A note about men and grief

By Tom Golden

 

As a beginning grief therapist in the late 1970's I can remember the difference I felt when a new client I would receive was a man or a woman. Somehow a woman seemed easier to work with, requiring less effort in helping her to do her work. A man, on the other hand, many times meant trouble. Somehow men didn't seem to fit our program. Being the only male therapist, I would tend to get most of the male referrals. The reaction of the female therapists to male clients was somewhat stronger than my own, with some staff members even refusing to work with men. Various criticisms were heard about the way men grieved or didn't grieve. It took me some time to realize that the type of therapy I had been taught to do was designed for women. The vast majority of clients who visit therapists' offices are female, and due to this, therapy is shaped accordingly to fit and be effective with women. I slowly began to realize that there wasn't something wrong with the men—there was something wrong with the therapy.

What I found out quickly was that what I had been taught to do was largely a feminine approach. I had been taught to sit and face my client and to TALK about the issues and to relate things to the past. I had been taught that eye contact was a necessary ingredient in fostering a connection with your client. It worked well with women, but the men didn't seem as interested. It wasn't until much later that I realized that eye contact meant something very different to men. It meant CONFLICT. When men "face" each other it means that we are in competition —"headto- head" competition. Sports teams "face" each other, boxers "face" each other, hockey even has a "face off." When men are getting close to each other it is almost always done side by side. Together in a foxhole, working on a joint project with a tight deadline, on a sports team, serving together on the police force or fire department. These are all examples of situations where men find themselves bonding with other men. They are side by side, working under pressure with a common goal. Traditional therapy forces men into a "face-to-face box" that ignores their nature.

Do men like to talk about their problems? Certainly not as much as women. The men I have met would much prefer to DO something about a problem than to sit and talk about it. Do men like to dwell on the past? The men I have met would much prefer to do something that impacted the future, to make a difference in some way rather than simply discussing the past. Many men I have known consider talking about the past as non-productive and inherently useless. Therapy, of course, asks its participants to do both these things, repeatedly. Talking about one's problems and relating them to the past is the daily fare of many forms of psychotherapy.

This is not male-friendly territory. So here I was, trying to encourage men to make eye contact and to talk about their past: Two major mistakes in relating to a man if you want him to feel comfortable. I started to realize that this wasn't working, but at the time I wasn't sure why it wasn't working. What I did know was that I needed to change my approach and find an alternative. This was in the late 1970's and there was precious little written about effective therapy with men—that I was aware of at least. I was searching for some answers about how men might differ from women in the ways they healed from loss. It was about that time that I happened upon some journal articles about indigenous people and the ways they dealt with grief. To my amazement and joy one of the articles described the grief ritual of the Bara men of Madagascar. It told of how after a death in the tribe, the men and women had different "huts." One was called the "House of Tears" and housed the female mourners; the other was called the "Man's hut" and was the meeting place for the men. It was basically the command post for all of the ritual and activities.

The Bara article motivated me to do some library searching on indigenous ways of grieving, and I found very quickly that this was often the norm: The women were given a place to emote while the men were given activities following a death. These activities involved not just the rituals and funeral ceremonies, but very specific tasks that honoured the person who had died. An example was the Dagura tribe in Africa where the men are chosen to "sing the life" of the person who died. Other tribes ask men to drum the bereavement rhythm, while still others ask the men to dance out their grief. The common denominator was consistently that the men were given tasks to accomplish following a death. Women were at times given tasks but more often were offered a safe place to openly emote. Importantly, the men's tasks were their pathway to working through their emotions. The woman's path was often through her openly emoting and the man's path was largely through his actions.

I soon began to realize that not only was I trying to stuff a man into a feminine mode of healing by encouraging him to make eye contact and talk about his emotions and his past, but that he had an additional dilemma stemming from the lack of culturally-endorsed active rituals. His natural inclination was being undermined by a culture that has eliminated all of the activities that men use to traditionally heal themselves. Our present culture has very few activities for men following a death. We have successfully sub-contracted everything. Someone else digs the grave, makes the casket, performs the funeral, makes the cards, transports the body, etc. We men are left twiddling our thumbs with nothing to do following a death. This negates our masculine strength of action. It was this realization that drew me to join my brother and make the container for my father's ashes after he died in 1994 (but that is another story).

With this realization in mind, I started to look at men who were grieving in a very different manner. I started asking them not what they were FEELING, but what they were DOING about it. I was delighted at that point to see that when I asked the right questions, in the right manner, I started seeing things in a very different light. The men started talking to me about what they were doing. This was familiar territory. As the men talked of their endeavours, the emotions flowed in a comfortable manner. One man shared a story of having made a baseball bat in honour of his brother out of a favourite tree of theirs. Another created a tournament in honour of his son, while another wrote a small book about his son. These men were working with their grief and their emotions by doing something.

In talking with these grieving men about their activities I noticed a striking similarity to the tribal men and their activities, except the American men's activities were their own creations and were often kept quiet. No one usually knew about these activities but the men and now myself. I began to see why these and other men were shamed for not grieving. People simply couldn't SEE their grief. It was quiet, often subtle, and, importantly, it was not in the places that people normally looked. The men were surely grieving but they were doing it in their own way and their way was not acknowledged by the culture at large. As far as most people were concerned, these men simply weren't "dealing with their feelings"—meaning that they were not doing things in the same way that a woman would do things and were judged in comparison to women. How many times have we heard "You are not dealing with your feelings"? What in fact is happening is that the men aren't using the accepted feminine mode, and thus are judged harshly because they aren't responding to loss as women do. But in fact they are DOING what comes naturally to them in following the masculine way of healing.

I started watching more carefully the activities that the men used after a loss and began to see that the activities fell into one of three categories: creativity, thinking, and practicality. The men tended to seek out activities that provided containers to DO something about their losses. Usually they were designed to honour the person who had died. Eric Clapton used creativity in writing a song about his four-year-old son who died in a tragic accident. C. S. Lewis wrote "A Grief Observed" which to this day is a classic in the grief literature. Mr. Lewis used his strength in writing and in thinking to do something that honoured his wife and helped others. Michael Jordan used his practicality as an athlete when he dedicated his season on the Chicago Bulls in memory of his murdered father. Remember the championship where Jordan fell to the floor after the Bulls won the game and was tearful and holding the basketball at midcourt? It turns out that this was the season he had dedicated to his father and they won the championship. Additionally, the game was won on Father's Day, which sharpened and amplified the emotion surrounding his efforts to honour his father. All of these examples show how these men used their strength (Clapton's music, Lewis' thinking, Jordan's basketball) as an active mechanism for their healing.

 

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative.

 

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