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
- a) share his feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, etc.
- b) be patient, kind, and caring with himself
- 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.”