Everyone goes through a natural grieving process when a death occurs. We each behave and express feelings according to the way we’ve been taught and as modeled by our society, our culture, our family, our peers and other influences. A belief system is created that affects the way that we perceive life, death and grief.
Although men and women both feel pain and grieve when they suffer a loss, the way they deal with grief is where the differences in their grieving become apparent. The differences we see in “his” and “her” grief responses are due to our different styles of coping with pain and loss.
There are many factors that cause these differences in coping… and most often we were carefully “taught.”
From childhood, we are taught different gender roles. Little girls are taught and encouraged to share feelings, express needs and receive support from others. This support system is acquired over a lifetime.
Boys are treated quite differently and are often told, “Big boys don’t cry,” and “You have to be strong.” Men often have minimal social support systems outside of the immediate family and will often say that their wife is their best friend. She is the one with whom he shares his thoughts and feelings.
In our society, men are disproportionately unprepared to express distressed feelings and loneliness because of the way they are expected to behave and cope. Men are “expected” to be strong, to deal with problems, to be assertive (and sometimes aggressive), to take charge, to accomplish tasks, to achieve goals, to bear pain, be able to fix things (not just mechanical!), to be sexually potent, to endure stress without giving up or giving in and to care for, protect and support his family. Whew! It is no wonder that men are reluctant, and often cautious, to express the painful emotions of grief after the death of a loved one and choose instead to “go it alone” or reconnect quickly with a new partner.
Men are often isolated during grief and loss, with no one to talk to about their feelings. When societal messages about men being strong come into play, a grieving male may repress emotions so as not to appear weak or vulnerable. They are “expected” to be self-sufficient and independent, able to rely on their own strength. They are expected to accept difficulties with a certain non-emotional response. They are expected to “take things like a man,” which means “don’t show us your tears or your weaknesses.” When men lose a loved one, they often isolate to protect themselves and to avoid feeling embarrassed by overwhelming emotions.
In times of loss and grief, a man may be unable to express feelings because of a fear that he may “break down” and be viewed as weak and impotent. At the same time men may need support the most but they were trained not to reach out for it. They see their loss as something they must endure alone because they have been taught to be self-sufficient. Often men feel the need to “disconnect” even more in order to handle the intensity of the emotions they feel alone, where no one will see them or judge them. It is difficult (and often perceived as unacceptable) for a man to feel helpless and out of control.
Because men are expected to be the “strong ones” they are less likely to talk about, cry about, share thoughts about the loss or seek outside support. Men may use aggression, anger or violence, a new love relationship and substance abuse as grief substitutes (just to name a few). They may find ways to handle upsetting feelings without disclosing them to others, such as: going to the cemetery alone (to engage in solitary mourning); taking physical or legal action; or becoming immersed in activity, a new relationship or possibly even exhibiting addictive behavior(s).
While these demanding and unrealistic expectations may make daily survival possible for men, they make the successful resolution of a loss very difficult and, in many cases, impossible.
There are helpful and concrete ways to show support to a man in grief:
- Acknowledge the death: It’s important for expressions of sympathy to be honest and heartfelt. Acknowledge his pain without expecting a response about feelings
- Express genuine interest in feelings, concerns and conditions of loss: Accept the survivor’s expressions which are reflections of conflict and mixed emotions.
- Be a safe place: Hold the griever’s sharing in confidentiality; otherwise, it’s not safe to share. Be willing to say, “I can assure you that this will remain between the two of us.”
- Accept and encourage tears: When a man is struggling to hold back tears, he may be relieved to hear a quiet, “You don’t have to keep it in. It’s okay to feel.”
- Share silence: Sometimes much is said in silence, nonverbally. Silence builds trust. Sometimes a simple nod, a touch, a pat or certain look conveys everything the other person needs to know.
- Perform incidental acts of compassion: Be willing to help. Don’t ask what he needs. Ask if you can help with a particular task. Taking over a task quietly and efficiently can be effective.
Keep in mind that male gender conditioning acts strongly and in direct opposition to the requirements necessary to grieve a loss successfully. The majority of men react to the death of a loved one by keeping their thoughts and emotional pain to themselves; not saying anything helps protect against vulnerability, and silence is socially encouraged in American culture.
Due to the lack of support and outlets for expression of their grief, men are more at risk for illness and death than women after a significant loss of a loved one. When we offer support to the bereaved man, try to keep in mind that just because he doesn’t react the way you think he should doesn’t mean that he isn’t grieving or hurting; it just means that he has his own way of doing it. You can be most helpful by being sensitive to this difference when you show up to walk beside him during a most painful journey and transition.