DO MEN GRIEVE?
Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss. It is a physical, emotional, spiritual, social and psychological response. But for a man who is grieving, it may not feel natural or normal at all. In fact, men tend to feel lost in their grief because they aren’t sure what to do or how they are supposed to feel. Additionally, most of the information and research on grief is written from a woman’s perspective. This is due in part because there are more widows than widowers. Yet another reason, people tend not to understand how a man grieves, because they are not as willing or able to express their emotions or talk about their feelings.
What am I feeling and why?
There are many reasons why a man may feel perplexed and at a loss in his grief. Some of these feelings come from things they have been taught as young males about their roles in the family and in society. They are taught to be in control, the protector and provider, and they are taught to be decision makers. Showing their emotions is a sign of weakness.
In addition, boys are taught autonomy or independence when they learn that it is inappropriate to cling to their mothers as they once did physically and emotionally. Consequently, men learn the differences between autonomy and intimacy and how to separate them. They frame their world in terms of hierarchy and survival and it becomes unnatural for them to reach out for support. They do not want to put their burden on anyone and find it easier to suppress their pain and be more private about what they are feeling or experiencing.
Aside from the socialized differences between men and women, physiologically, there are differences that make men react differently to grief. One distinct difference is in the production of the hormone, prolactin, this hormone is produced by both men and women. In men, the production of prolactin drops off in early puberty, in women, the production of prolactin increases with puberty so they can nurse babies. The hormone prolactin is instrumental in the production of emotional tears, and as is obvious, to most of us, men really do cry “outwardly” less than women following a loss.
There is yet another difference. The connective tissue between the two hemispheres of our brains, corpus callosum, is thicker in females than it is in males. The fact that women have a greater connection between verbal capacity and emotions has been attributed to this. It is believed that men are less able to verbalize feeling states. Men tend to describe their grief in terms of their physical bodies, tightness in the chest, knot in the stomach or throat and women talk in terms of feeling sadness, loneliness, empty, etc.
Men tend to be more private in their grief. They are less apt to share feelings, and if they do, they must know that they will be respected. They tend to find it more helpful to take action, to do something active. Many men find it more comforting to return to work as soon as possible after the death of a loved one.
Although it sometimes seems that men go back to work and quickly forget, men tend to try to occupy themselves because they aren’t comfortable being alone and want to avoid their emotions. They are inclined to suppress the feelings of pain and grief. Unfortunately, when you suppress feelings, the feelings last longer. In fact, it is believed that one of the reasons for the slightly higher death rate for men than women after the death of a spouse can be attributed to these repressed feelings and increased activity, particularly if there are some pre-existing health issues.
How does knowing all this help?
Understanding that there are some basic differences between men and women and how they respond to things emotionally and physically can give you power over your grief. You now know that there is nothing wrong with you because you aren’t openly crying or talking about your feelings. It is empowering to know that there are physiological reasons that it may not be as easy for you as a man to talk about and express your feelings as it is for women and perhaps even other men.
It is important to note here that aside from gender differences, everyone grieves very differently. Grief is a very unique and individual response. It is influenced greatly by personality, life experiences, religious beliefs, the circumstances of the death and the relationship with the person who died. It would be better understood if you look at how you have typically handled stress and stressful events in your life. How you coped with these events will almost mirror how you will cope with the death of a loved one. It is also very important to know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve; you are going to do it in your own time and in your own way.
What can I do to help myself?
Acknowledge your loss. Take some time to think about the relationship you had with the person who died, this can be done by just sitting alone and thinking. Some people find it helpful to write in a journal or to write letters to the person who died, but get in touch with your feelings; you don’t have to share them unless you want to.
Running away or denying your grief will only prolong the intensity of your pain, so do something about it. You may want to take action by doing something to honor your loved one. Many men have found comfort by working as a volunteer for a special agency. You might want to contribute to a special interest group that was meaningful to you and the person who died. You might create a scholarship fund, sponsor a charity event or make a donation in your loved ones name. Comfort can also come in the form or creating memorials such as making something special to honor your loved one. One man built a special memorial garden at his church; another made beautifully carved wooden crosses into necklaces and gave them to his family and friends in honor of his wife.
You may find it helpful to take up an old hobby like painting, woodworking, art, music, or writing. These simple things can be self expressions that are very personal and relieve stress. Find a new interest such as gardening, reading, running, biking, meditation, or just spending time alone thinking. Re-connect with your faith, your family and your friends.
You may find great relief from gathering information about grief. Many men cope by understanding just what has happened and what they can expect to happen. Understanding the process of grief is a way you can take care of yourself and your family. Through information and knowledge you can gain a sense of control and through control, you can develop a sense of hope.
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your diet and get some exercise, make sure you get plenty of rest too. As you begin to heal, you will be able to laugh again and enjoy life once more, but it will take some time. Trust your emotions and your feelings.
Trust yourself. Your loved one died but the love you shared can never be destroyed. That relationship is a part of you, who you are and who you are becoming.