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The Masculine Side of Grief

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“We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don’t deny it, don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there.” — Harold Kushner – When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Kushner says it so well. The most difficult challenges of grieving are to acknowledge it, give it permission to have a place in our lives and in our bodies, attend to it, allow it to heal and let it go. Sounds like a simple recipe but what a huge and individual task to achieve.

The challenges are difficult for both men and women. There are so many general similarities in gender grieving styles but there are also so many differences that make the challenge of grieving different, especially for men. It’s important to recognize that while grief is individual for both genders, this writing speaks to the general differences more than the similarities.

There are many factors that contribute to the confusing journey of a man’s grief. What follows are the difficulties that complicate a man’s grief.

  1. Cultural and societal expectations and beliefs

There are cultural and societal expectations that the role of a man is to be strong, to be the protector and the fixer of problems. Unfortunately, death is a problem that can’t be fixed and grief requires a totally different kind of strength. Men are often left with a sense of guilt that they couldn’t protect their loved one from dying.

  1. Persona

We all have a persona, a public identity. It’s our mask, the way we feel we need to be or are expected to be in this world. Given cultural and societal beliefs about the role of a man, this persona is a protector. A man’s inner world (including feelings of grief) are protected and often not revealed because it doesn’t feel safe to show vulnerability and pain. It can be confusing when grief brings with it so such chaos and change, both in a man’s outer and inner worlds. There is a poem called “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” that aptly expresses persona at the end of this article.

Men's grief support group

  1. The paradox of letting go… and holding on.

“Before men can let go of something, they need to hold on to it. It’s difficult for men to find that inner state of loss because it’s so nebulous and vague, not concrete like a job or an activity. It’s distant and not part of being alive right now. Often when men get in touch with that grief expression, there is relief along with the pain. This relief is connected to the beginning of paying off our unfinished grief.” – Thomas R. Golden, Swallowed By A Snake.

So how do you hold on to grief and begin to let go and find your expression of grief?

It starts with finding a safe place, a container to express and share your inner world and vulnerabilities. This isn’t always easy in our busy, everyday lives. Instead, we get busy and distracted from our grief, don the mask and appear to be okay. We even fool ourselves sometimes. We quickly find new relationships, get buried in work and stay far away from the knot of pain in our stomachs, maybe not even aware that it’s there waiting.

It’s important to find ways to negotiate your individual pathway through the grief in your mind, body and soul.

  1. Find a safe place(s), a container where messy grief can be expressed without embarrassment, shame or judgment.

Where is that safe place? Grief and expression of grief are different in many ways for men and women. Here are a few of those differences:

  • Men don’t cry as much, especially in front of other men. Their tears often become suppressed into anger and activity. Angry men are often very sad men. Crying gets correlated to “weakness” and they use behaviors and actions first. Repetitive actions sometimes soothe (i.e. running) and tears are converted into sweat.
  • Men may not listen when women talk about their grief or ask us to talk about ours.
  • Men grieve far more than they talk about it. They don’t share the details of their pain as women often do. Women need to tell their story, sometimes over and over in order to heal. Men get quiet or busy with activity in their lives.
  • Women don’t understand men’s grief. Men often don’t understand it either.

So where do men find safe places to grieve? It’s important to find the place(s) that feels right for you.

  • The confines of your car where you can be alone with your feelings, including shedding tears or speaking to their loved one.
  • Writing in a journal, writing poetry or creating a book of memories.
  • Regular visits to a sacred place that allow you the freedom to express your    inner feelings (i.e. cemetery, the beach where ashes were spread, a special garden).
  • Walks in nature.
  • A quiet room.
  • In the words of music that you once shared with your wife. Finding meaning and connection that sounds different now.
  • A grief support group where group members understand, don’t judge their grief nor their process of grieving.

Make an agreement with yourself to find the time and place. In order to hold on to grief, it’s important to find a safe place, a container where grief can be expressed in some form. This takes time and patience because the feelings and depth may surprise you. Give yourself permission to visit the pain of your grief.

  1. Create rituals that help you to visit your grief.

Rituals are routines that we create. We all have them from the moment we wake up with our morning rituals until we go to bed with our nighttime rituals. They help us to maneuver through our life and our emotions. Now, they can help you maneuver through your grief.

John, a widower in the grief group, picked flowers from his back yard. His wife planted the flowers over many years. Every week, he took her flowers to the cemetery as a way to visit her, honor her.

Jim wrote poetry expressing his love… and his grief.

Harry’s wife loved the beach. He drives there every day just to sit. He feels close to her and his grief there.

Phil feels closest to his wife and his grief in the quiet safety of his home, the home they used to share. He has a quiet room where he listens to music they shared. It touches his love and his grief.

  1. Find ways to honor.

Find ways to honor your loved one and their presence in this lifetime. This can be done in words and also in actions and behaviors. While in group, Tom wrote an autobiography about his wife. His plan was to share it with his adult children and grandchildren. He finished it at the end of the two-year program… and felt a sense of accomplishment at his honoring of her.

Diane A. Sears, United States Coordinator for International Men’s Day, wrote a post entitled “What if He Cries.” In that post, she says:

“Women with open minds and open hearts can create a ‘safe harbor’ for the men in their lives — a place where men can bare their souls and lay down their emotional baggage. The ‘safe harbor’ is a place that is ‘drama free’ — a place where unconditional love, respect and trust abides. If a man feels and knows that you respect him, he will trust you and allow himself to be vulnerable. He will bare his soul.”

We’re as unique as snowflakes. Everyone grieves in their own way based on many factors including our past experience, our belief systems, our personalities, our upbringing and yes, our gender. Be patient, compassionate and understanding of yourself and each other. Grief will heal. You will heal. Life will again have color.

If you don’t touch and heal your grief, it will wait for you. Go into the grief and learn to tolerate the feelings. The old you will change and a new you will appear… each and every time. “The beauty remains, the pain passes.”

Poet Charles C. Finn talks about the masks that people, especially men, wear to avoid exposing their true thoughts and feelings in his poem, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying.” It begins:

“Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear
for I wear a mask, a thousand masks,
masks that I’m afraid to take off,
and none of them is me.

“Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
I give you the impression that I’m secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without,
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water’s calm and I’m in command
and that I need no one,
but don’t believe me.”

To read the poem in its entirety, see Charles Finn’s website.

By Jo Christner, Psy.D.