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MEN IN GRIEF: A Naturally Complicated Experience

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Only four days after the sudden and tragic death of his ten year old son, Roger returned to his job as Manager of a large retail store. Within five minutes of entering the office he was asked, "How is your wife doing?" A well meaning, yet  uninformed assistant manager emphatically announced, "We have created more than your normal busy workload. We decided you should keep very busy so you won't feel sad.

Unfortunately, Roger's story is not that unusual for many males whose lives have been touched by the death of someone they loved. Even in the face of tragic loss, many men are encouraged to be self-contained, stoic, and to express little or no outward emotion in general. Though few males who are able to openly acknowledge the pain of loss are often met with judgments about their "inability to be strong and handle grief."

We hear discussions about how today's male is more able and willing to express feelings, but there is still tremendous discomfort in our culture when a man weeps openly, admits being disoriented or shudders with fear. Even among family and friends, the tolerance for him being able to acknowledge his pain is often minimal, and he usually follows with an apologetic self-justification, i.e., "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cry, but I can't seem to help it." Being strong for others is often reinforced as an honorable and admired quality.

Unfortunately, today's male continues to exist in a cultural atmosphere that has little tolerance for the emotional expression of grief. The result is that many men either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away in various ways.

From infancy, boys are typically conditioned to be "masculine" and girls to be "feminine." Watching young children at play, the observer quickly notes a distinct difference in "appropriate" male versus female behavior. A classic example is that boys are usually discouraged from crying, while girls who cry are thought to be sensitive and warm. In other words, if he is a "good boy" he is a masculine boy who learns that certain feelings (aggression) are acceptable, while other feelings (helplessness) are unacceptable.

The common notion that differences between male and females are grounded in genetics tends to discourage us from learning how we can help young boys and girls to acknowledge a wider range of feelings. In fact, the male who fits society's idealized image of masculinity is often among those men who have the most difficulty when confronted with loss.

This social conditioning process of glorified masculinity creates a major impediment to a male's expression of grief. If being a mate means repressing normal feelings after loss, the man is set up to move away from his grief instead of toward it. Unfortunately, his inability to do the "work of mourning" destroys much of his capacity to enjoy life and living.

A temporary dependence on other persons is a normal part of healing in grief. Yet, for the majority of men, dependency is equated with weakness. Many young boys learn early in life that masculinity and "being male" equals not depending on anybody but yourself. During times of death and grief, we might even overhear well meaning adults telling the little boy, "Now you have to be the man of the house."

Dependency in the typical male usually creates anxiety, fear, and overwhelming feelings of vulnerability. As he begins to experience these feelings following losses, he typically moves quickly to repress them. Although allowing himself to be temporarily dependent would actually assist in the healing process, the American male fights against dependency as if he is fearing for his own life.

The grief experience naturally creates a turning inward and slowing down on the part of the mourner, a temporary self focus which is vital to the ultimate healing process. Yet, for most men this is threatening. Masculinity is equated With striving, moving, and activity. Men are taught to overcome grief, not to experience it.

Our image of the ideal male is O.J. Simpson jumping over chairs and knocking people down as he races though the airport. From early childhood on, the boy is urged to produce, keep on the move, and to have endless amounts of energy. The boy who sits quietly in his room, reading, is often thought to be strange.

By the time a boy becomes a man, he is usually driven by a never-ending need to prove himself, which equates with keeping busy. Perhaps it is not coincidence alone that male children have a four to eight times greater incident of hyperactivity than female children. Perhaps it is also not coincidence that the high rate of heart disease among men may be partly due to the over-stress of constant activity without slowing down to rest.

Unfortunately, the male who throws himself into his work following loss is not an unusual occurrence.

Another critical grief healing ingredient is the ability to ask for or accept support. Many men are not able to seek out support even when they need it the most, and this inability is closely related to their need to be self sufficient.

Having to ask for help or emotional support makes many males anxious and uncomfortable. How many of us know men who will drive around lost for hours without asking for simple directions?

Actually, this analogy to grief works well -- driving around lost, he searches for a destination assuming no one can help him. Many men, lost in the turmoil of grief, refuse to ask for the guidance and support that might well lead them in the direction of healing.

The fear of being dependent on others isolates the male from the very people who would like to help him -- friends and family. The result is that he may become incapable of even accepting unsolicited support and caring.

The male in grief usually suffers in silence, questioning if anyone really cares about him. Many men are comfortable only when they were in control, and asking for help means letting go of control and allowing oneself to be nurtured. Outwardly expressing grief equals weakness to many men. The "more in control" he sees himself, the more appropriate he sees himself as being. The need to overcome grief denies him the opportunity to heal. When he feels surges of grief welling up inside, he invests his already drained energy level into repressing and fighting off the outward expression of these feelings.

It is very much in vogue today to encourage men to openly mourn. However, simply urging man to mourn does not adequately address the factors outlined above. Despite verbalizations to the contrary, the contemporary male is still busy protecting himself from feeling and expressing pain, and he often detaches from both his inner self and people around him when they stimulate feelings of grief.

Because grief related feelings are repressed, the male lives in a state of constant internal tension. How he projects himself to the outward world is really a facade in total paradox to what he feels on the inside. As denial of real feelings takes over, symptoms of grief become enemies to be fought instead of friends to be understood.

The result is a virtual epidemic of complicated grief among males in our culture. Clinical experience suggests that a tremendous amount of anxiety, depression, chemical abuse and physical illness has resulted from men's inability to mourn.

Among some of the more common consequences of complicated mourning in the male are the following:

Chronic depression, withdrawal, and low self-esteem.

Deterioration in relationships with friends and family.

Complaints such as headaches, fatigue and backaches.

Chronic anxiety, agitation, restlessness and difficulty concentrating.

Chemical abuse or dependence.

Indifference toward others, insensitivity and workaholism.

This list does not mean, however, that all men who experiencethe death of someone they loved will suffer these consequences. Open, honest mourning in the male is sometimes stunted by an apparently more powerful pressure to maintain the masculine image. Observers might assume that he consciously chooses to repress his grief. However, to openly mourn is not something he won't do, it is something he can't do. A prisoner within himself, he experiences total frustration of even where to begin in the healing process.

Perhaps as a culture we need to begin to teach the little boy in childhood the freedom of being open to pain and loss.

Working with grown men who have come to know loss in their lives, suggests to me that usually a male will work to become aware of his grief only when he begins to realize how deprived he is of being fully alive and living. Only then can the male begin to relearn how to be a feeling person.

As we work toward creating what we might term this "new male" we must be patient and understanding with ourselves as a culture.

The "new male" will continually affirm his right and need to openly share his grief outside of himself. He will give himself the gift of a total experience with grief, emerging a more whole and healthy person. He will acknowledge his fears, his hopes, his dreams. Becoming a "new male" demands a commitment and awareness of how important experiencing grief is to the ultimate quality of one's life.

I have felt a personal sense of urgency in writing this article. Why? Because as I experience loss in my own life, I find myself continually working to overcome the influences outlined in this writing. As we celebrate Father's Day this month, let us hope that all of us, men and women alike, can work toward giving ourselves permission to mourn in healthy, life enhancing way!

Open, honest mourning in the male is sometimes stunted by an apparently more powerful pressure to maintain the masculine image.


Peninsula/Southbay POMC
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Santa Cruz, CA 95060-6514