossible to find an orthodox rabbi of considerable Jewish legal standing who would permit a sex change operation, except in the extreme case of an immediate life threatening situation. I can not think of such a case and question whether even suicidal ideation because of identity confusion would suffice. However, you asked me specifically about a mourning practice, and it is to that that I have replied.
First, let me say that I sympathize with what you are going through.
You’ve shared how difficult this situation has been for you. You are experiencing sadness and loss, which are difficult to deal with while simultaneously supporting your son, boosting his self-esteem, and helping him adjust to his new identity – which you are also clearly trying to do.
I strongly suggest that you see a therapist who understands the issues involved in having a transgender child. You need a supportive, nurturing environment within which you can address your issues. I also suggest seeking out a support group, live or online, where you can find others facing the same challenges who can be understanding, helpful and supportive. In this regard, Keshet, a national Jewish organization that supports the full participation in Jewish life of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals, can be of great help. (Keshet can be contacted at www.keshetonline.org.)
I sympathize with your desire to find a Jewish ritual that can assist you in grieving the loss of the daughter you once had. However, with respect, I believe that the mourner’s kaddish is not appropriate. Simply put, the mourner’s kaddish is for the dead, and your child is very much alive. Let me suggest instead that you work with your therapist and your rabbi to come up with a ritual appropriate for this unique situation.
With the support of your therapist, your rabbi, your loved ones and friends, and with your ongoing concern and love for your child, I am hopeful that you will be able to adjust and will be able to continue to help your son and your family face the future with love and with hope.
First, I want to applaud you and your family. Knowing the parents of transgender adults (and a few transgender adults as well) I know this can be a confusing and upsetting time for everyone as new boundaries, expectations and identities are formed, and it can be easy for a family to ‘circle the wagons’ and shut out the community, clergy, friends and the rest of the support network.It’s clear that you understand that this is the worst thing you can do. I love that you’ve been speaking with your rabbi about celebrating a bar mitzvah and I would encourage you to look for other ways your daughter—now your son—can be acknowledged and welcomed into the community in his ‘new’ identity (or rather, his identity more accurately articulated).
As to your question: it seems to me that you aren’t mourning your child per se (God forbid!), but rather (as you put it) your dreams of your child. You indicate that he has always been a tomboy even when he identified as female. Obviously this isn’t the same thing as changing your name (a jarring thing, especially for the parent who chose that name!) and the like; but for your child, this isn’t a radical change—this is a continuation of his search for his identity.
I appreciate that this is a hard thing to grasp and it feels like loss—like the little girl in your photo albums is gone forever. But it isn’t the person who’s gone—it’s the image, the impression, the idea of who that person was, replaced with an identity that better suits him. And identity is a funny and challenging thing; it changes all the time, through maturity and aging, through the dynamic we have with our community and our families, through our own learning about ourselves. The Israeli poet Zelda wrote about this beautifully in her poem “L’chol Ish Yeish Shem”
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
…Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing…
…Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love…
We go by many names in our lifetime, each one earned differently. You’re striving to acknowledge this new name for your child, but that means letting go of his earlier ‘name’ and all that came with it. And, as with any change in identity, there are no quick fixes, no easy transitions. Saying “Kaddish” will not help you through this unsteady time or allow you to work out your feelings; in fact, it may cause resentment to build, amplify your own confusion while not giving you the opportunity to process meaningfully.
Rather than say kaddish over your daughter (now son), I would suggest securing a good therapist (perhaps your rabbi could recommend one who specifically works with parents of transgender children?) and joining a support group, which will give you the minyan like experience of being surrounded by others who have walked the path you are on now (much as kaddish is an opportunity for mourners to gather and support one another). Perhaps in time, you (and your family) could create a new ritual where you release your son’s previous identity and embrace the new one? Create a moment that involves your child in the process and allows you to show your acceptance while still giving voice to your own feelings? That would, in my mind, be a more fitting life-cycle event.
May you continue to see God’s spark of divinity in your child, and grow in love and acceptance, and may your son and your family soon know peace.
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