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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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Men and Their Ocean of Emotions

(Finding grief books to recommend to you that were written by men continues to be a challenge. Of the books I’ve reviewed, 23 were by women but only 6 were by men. I have found women to be more honest, compassionate, and insightful. They speak of the heart, and not just what they thought. Through my blog, I am trying to overcome the male deficit, was well as share what all who grieve might find helpful. - Mark)

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Men have an emotional toolbox the size of a walnut for talking about their feelings, while the emotions of grief are the size of an ocean. When men try to express their ocean of emotions through this walnut-sized hole, what comes through is so forceful that it can knock people over.

For many men, showing their grief in public feels like a sign of weakness, of not being in control or capable of making rational decisions. Women aren’t stigmatized this way. They’re 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 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 where they are required to talk.

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. I didn’t belong to a fraternal order of anything, and wasn’t into cigars or whiskey, so I had no places of male bonding that could have offered support. 

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. I became comfortable sharing because people kept coming back and asking questions, wanting me to say more.

In addition to weekly coffee, every night I wrote in a journal about what had come up during the day. This forced me to deal with the questions that arose, 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 had been going on for too long, John 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 run from death and hide from grief. It doesn’t help that we have forgotten the communal rituals and social observances that used to help people grieve in public, especially when someone dies young and unexpectedly like my wife. 

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.

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 one sentence of feelings. 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. Men like to solve problems, but grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a journey one has to take.
                        
(A version of my essay was originally published by the Good Men Project.)