Grieving in the Closet

Author: Chandler Keeling

When I lost my dad to suicide in 2009, I was in the 8th grade and just beginning to discover myself. My dad went on two tours to Iraq and I spent those awkward adolescent years relentlessly bullied for being “different” and too feminine for a boy. My memories from that time are a slide show of moments trying desperately to fit in while simultaneously missing my dad, the one who would load my iPod with any music I wanted without questioning it (which ended up consisting of Pop Divas like Britney Spears and Rihanna.) After losing my dad, and beginning high school, I was finally starting to realize my identity as a gay man. 

Chandler and Dad

Keeling Family at military event

Grieving while in the closet was a complicated experience for me. My whole world had turned upside down with the loss of my father, my family had experienced something truly traumatic, and I hopelessly wanted everything to just “be okay.” For me, this resulted in a near constant fear of being outed and dealing with the consequences from being gay in a religious family. Instead of properly grieving for my father, I spent the majority of my emotional bandwidth masking my true self from others. It felt like my life had been split in two; there was the Chandler that everyone knew as Ron’s son, and the “true” Chandler that was spending too much time on Tumblr blogs and searching for a community that could truly understand him.

When you lose a parent in your teens, you begin to imagine all of the milestones that you’ll have to go through without them: graduation, your first job, your wedding, making a family on your own, buying your first house. At the same time, I realized that my father might not even recognize who I was, because I never had the chance to come out to him. 

Chandler and husband

When you lose someone you love before coming out, you grieve twice. Additionally, my coming out experience did not go well. For several years, I thought I had lost all of the family that I had. I endlessly questioned: If my dad had been alive would things have gone differently? I remembered him accepting me and all of my quirks, encouraging my music tastes and love for art. Would he have helped my family realize the power of unconditional love? 

After coming out I had to come to peace with all of these thoughts, and grieve what never was and never could be. I had to offer my 13 year old self some compassion, and offer that to the idea that I had of my father as well. He would never get to meet my husband, but he would love him anyway. He wouldn’t be able to see me at my wedding, or come visit me when we bought our first house, which we did close to my Dad’s 12th angelversary in January 2021. 

I’ve spent equal time with my Dad in my life as I now have without him. In these 13 years, I’ve chosen to honor my father the best way that I know how: by being my true and authentic self, and encouraging others to do the same.

Chandler Keeling is the surviving son of U.S. Army 1st Sergeant Ronald Keeling and serves on the Survivor Care Team at TAPS.

Photos courtsey of Chandler Keeling.