WHAT WOMEN SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MALE GRIEF
"Men grieve far more than we show or discuss."
The first thing women should know about male grief is that we have a lot of it. It is pushed into many darkened corners of our lives. We try to stay very, very busy.
We hurt when our children leave home. In one fashion or another, we helped build that emptying nest.
Those of us who are divorced may miss our ex-wives for many years, even if we remarry. This borders on being a taboo topic, even between men, but I can assure you it is often true.
So many families are divorced these days, and men grieve, hard, over their limited visitation time with their kids. It's even worse of course if the ex moves them far away. Then in later life, we grieve over the years we never had with them and the emotional distance that may have resulted.
Many of us miss our fathers, either because they have died or because they were too busy teaching us to be tough to show us that they loved us.
If we lose our jobs, we miss our careers and connectedness with co-workers and clients.
As we age, we are disturbed far more by our ebbing physical strength than by our receding hairlines and expanding waistlines.
Any woman who wants a better understanding of male grief should read Pat Conroy's novel The Prince of Tides. The publisher's standard disclaimer maintains that the story is fiction. If that's true, it's awfully good fiction. The book (not the movie) could serve as a textbook on male loss and grief. It is the life stories of four grieving boys and men and how they grapple with a panorama of life situations: The desperate devotion to a suicidal sister. The warped behavior of a workaholic who expresses "love" by abuse. The conflicted feelings toward a controlling mother. Love-hate relationships with a father. The estrangement and reconciliation with a wife. And the endless bittersweet grief of an intense, illicit love affair cut short and unmourned. It is an ultimately victorious grief tragedy, told by a man.
Men and women generally have different styles of grieving, but there are plenty of similarities. And as the novel clearly shows, there are differences even between men. So to discuss "male" grief requires some overgeneralization. Though there are detectable male patterns of grief, there is no cookbook engraved on tablets of stone that men follow, or should follow.
Men grieve far more than we show or discuss. One of the biggest reasons for the misunderstandings on this subject is that we don't talk about it, and we do a rather poor job of listening when women try to share their own grief or prod us to talk about ours.
We almost never cry in front of other men. If we feel that a woman is "safe," we may cry with her. But most of our tears are shed when we are alone, perhaps while driving our vehicles. In all too many cases, our hot tears become a deep-freeze of anger or rage. Most very angry men are very sad men.
I have worked closely for decades with female nurses, who are some of the toughest, smartest people in the workplace. They are highly focused and task-oriented, traits usually attributed to successful men. But in their scraps of spare time between emergencies, nurses and other women talk to each other in great detail about their feelings and personal lives. Men do not. If we talk about feelings at all, it may resemble the headlines of a newspaper:
"Custody hearing yesterday. Holiday visits only."
"Yeah, I've been there. Sorry, man."
I've often reminded my grief groups that the doctor does not check a newborn to see if it has tear ducts and, if it does, announce "It's a girl!" Men have tear ducts, too, but we tend not to use them as often. Many men almost never cry. This is not entirely a cultural thing. I suspect we are just wired a little differently, and we try other behaviors before letting our tears conquer us. Crying, for us, feels like defeat instead of relief, and we are ashamed. No amount of well-meaning sloganeering ("It's okay for men to cry") is likely to change this.
So whenever possible men resort to physical expressions of grief. In its healthier forms this would be some type of vigorous manual labor. A bereaved father once told me that he got a pile of wood and spent hours in his workshop, sawing boards. He wasn't building anything, just sawing. He was conscious that he was releasing powerful feelings by the strenuous and repetitive exercise, which served no purpose whatever other than to be strenuous, repetitive, and release powerful feelings. It would be fair to say that he converted his tears into sweat.
When my wife and I split up I hurled my cell phone, with the focused precision of a major league pitcher, at a couch 30 feet away, then delivered a profanity-peppered rant that would have driven General Patton to his Bible. It is a cliche, but a true one, that anger is healthy. What is not healthy is to stay stuck there for too long, which is what I did.
I used the anger to drug my profound grief over the divorce, which is quite literally the death of a family. Ten years later I, an experienced bereavement counselor, am still paying for that with grief that is baked like old food on an unwashed dish. After a decade, the scrubbing process is considerably more arduous. I envy people who can cry quickly, easily, and freely. My observation has been that they heal better than men like me.
Women do not understand male grief. That is largely because men don't understand it either. This is my attempt to shorten one of the gaps of understanding between the genders, to help educate women about our grief and to help those of us who are men to better understand ourselves.