Grief is a taboo subject in our culture because no one wants to feel such pain. It’s even more taboo to discuss the grief men feel. Men are often grieving far more than they or their partners even realize. They grieve the death of loved ones for certain. But they may also grieve the loss of a pregnancy, a marriage that ended, changes in their relationships with growing or distant children, the loss of a job/retirement, and health issues that reduce their physical abilities. Talking about such loss is typically not supported or expected of men and so they behave in ways that look confusing.
Writing about how men grieve is an overgeneralization by its very nature as each individual man will experience and express grief in a range of ways. However, it’s worthwhile to try and understand common patterns in how men show grief because it’s often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Grieving men often appear disinterested, distant, or angry on the outside when they are really struggling with immense feelings of loss internally.
The Danger: Our misunderstanding of men’s grief can result in men not receiving the compassion and care they need. People often feel pushed away by the grieving man. Relationships suffer and loneliness grows. Men may not even recognize their own experience as grief. Instead of describing their emotional feelings, they tend to focus on physical symptoms of grief such as weight gain, back pain, headache, and mental fog. Not understanding the signs and symptoms of men’s grief contributes to men who cannot properly process their feelings and loved ones who feel left out or confused. When left unprocessed grief can result in chronic health problems, relationship conflicts, and substance use problems.
The Mismatch: In most contemporary cultures we have a very specific idea of what grief should look like. We expect a grieving person to cry, wail, or collapse. Such emotional expressions are not typically supported for men. Instead, men are given messages to be strong, fix problems on their own, protect others above themselves, and avoid looking emotionally vulnerable at all costs. These messages create a mismatch between how men and women are acculturated to express grief. And this leaves the women in the lives of men who are grieving to often feel alone, dismissed, and unsupported because they do not feel like the men are joining them or sharing in the grief.
How Men Express Grief: As men struggle to acknowledge their feelings of grief and loss, they often respond in ways that don’t fit with our expectation of how grief is expressed. This does not mean these expressions aren’t legitimate, valuable ways of processing grief. Their style may be different, not necessarily unhealthy or maladaptive. It all depends of the dose and range of options. They can become maladaptive when these strategies deny vulnerable feelings and lead to social isolation.
- Busyness: Men often value fulfilling the role as protectors or fixers. Grieving can leave anyone feeling helpless and powerless at times. So men often respond to this uncomfortable feeling by focusing on something they can accomplish or control. They may feel a sense of satisfaction or purpose when they direct their energy on projects that have a concrete, physical, or financial goal to be achieved. They may suddenly take on a large home renovation project, spend long hours on the job to make extra money, or excessively engage in athletic activities. All of this can provide a temporary relief from the pain of grief which can be helpful in small doses. The danger is when this busyness becomes complete avoidance of vulnerable feelings or others who are suffering and leads to isolation.
- Numbing: The emotional and physical pain of grief can overwhelm anyone. It is helpful to find strategies to occasionally get a break from this pain in order to function in daily life. Sometimes men mentally compartmentalize and avoid talking about the loss, retreat to the alternate world of videogames, or use alcohol or drugs to escape the feelings. Yet this numbing must remain in balance with acknowledging the suffering and giving oneself permission to simple feel it. Otherwise numbing can lead to addiction, built up physical tension, and isolation.
- Emotional Restriction: Anger is a familiar feeling to anyone experiencing grief and loss and can even be protective to balance feelings of helplessness. For men, expressing anger is far more acceptable, familiar, and culturally supported than expressing sadness or loneliness. Men are often not given the tools or support to express such vulnerable feelings. This can lead to men expressing anger INSTEAD of sadness rather than anger ALONG WITH sadness. So it should not be surprising when men lash out at the people closest to them with hostility instead of crying or talking about their hurt. This obviously contributes to misunderstandings and pain within relationships, feelings of shame within men, and further isolation.
Strategies for Healthy Coping: It’s important for everyone to accept that grief is a universal part of the human experience. Rather than avoiding or denying it, we can learn to process through it in healthy ways as an opportunity to build emotional resilience and relationship intimacy. Men need to understand their own experience of grief and feel they have permission to process this safely. Men must be able to look below the anger on the surface of grief to the vulnerable feelings like sadness, helplessness, and loneliness. Allowing themselves to acknowledge and sit with these feelings is an essential first step in healthy coping. There is great strength in being able to tolerate heavy emotions. The distractions strategies and physical activity involved in “busyness” can still be a productive part of the grieving process as long as time limits are set on being alone and there are opportunities to safely work through the full range of feelings within grief. Being sensitive to the unique way men tend to express grief allows everyone to feel more connected and empowered to heal.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.