By James Snow, LMHC, CAP, Clinical Director of Lucida
There was serious friction between me and my dad while growing up because I was the rebellious one in the family. But in the last five years of his life, we forged a new bond. When he retired, he agreed to move from Pennsylvania to Florida, to be closer to me. We planned to do the father and son stuff we’d missed during my younger years―sailing, snorkeling and just spending time together.
Ten days after he moved here, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Our time together was cut short and consisted mostly of me taking him to doctor’s appointments, tending to his health care and, finally, discussing his last wishes. Then, he was gone.
It was the best―and absolute worst―experience of my life. I was blessed to spend time with him, but devastated to lose him. Even before he died, I watched this once strong man slowly slip away. I had to grieve the loss of my dad as I knew him, the loss of our time together, and then, the loss of him.
Grieving is one of the hardest things I’d ever gone through, but I had to go through it to get to the other side of it. If I’d bottled it up and denied it, my life would be very different today.
Men tend to block their grief because they are not raised with the emotional skillset to recognize and express painful emotions. One study showed that because of the “masculine style,” grieving the experience of loss is marginalized in men.
How Men Grieve
Personality, culture and gender impact the way people grieve. Because men do not typically express loss in tears or respond the way women do, it is often perceived that they are not bereft. This is because men tend to remain silent and grieve secretly. Or they may become immersed in activity, go back to work quickly, stay very busy and even take legal action related to a loss, such as suing a hospital or someone they perceive as responsible for the loss.
Studies show that because of the discomfort men have with grief, they are more likely to express sadness and despair as anger.
Men have been raised to fix, rescue, protect and control things, so they do not typically sit down and take time to feel the pain. They are more likely to automatically spring to action in some of the following ways:
- Taking charge of the situation
- Solving problems
- Making arrangements
- Paying bills
- Supporting or upholding others
- Thinking more than feeling
- Keeping feelings contained and focusing on practical matters
- Taking on grief as a masculine challenge to master and overcome
Although these are normal coping strategies, they ultimately block the grieving process. Any time that process is blocked, there will be substantial consequences. Ignoring grief can lead to depression, explosive anger, prolonged grief, non-combat PTSD, substance abuse and suicide. No one can truly escape the pain of grief. It may come out in maladaptive ways, such as drinking too much, taking drugs, becoming aggressive or getting into arguments.
Men Need Permission to Have Feelings
One way to get beyond the impact of grief is to address it in the present moment. Here’s how:
1. Give men permission to cry.
My dad was an engineer and did most things with a great deal of precision. However, when it came to doing things around the house, he hurt himself several times — like when he was cutting down trees in the backyard. I never saw him cry (even when he broke his arm) until the day we put our dog down. Loss of any kind hurts, whether it is a beloved pet, a job or a person, and men need to truly get that “it’s OK to cry.”
2. Encourage men to take time out to process their feelings.
Men often don’t allow themselves time and space to grieve, not realizing this is part of the mourning process. When someone close to them dies, men typically jump in: Let me help with the funeral arrangements. Let me take care of estate issues. But there is also a time to do nothing and to just feel the pain.
3. Help men feel a sense of safety.
Men may fear being mocked by peers or worry that they are disappointing their family if they do not stay strong and in control. Because men feel they must hold things together for everyone else during a time of loss, they see expressing emotions as “losing it.” In reality, they need to feel enough safety, especially within the family, to lose it and know they will not be judged.
The Only Way to Heal
Men have been raised to do what is expected of them, and to achieve and maintain what the culture dictates is appropriate behavior. Being sad, distressed and teary is not considered manly so they block their grief. Sadly, it can snowball into something much worse, such as debilitating depression, and it can lead to a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
When my dad was fighting for his life, I helped him in every way I could until we had no more hope. After losing my father, I grieved for a full year. I didn’t block it.
That meant spontaneous crying for no reason, difficulty concentrating and getting tasks done, forgetfulness and anger. These are all normal parts of the grieving process. If I did not allow myself the gift of grief, it could have triggered a severe major depressive episode.
In my work with grieving men who are suffering from depression, it is important to create a safe place for them to share their feelings. With support, they can learn it is healthy to cry. And it is normal to grieve. And they no longer have to suffer needlessly based on cultural expectations.