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How Men Grieve

I should know a lot about how men grieve. After all, I spent the first 15 years of my career pioneering the psychology of men.  My 1984 book, The Secrets Men Keep (Ballantine Books), mapped out previously uncharted paths to men’s hearts, souls and deepest needs.

I was featured regularly on Oprah, Larry King Live, Donahue, PBS, hundreds of network news and talk shows and countless articles on everything “male” in the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines. For 12 years, I traveled the world giving talks about men, men’s workshops, and training programs, consulting with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and being called upon as an expert on men. And then, my life ended abruptly.

My beloved daughter, Jenna, died violently in 1996 while studying abroad. Racked by more pain than I could possibly handle, I held on for dear life. Searching desperately for answers and for something to hold onto, I immersed myself in the world of grief and loss. I was a drowning man, trying to survive overwhelming pain. My heart shattered into a million pieces. My life derailed. I honestly didn’t know where to turn or if I was even going to make it.

Nothing I’d learned or been through was helping me navigate the darkness, devastation, and feelings of utter helplessness I was encountering on the path of grief.  I would need to start all over. Learn to walk, breathe, think, feel, love, surrender, rage, cope, and travel by the dim light of the stars. It took every ounce of raw courage, faith, and patience I had to survive. Receiving support from family and friends was not easy. I was used to being the strong one. Taking care of myself was also a real challenge. I was used to powering through everything – figuring it out and fixing it. This could not be fixed. Learning to decipher between people and things that helped me, and those that drained and depleted me, enabled me to hold on. Slowly, I began to fight my way back into life. To breathe. And to find new strength. But not the way you might expect.

Did it help or hurt that I had undergone 47 years of basic training as a guy?

I’d been taught that emotions (other than anger) were a sign of weakness. Shows of sorrow, confusion, helplessness, and fear would be cause for demotion to a “lesser of a man” status. Tears would be automatic grounds for a significant drop in stature on the male scale. “Be a man!” “Suck it up,” “Get over it” and other clichés borrowed from sports and warfare, were not only useless – they were harmful.

What I needed more than anything was the strength, courage, and permission to grieve. I needed to feel the hurt, helpless, sorrow, brokenness, outrage, and confusion. The macho code of posing and posturing as strong and self-reliant would have been a formula for disaster for me. Hiding, denying, repressing my emotions would have prolonged my pain and deepened my sense of isolation. Distancing myself from my emotions and “shooting the messenger” when sorrow surfaced, would have disconnected me from my humanity. And thwarted my grieving process.

The cultural norm for being a man encourages us to shut down and shut up, less we suffer another loss, our status. Dr. Mike Freidman, the father of Type-A Behavior and one of my mentors, called this “status insecurity.” Is it any wonder that 85% of participants who seek grief support after the death of a child, spouse, or parent, are women? Men who are overwhelmed by the intensity of their grief and defenseless against their own feelings of sorrow, will try to outrun, out-numb, out-busy their way over and around grief.  As I learned at one of our first support groups in New York after 9-11, they will even shout down others who are trying valiantly to work through their grief.

A disgruntled husband had come to pick up his wife from support group stuck his head in the room to see if we were done. He was invited by several group members to join in and responded, “No thanks, I know how this stuff works. Misery loves company!” After a brief silence, one of the other wives stood up, looked him in the eye and said, “No sir, you’ve got it all wrong. Hope loves company.”

Taught to hide, deny, repress and outright avoid our feelings, or fake it by telling everyone “I’m fine,” men learn to fool themselves into believing they can just hold their breath or think their way around it. These men become the dumbed down, crusty, diluted version of their former selves. But the debt comes due. Cut off from their feelings, hearts and too often, their loved ones, they wither. As if life after loss wasn’t difficult enough.

Here are a few healthy and effective ways to support a man who you care about through grief:

Ask open-ended questions like “What has it been like for you since losing ___?”

Listen and gently draw him out by asking, “What’s been helping you? Making it harder?”  “What are your options?” and “Tell me more.”

Men often find that “doing” some form of activity, like going for a walk, fishing, golfing, working on a project, taking a trip, etc. helps them cope.  Consider asking him about, or suggesting, an activity and joining him.

Gently encourage, but don’t push, him to

  1. a)    share his feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, etc.
  2. b)   be patient, kind, and caring with himself
  3. c)    be honest and direct with those in his inner circle and place of work about the kind of support he needs.

Going on is never easy after the loss of a loved one. It takes a strong work ethic, bravery, and a lot of faith to fight one’s way back into life. It also takes courage and humility to admit that we need help and ask for it (“help” is, after all, the least utilized 4 letter word in the male vocabulary). Learning self-care, self-compassion, and that it’s OK to ask for what we need are the things that not only help men grieve but slowly transform their pain back into love and enjoy full lives in the aftermath of loss.  Making our lives an expression of love, rather than despair, is a noble quest for any “real man.”

Suicide From The Other Side Of The Table

The year 2001 was the worst year of my life. In January, one of my closest friends was admitted to the hospital with a “mild” case of pneumonia. It developed into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The day before my birthday, she died while I held her hand.

Shock and grief sent the depression I had battled all my life spiraling out of control. The medication I had taken for years no longer seemed to help. The simple act of breathing was physically painful. I wanted the hurt to stop. More than anything, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. Almost without realizing it, I drifted into planning how I could make that happen.

Why am I telling you this? Because if you are like most survivors, including me, you’ve spent a lot of time agonizing about what you could have said or done to keep your loved one alive.

I have been where our loved ones stood.

I know the tunnel-vision lure of the suicide trance. And I also know that there was nothing anyone could have done to get through to me at that point. Absolutely nothing.

I knew that my family and friends loved me and worried about me. Somehow, my mind twisted their concern, distorting it into the conviction that I was making them miserable, and they’d all be better off after I was gone.

Were they perfect? No, of course not. They were human.

Did they sometimes say the wrong things in their desperation to break through to me? God, yes.

But not one of them said – or could have said — anything wrong enough to push me into suicide nor anything right enough to pull me back from the brink.

I could barely register their words, anyway. All I could focus on was my own all-consuming anguish.

The only reason I survived my suicide trance was sheer dumb luck.

While I was making my plans, I had scoped out a pawnshop that sold handguns and wasn’t too fussy about paperwork or mandatory waiting periods. The night I was ready to act, I took $300 in cash out of my bank account and drove over to the pawnshop … only to find that it had gone out of business.

My tunnel vision was so narrow at that point that it didn’t occur to me that I could go to another pawn shop, and I was too mentally and physically exhausted to think of a different plan. I sat numbly in my car in the parking lot until daybreak. Then I slowly drove to my doctor’s office.

By the end of the year, I had acquired a psychiatrist, a new diagnosis – bipolar disorder – and a new treatment regimen that slowly began to disperse that dark cloud of despair that had shrouded me for so many months.

“It is not your fault.” ~Debra Stang

Looking back on that time in my life now is a little like trying to remember a nightmare in the warm safety of daylight. One thing I cannot forget, however, is the dull resignation of being trapped in a prison of depression with walls so thick that not even love could penetrate them.

If you are still struggling with guilt over your loved one’s suicide, please make today the day that absorbs the knowledge, in your mind and in your heart, that you are not to blame. You did not cause it. You could not have stopped it.

Fairy tales and Hollywood tells us that love is enough to overcome anything. I used to believe that. I don’t anymore. Sometimes the bad things are stronger than love. Sometimes the bad things win. As the song, “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Misérables says so eloquently, “… there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather.”

It is sad – horribly and tragically sad when depression or another mental illness steals a life. But it is not your fault.

Connecting the Dots

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.” ~Steve Jobs

I posted a quote from Steve Jobs in my status this morning. I thought it was worth explaining the context. It came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford. He explained that he dropped out of college after one semester, (I’m sure much to the dismay of his parents) but continued to hang around and attend free classes that interested him – while sleeping on friend’s floors. He took a calligraphy class just because he thought it was cool. Fast forward to the early years of Apple. He took his calligraphy knowledge and developed the different fonts that are used in all word processing software around the world. It was only looking back that the dots connected any value to a class he’d taken on a whim.

In my mid-40’s I was a content bachelor and comfortable, living out my life as one. During a casual conversation with a lady friend at work, I mentioned how all my attempts at relationships had been disasters. She jokingly said, “Maybe you should try one of those Asian mail order brides”. On a whim, I found a service to connect with Vietnamese ladies and sent out some introductory letters. The culture and family values of Vietnam had always interested me. There was no road map in front of me showing that I would develop a relationship with a wonderful woman and that 7 months later I would be standing terrified in the middle of a Vietnamese wedding. That 4 years later I would hold God’s most precious gift to me, just minutes after Kelly took her first breath of life. That almost 11 years later I would be sobbing and forever broken over her lifeless body.

It’s only looking back that the dots connect. I didn’t have a crystal ball showing me the steps in advance to be a perfect dad to a little girl – or that how her life ended was never within my control.

Before the day is over, I will be re-arranging the dots and doing the “if only” and “should have” and examining my failures as a Dad. But at least for a little while, I will hold on to the understanding that this can only be done looking back. There were no dots to connect, reconnect, or shuffle and reorganize all those years ago. There was a moment in time when on a whim I took a step toward something that interested me – and now, I cannot change the ending … and there’s nothing else I would change.

If no one speaks your name today, I will Kelly. Every day as long as there is breath in my body.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

1 Comment on Connecting the Dots

Keeper of the Little Things

Hello. The second-year date of my son’s suicide is coming up next week. In light of this, I find myself more sensitized to even the smallest things. Last night, “my” dog slept at the foot of the bed my son used; he hardly ever goes in that room anymore, or not so I have seen. The most poignant incident is my son’s best friend’s mentioning that she is “beginning to forget the little things about him”.

Of course, there is beauty in remembering the “big accomplishments and the amazing generosity he showed to everyone,” for example, BUT I find myself the keeper of the little things. They are stuck to me like those hooked seed casings known as hitchhikers; they seem to pop open at a moment’s notice when a memory is evoked. There is no expectation that anyone other than myself will keep remembering all of the little and big parts of who my son was. It is just a reminder of time’s passing for everyone else and time’s slow pace for me. Maybe it’s all part of a mother’s job; if he were alive, I probably would be helping plan a wedding or other major event which would include lots of little details.

I have made progress on the journey back into life, but this month is one of accepting myself for as far as I have gone and not worrying about how far I decide I need to go. People are not as patient with me as they once were, but I put on my armor and ignore them. I think that is a huge step for me, in and of itself. This is my “Fault in Our Stars” to live through… As my garden grows in this wet and wild spring weather, I realize that once a mother has put that much love and effort into nurturing an infant to a child to young adulthood, her son or daughter is part of her forever. ALL parts. The commitment does not end with death.

So, ask me a question about something “little” and I am sure I will have a story to tell.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

8 Comments on Keeper of the Little Things