Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Grieving Men and Emotions

An Ocean of Emotions

(This is a broad statement written from my personal experience. For almost everything, take it in the context of, “In general, men ….”)

Men have an emotional toolbox the size of a walnut for talking about their feelings, while the emotions they feel in grief are the size of an ocean. When they try to express their ocean of emotions through this walnut-sized hole, most of it gets stuck behind the wall, and what comes through is so forceful that it knocks people over.

My impression is that men talk less about grief than women do. Possibly a lot less. You’re probably saying, “Duh!”

For many men, showing their grief in public feels like a sign of weakness, of not being in control, of not being capable of making rational decisions at the moment. Women aren’t stigmatized this way. They are stigmatized in other ways.

My impression is that women often get together to talk about life issues, and so are able to accept the death of a spouse, work their way through grief, and adjust their lives more easily than men. And yet, although they have a support network, women are also reluctant to share their grief, because not talking about grief is a societal problem.

In general, men don’t share their grief with anyone until their friends force them to talk, if they have good friends. Or they overwork until they collapse and are put into therapy by professional health people and then are required to talk.

I could have been one of them.

When I was early in grief a decade ago, I looked at every resource I could find, and found little that dealt with the actual experience of grief. Thankfully more resources are available today, although there still aren’t many that are written by men.

I wasn’t good at expressing my emotions before death kicked me in the heart. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to share, but because I often didn’t know what I was feeling or how to express it. I hadn’t learned how to express feelings when growing up. I moved through life perched up in my head, and regarded emotions as getting in the way of getting work done.

A couple of things kept me going.

Every week for a long time, one of my friends, and some my wife’s friends whom I barely knew, would show up on my doorstep wanting to hear how I was dealing with grief. It was so consistent that I thought someone was coordinating the visits, although I never found out if this was true. I became comfortable sharing because people kept coming back and asking questions, wanting me to say more.

I knew from a previous experience that I needed to deal with grief or I would close up tight. In addition to weekly coffee with others, every night I would write down what had happened that day in grief. This forced me to deal with the questions that came up, and I found that I could handle grief in these bite-sized chunks.

There was also an older man, a friend of my in-laws, who lost his wife the year before me. Whenever I thought that I might be grieving wrong, or that something in grief was going on for too long, he would assure me that he continued to struggle and that I was doing fine. Simply knowing that the journey was likely to take years instead of one month, kept me from panicking.

It doesn’t help that in our society we don’t hear much about grief. It doesn’t help that we run from death. It doesn’t help that we have forgotten the rites, rituals and observances that used to help people grieve, especially when someone dies young and unexpectedly like my wife. I did not find resources in the mainline Christian Church where I hung out, but I did stumble over the wisdom of 3000-year-old traditions in Judaism for taking care of those who are grieving, and this helped.

Even if women don’t talk about grief when they get together, they still get together. Even without saying anything about grief, they know that they have the support of a group of people as they share their feelings in general ways.

The problem is compounded for men. If one man is aware of what he’s feeling and knows how to share his emotions, finding another man to listen isn’t easy.

I didn’t belong to a fraternal order of anything, and I wasn’t into cigars or whiskey, so I had no places of male bonding that could have offered support. My close male friends were compassionate, intelligent, and verbal, but they hadn’t experienced the grief of a spouse so our discussions ended up rather one-sided. But they were willing to be present and listen, and I am grateful for them.

My whole point is that we need to encourage grieving men to talk about what is going on inside them. We need to provide opportunities where they can share their terse, one sentences of feeling. Even getting this out will make them feel better. Quality not quantity is the man’s way. Women would call this “terse.” Men call it “to the point.”

We can’t force men to share, but we can let them know that we’re available whenever they feel like sharing. This leaves the door open.

One-on-one discussions over coffee is one way to help that isn’t intimidating. If nothing else works, mute the TV during commercial breaks when watching sports together and ask how they’re doing. This will give them until the next commercial break to rummage around inside and find something to say. If an intervention is needed, bring beer. Next week, intervene again, and bring more beer.

Men need to talk about what they’re feeling. They need to share their grief before their emotions shut them down, their faces go hard, their hearts turn small and bitter, and they no longer care about themselves or anyone else.

Men like to solve problems, but grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a journey one has to take.


  1. Your article is very helpful in understanding men's grief. I especially like the part about "one sentence of feeling" and not terse but "to the point". Thank you for sharing your perspectives, Mark.
    Monica S.

    1. Monica, I don't know if it's because I'm male or because I'm a writer, probably both, but this weekend my companion cat of 17 years died, and I needed time away from people to sort through the rush of emotions and find the core of what I was feeling. He comforted me after Evelyn died, and I will write about losing Buff later.

  2. Thanks for your post. I am so glad I found it.
    I often feel a void or an empty feeling or sadness or loneliness or something. I can't very often figure out what it is, exactly.
    My wife died 10 months ago, and it's not easier-just different. I write in a journal often, but it isn't the same as having someone there.
    You said people showed up to see how you were. Not one person has done that for me, although I do have a lot of friends. They just don't want to "go there ", I think.
    I feel the need to get away like you did, but can't seem to find the right time.
    One thing is certain. This is never going away. I still love Sandie so much...

    1. I am so sorry about the loss of your wife, Rick. As you know, there are no words that will take the pain away or make sense of the chaos. At the 10 month, I was just drifting, no longer knowing where I was going to go in life. The grief will never completely go away. You are right in this, because you will always love and miss Sandie. And yes, it will be different. I’m sorry, too, that friends haven’t stopped by. For me it was odd because at parties my wife was the one talking and I was in the background, and yet they came. Still, I was in my forties when my wife died, and none of our friends knew what to say about grief. In the last year I’ve been discovering different resources for those who are grieving. If you are writing about your grief and want a community of people who are dealing with grief, you might look at the 30-day online writing course at Refuge in Grief. Each day a new prompt comes to write about, and everyone shares what they have written, if they want. Besides helping each person deal with his or her grief, a community of support develops that continues after the course is over.

  3. I'm sorry your old dear cat companion died.
    It's interesting to read about "in general" men and feelings.
    It is difficult when those who could listen are far away. The telephone is so cold and sometimes hard to understand the suffering soul on the other end.
    And to Rick Burke, 10 months is yesterday, keep writing, take walks, the bus, train ... there are many suffering persons around, smile to them.

    1. I want to be respectful of how different people grieve, because we are all different, so how we deal with grief is different. There are commonalities that unite us, and where we are different, that is where compassion comes in.