Greetings Papa Bear!
You may not recall meeting me, but I was just one row away from you at The Good Furry Awards at BLFC 2022!
And the pansy who low-key sobbed at Mark's lifetime award. What a spectacular surprise that was!
In January of this year I unexpectedly lost my best friend and the love of my life, my husband. We've been together for all of my young adult and not-so-young adult life! Although most think it's the trauma of his passing that I struggle with most... I definitely find the hardest parts and times are the most innocuous ones. The time we used to spend eating dinner and talking about our day together, the absence in the bed, the lack of a passenger in the car, waking up with a dream to tell or thinking of something I'd like to share with him but I can't and all those other things we grow used to doing with company until suddenly it just isn't there anymore...
Or better yet, to quote the infamous Scout from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird “With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable.”
Although I know the recommendations that are often given as standard fanfare... Keeping busy, finding new hobbies to engaged in, try not to fixate, consider counseling and all that jazz... What recommendations &/or advice might you personally have, for someone struggling with this complex type of life change and all those really difficult struggles that it brings?
Thank you, and hope to see you again soon!
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I grieve for your loss. As you might know, if you read my column much or have seen my FB posts, I lost my husband in 2015 quite unexpectedly to a pulmonary embolism. He was only 59. So, with nearly seven years gone since his death, I am the right person to ask when it comes to what happens years after a spouse's death.
I am going to give you some short-term and long-term advice here. First of all, it is important to note that there is no time limit on grief. People who tell you to "get over it" or "time to move on" either have not experienced what you have or, worse, they don't want to deal with your grief and are brushing you off. Don't listen to them. The absolutely WORST thing a (now former) friend ever told me while I was crying in his car: "Oh, stop your blubbering." That person is irrevocably stricken from my life now. Grieve in your own way and in your own time. Secondly, grief is not the same as depression. Depression is more generalized, while grief is more specific to a particular loss in your life. In a way, this makes grief a bit easier to manage because you know what caused it and can take steps to manage it. (Oh, and whoever told you "try not to fixate" is way wrong; that's just another way of saying "get over it.")
Okay, so, short-term. Cry. Scream. Sleep. Veg. Don't hold back your emotions and let them out. It is extremely painful to do this, but it is also cathartic. You need that release. Don't bury it inside you to try to "get back to normal." I did everything from literally collapsing and gushing tears to yelling at Jim's chair, "You promised me you wouldn't leave me!" I would do this for hours until I was utterly exhausted. You have to let all that stuff out.
I will forgo some advice you already know, though. But something you might have missed is trying to be kind to yourself. One of my friends back in Michigan said you should try to do something you like, even a little thing, each day. For example, buy yourself an ice cream cone. Go on a nice walk. Play with your pet (if you have one; if you don't, I recommend it; having my Ernie with me was one of the things that helped me through the worst years).
Next--very important! Maintain a healthy diet and do some exercise and try to get restful sleep. It is extremely important to try to stay healthy. Why? Well, for one thing, if you let your body slip into illness you'll feel worse, but for another thing, you need brain support and the function of healthy organs. Grief researchers (including neuroscientists) have learned that grief changes your brain chemically and physically. Grief can adversely affect your immune system and your heart. It is actually true that you can die of grief (though this is usually more of a risk for the elderly). Keeping up your immune system is important, especially in the Era of Covid and other nasty diseases. Speaking of the brain, though, some symptoms are similar to Long Covid: brain fog, memory impairment, word fluency, visuospatial function, and decision-making abilities.
According to an article on the American Brain Foundation website:
"In response to traumatic events, the brain creates connections between nerves and strengthens or weakens existing connections depending on the duration and degree of the emotional response. Neuroplasticity, or the ability to alter neural connections, allows the brain to compensate for injury, illness, loss, and other life-altering traumatic events by forming new neural connections based on these experiences. This helps an individual adapt to new situations or environments. Low to moderate stress increases nerve growth and improves memory while reducing fear. However, chronic stress causes a reduction in nerve growth and memory and increases fear to help an individual focus on survival. This stress response can have a negative effect and the more it happens, the more it becomes hardwired."
In other words, the changes to your brain can become permanent. The ABF article comments that the brain "can be healed" with such things as therapy, journaling, meditation, yoga, etc. In this bear's humble opinion, sure, those can help, but you will never be 100% the same again.
This leads me to my long-term advice: you must learn to accept that you will be forever changed by your loss. Don't try to go back to "the way things were" and "the way I was before my loss" because you will not be successful.
You will not be the person you once were. Like the accident victim who loses a limb, you can learn to function again and have a life, but that limb will always be gone. You can get a prosthetic limb, but it won't be the same. You can be an athlete in the Paralympic Games and achieve wondrous things, but you will never be in the regular Olympics. The hole in your life that was once filled by your spouse will always be a hole in your heart.
When I write or say things like this, people sometimes think I am being insulting. I am not. Here's why.
First of all, your grief and my grief and the grief of others like us is an affirmation that Love is eternal. I will ALWAYS love Jim, and even Death cannot kill that love. That is extraordinary. Embrace it. Love conquers Death in a very real sense. That's powerful. That's beautiful.
Secondly, I have found that my loss has made me a more complex, more empathetic, and more appreciative person. I don't take things or people for granted (I didn't really before, but now even less so). I led a rather blessed life before Jim died in which things always seemed to work out for me. Now I can really understand as never before what it is like to have a setback. Oh, I did go through a divorce before this, which was very hard, but enduring the death of a loved one is much much worse.
In summary, in the short term, focus on taking care of your health. In the long term, learn to accept that you are a different person now. Not necessarily worse or better, but different. Get to know that new person. You are entering a new stage in your life. You will face new challenges, and experience success and failure. You will lose more people, but you will also meet new people. Leave yourself open to possibilities.
You are only a few months into the grieving process. You should know that the average period of intense grief is 18 months to 2 years. That's the period where you really need to focus on your health. Now, it can last longer than that, of course, so, again, no rules on time. An analogy that was told to me that I find to be true is this: Suffering through the loss of a spouse or partner is like being a ship in a storm. During the storm, you will be battered by wave after wave of grief and it will be an extremely rough ride, but even after the storm has passed, the sea will still have waves. They become fewer and farther apart and usually much more moderate, but you may still get hit with a big wave of grief, even a rogue wave. Over six years after Jim's death, and there are still days I grieve hard, especially on his birthday or anniversary. But they occur less often.
I like that you still call yourself Lucky Fox and that you are still going to furcons (thanks for your comments about the GFA). Sounds like you're doing all the right things. Just remember that you can keep living without setting the past aside. The love you have in your heart will always be a part of you.
I have not told my family that I'm a furry and that I'm transgender. It is hard these days, with all the bad thing about us, but I get by. But I'm very scared, and I do not know what to do. I try to sneak it in, but some people are just stupid. I just feel like my own kind are the only ones that get me. I just want to be loved for who I am without hiding who I am. (Oh, and I have not changed genders just yet, so I'm still a boy.)
I just do not want to hate who I am. I want to embrace it because it is me. Do you think you can help me? I also would like it if you can share what you say to others like me. Thank you in advance. Oh, and I believe we need, as a furry community, to stop the false information and hateful things like the uwu and judgement on us. Sorry if I'm oversharing to you; it is just that I have so much to say. Thank you.
Ivy Black (age 14)
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Although we're dealing with two things here--being furry and being transgender--it is possible that they are related. Before I get into your specific situation, please indulge me as I talk about a topic of importance that may or may not have to do with you (it popped into my head because of your comment about not wanting to hate yourself).
The issue here that Papabear has been hearing about and learning about more and more has to do with body dysmorphia (or, more formally, Body Dysmorphic Disorder). This is a fancy term for not liking your own body. Related to this is gender dysmorphia, or not liking the gender you currently inhabit.
According to the Mayo Clinic: "Signs and symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder include:
This is a vital question to ask, investigate, and answer before you continue on your life journey. At 14, you are, of course, in puberty, and you are being filled with a lot of hormones and emotions. It is important not to make any rash decisions now that will affect your entire life in a very powerful way and that you might regret later on. I'm glad you have not had any surgical procedures yet. You should really hold off on those for a few more years (and despite what some people have written me, I happen to know there are some clinics that perform sex-reassignment surgeries on kids under 16, so, readers, please do not write to me about that).
Anyway, the same might be said for some furries (and, I think, for people who describe themselves as lycanthropes, therianthropes, and otherkin). I know it is true for yours truly, for if there were a medical procedure available that would turn me into a bear, I honestly think I would consider it (I don't regard myself as a werebear, though). A lot of furries feel that having fur, tails, snouts, etc. are beautiful and they would be happy to look more like an anthro. Alas, it is not to be.
Before any of us pursue physical or hormonal therapies, I think it would benefit anyone to stop for a moment and consider working on body acceptance. Too often, we allow ourselves to be beaten down by what others say about our appearance to the point that we hate how we look. This often involves fat-shaming, but can include everything from height, hair, facial features, musculature, skin color, teeth, etc. etc. For example, I am fair-skinned, always have been, because I'm a semi-ginger and I freckle but don't tan. As a kid in Van Nuys, California, I was mocked all the time for not being bronze-skinned. At summer camp, they called me "Caspar the Friendly Ghost." This hurt a lot to the point I was constantly trying to tan and, instead, ended up burning myself to the point of getting blisters. Not good. Eventually, I woke up to the fact that I was hurting myself because of a bunch of shallow idiots. Don't follow my lead. Don't listen to others.
I am, admittedly, using your letter as a jumping-off-place to discuss the important point that we need to learn body acceptance. Obviously, only a small number of furries really have body dysmorphia, and most trans people want to get surgery for their own, not others', reasons. I just urge caution, especially for those who are still going through puberty. You can do a lot of damage to your body if you go through hormone therapy before your body can handle it. Hormone therapy side effects can include heart disease, certain cancers, liver damage, blood clots, stroke, and dangerous drops or increases in blood pressure. Genital surgery (vaginoplasty, in your case) can sometimes have unpleasant complications, too, including difficulty with urination and the formation of fistulas, which might lead to feces being excreted from the newly constructed vagina. Needless to say, this can adversely affect one's love life as well as one's physical and mental health.
I'm writing the above not to freak you out but to make sure you are aware of all the dangers. Depending on the source, anywhere between 1% and 8% of those who underwent surgery decided to detransition, but even this is not always successful. On the more optimistic side, this means that as many as 99% are happy with the results. Last word: be absolutely certain this is right for you before pursuing surgery or hormone therapy. That's all I'm really saying here.
Okay, with all that aside (whew! and sorry!) let's get into the broader issue of acceptance. I will definitely say that, in this bear's experience, the furry fandom is tremendously accepting of transexual and transgender people. Indeed, two of the four Good Furry Award winners are transexuals, and people win that award by being nominated and voted on by the furry community.
Another way, therefore, that your transgender and furry desires are related would be exactly what you said in your letter: seeking to find acceptance for being yourself. Of the two subjects, I think the one to address first is your being transgender. It is important to note that there is a difference between saying "I am transgender" and "I am a transexual."
Transgender is an umbrella term used for anyone who feels that their gender is not in alignment with the sex they were born with. For example, a male born with, obviously, a penis and scrotum feels inside himself that he is really a female. This is not limited to just female and male genders but can encompass the many and wide variety of genders being defined today, including intersex, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, androgynous, bygender, neutrois, and on and on.
Transexual is a much narrower category that falls within transgender (that is, all transexuals are transgender but not all transgender people are transexual). Although the definition I'm about to give has been starting to change, for purposes of this discussion we will define transexual as someone who has finished or commenced with a medical procedure for sexual reassignment.
It sounds to me that you have correctly identified yourself as transgender and that you are considering becoming transexual (the above is for the benefit of my other readers).
You have every right to be yourself and to be accepted as yourself. You shouldn't have to hide who you are from your family and friends. When it comes to friends, the good news is you can pick and choose. Pick the people who support you to be your friends, and anyone who does not support you is not really a friend, so don't worry about them. You don't need them in your life and you do not need their validation.
Family is more of a challenge. You can't pick your blood, so if they don't accept you, you're still kind of stuck with them, especially at your age when you're still a dependent. You don't say anything about your family, so this is a bit hard for me to gauge. Parents and other relatives can run the gamut from unsupportive, judgmental, and strict to loving, supportive, and flexible. The Planned Parenthood website has some solid advice on coming out trans to family, and they also note some other helpful and supportive organizations such as The Trevor Project and GLAAD. Be prepared to educate your family as to what being transgender really means to you, and be able to answer their questions. Most fears people have about something like transgender people stem from the fact that they are simply ignorant and have a lot of wild ideas that are incorrect. If your parents are religious, another good resource is Rainbow Ark, which offers support to LGBTQIIA+ furries from religious families.
Ignorance of the facts is also a problem for those who criticize or are fearful of the furry fandom. For them, a good documentary to watch is Ash Coyote's The Fandom. It gives a good enough overview of the fandom, what it is, its history, in a way that is not threatening to normies. There are other documentaries out there, too, but this one is an hour and a half and free.
The way to fight judgment and negativity about transgender people and furries is the same: education. The more people understand something, the less likely it is that their imaginations and fears will run wild. The more people like your peers and your family understand you, the less you should be afraid of opening up to them. When you conceal your identity and shamefully keep things hidden away, people sense that. You aren't fooling your parents, for example. They know something is going on with you, though they might not understand exactly what. You can alleviate their fears by calmly opening up to them. Educate them. Answer their questions.
You aren't doing anything for which you should be ashamed. So, don't be ashamed. Perhaps not all people will "get you" or accept you, but that's their problem, not yours. And you might be very surprised by how many people do accept you once you open up to them.
Sorry for the long reply. I haven't written back to anyone in a while and had a lot to get out LOL. I certainly hope this is helpful. Please feel free to write again if you have more questions.
A note on comments: Comments on letters to Papabear are welcome, especially those that offer extra helpful advice and add something to the conversation that is of use to the letter writer and those reading this column. Also welcome are constructive criticisms and opposing views. What is NOT welcome are hateful, hurtful comments, flaming, and trolling. Such comments will be deleted from this site. Thank you.