Months after Rick's father died, Rick's wife Cathy began to worry about her husband. "Rick has never cried or talked about his father's death," she says. "Now he spends all of his free time working on an old '58 Chevy he and his dad had bought right before he died. I'm worried that he's not handling his dad's death in a healthy way."
Death may be a normal part of life, but grief can undermine how you move forward. You know how you handle grief, but if you don't know how people around you will handle it, then things can be come unstable and complicated very quickly.
Masculine and Feminine Responses
What Cathy perceives as an unhealthy response is, in fact, a healthy one. Rick's behavior is typical of the way men handle loss. He is expressing his grief privately. By restoring the Chevy he is connecting to the pain to begin the healing process, as well as honoring his father's memory. Cathy, however, grieves from the feminine side by crying and talking with family and friends.
While women typically express and share their grief and look to the past, most men won't verbalize their pain and often deny they are sad. They are also more likely to take action, such as setting up a trust fund or creating a memorial.
Men are taught to hide their tears, and to replace their sadness with anger. As a result, men may initially experience the strength of their anger before they begin to shed their tears.
Conversely, women are the opposite. They have been taught not to express their anger, so they use the strength of tears.
Healing Through Therapy
The biggest problem with therapy is that it is shaped to be effective with women. That may be a by-product of women seeking help when coping with loss. Talking and expressing emotions are difficult for most men because it is not in their nature to seek help.
One way to get men to talk is to get them involved in an activity. One hospice invites all the recent widowers to an all-day fishing trip. This activity allows the men to process their grief while they fish together. This approach works with boys too. While boys may not open up one-on-one, they may talk while doing something together, like playing basketball.
The approach to conversation is also different. Instead of asking a recent widower how he feels, ask him to talk about the day something happened. For example, you may ask what it was like the last day he saw his wife. He is likely to tell a story about about how he feels, rather than directly express it directly or through tears.
Once men do start to talk, they are more willing to express anger than are women. Many times they're also expressing a greater degree of guilt—possibly because the situation was out of their control. The idea that they should have been able to control the circumstances is typical of men, while women usually believe they cannot, so they are more open to help.
Ritual and Symbolism
A ritual is a routine activity that helps people move from one state of mind to another. It is often a critical part of a man's healing process. For Rick, it was restoring the old Chevy.
The ritual activity is intended to connect you with your pain and grief and allows you to move out of ordinary awareness and into the experience of grief, in a safe way, for a period of time.
Sometimes men express their grief symbolically. When pro golfer Payne Stewart died in a plane crash several days before the Tournament of Champions, many of his peers wore knickers (Payne's trademark) during the event to show they were feeling something they couldn't express inside.
Other symbolic actions can include dedicating a game during a sporting event or building a memorial.
Men often get mixed signals when it comes to expressing grief. The message they receive growing up is to take loss like a man. When they reach adulthood, though, the messages become contradictory. A grief counselor may see grieving families in which the wife and children are crying, but the husband is not. The family is worried because dad isn't crying. Yet if he does, they get upset. Although a wife may be relieved that her partner is able to grieve, she may fear that his tears somehow lessen him as a figure of strength. Thus, men are criticized when they don't grieve, and their masculinity is questioned when they do.
Men may now be expected to be more sensitive and get in touch with their feelings, yet be strong and masculine, and they are making progress, but there is still a long way to go. Old habits die hard and it may take generations to see change.
When all is said and done, grief does not discriminate. It is important not to put grief into gender-specific roles. Ultimately, we are all different and deal with loss individually.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychological Association
A man's grief. Menweb website. Available at: http://www.menweb.org/mangrief.htm. Accessed December 13, 2013.
Gender and grief—how men and women handle grief. Natural Parenting website. Available at: http://www.naturalparenting.com.au/gender-and-grief-how-men-and-women-handle-grief. Accessed December 13, 2013.
Section 7: Gender issues in bereavement. Grief counseling resource guide: A field manual. New York State Office of Mental Health website. Available at: http://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/grief/#Section7. Accessed December 13, 2013.