We all have a unique way to deal with loss and grief, just as we approach joy and happiness in different ways.
How we honor these differences is important, especially as we delve into how men express such emotions. I believe it’s past due time for this conversation to reach the forefront of our society.
In 2020, I conducted research for a new coaching program I am developing for men. I was deeply touched by the level of openness these men shared with me about their views on success, relationships, personal growth, regret, loss, and legacy. It was both heart-opening and thought-provoking. It also gave me a great pause.
The responses to my questions were widely varied, much to their surprise. I frequently heard, “I am sure all men say this,” though this was not actually the case. What I did sense through my interviews was that these men appreciate safe spaces where they can communicate ideas, talk through past experiences, and share their hopes and dreams.
As a sister to five brothers, a mom of two boys, a proud “gym-rat,” and a high performance coach to men, I have had intimate insight into how they communicate, express their thoughts, and convey emotions. I have also witnessed how men have been pigeonholed by society. It seems they are straight-jacketed emotionally, limiting their ability to express a wider range of feelings, particularly when it comes to loss and grief.
I decided to focus on grief and loss in this article because of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I recounted my interviews, research, and amazing revelations, to which he responded with pensive silence. After a moment, he said, “After a woman experiences a loss, she is sad, but she does okay. Men, well, not so good. This is important to write about.” I agreed.
Men and women generally have different grieving styles, whether the loss is through a divorce, a job, a parent, or a health issue. The discrepancies seem to result from women having more opportunities to discuss their deeper feelings than men. Men are conditioned at a young age to “just deal with it,” “to suck it up,” and at all costs, “don’t let them see you cry.”
As a result, men compartmentalize parts of their emotions, causing vital processing information to be buried underground.
This compartmentalization is often because of their fear of being ashamed, embarrassed, or ridiculed. From adolescence on, men have minimal social support outside their immediate family, if that, to provide a safe place where they can express sadness and loss.
Because of this expectation of male behavior and coping, men are disproportionately unprepared to express distressing feelings and loneliness. Society expects them to be self-sufficient, independent, and rely on their own strength to overcome life’s challenges.
It is important to remember that even Lone Ranger had Tonto.
To expect anyone to experience grief and loss alone is limiting and unhealthy, both physically and emotionally.
When they experience this lack of support, men tend to isolate themselves to protect themselves. They disconnect to cope with the intensity of emotions, or, as we see more and more, men resort to aggression, violence, substance abuse, and even suicide.
So, what can we do to help men and, as a result, help all of us face loss and grief with more openness and acceptance?
Here are some ways we can bring this subject into the open to support men experiencing loss and grief in hopes to relieve the inner stress and emotional bottle-necking that so many men experience:
1. Acknowledge the loss or death. Don’t expect any canned or warm and fuzzy response. Just acknowledging a loss or suffering is a first step in creating connection and a bridge to healing.
2. Express genuine interest in feelings, concerns, and conditions of the loss. Accept their response. Don’t take their response personally if they respond in an abrupt fashion. Grief and loss are messy. Grace can go a long way.
3. Hold confidentiality. Say things like, “Hey, if you need someone to talk to, I am here.” Ask them if they just want to hang out, even in silence. It may feel like you are not doing anything, but remember, silence actually speaks volumes and is a wonderful vessel to build trust.
4. Do small acts of kindness. A note, a meal, a quick text. Don’t expect anything back. They will remember those who reached out. Each and every kind gesture matters.
5. Don’t judge tears. People cry. Encourage it. It’s a natural human reaction, and it’s why we were born with tear ducts.
6. Do something physical. Men often resort to physical activities as a way to express and de-escalate painful emotions. Doing a parallel activity is a wonderful bonding experience for people. Lifting weights, going for a run, stacking wood, or anything that gets the heart rate going. Choosing any activity that is both repetitive and strenuous is a great release.
The world can be scary for all of us, and yes, even men. By taking small steps of kindness toward each other, we can foster more healing and support. This will help create a more honest yet stronger place for all of us.
Isn’t it time we all, men included, are allowed to stand in and be heard? I believe it is.