I’ve been thinking about men a lot lately. Yes, I know, I can hear the snickers. I want to highlight that June 15 – 21 is Men’s Health Week in Canada (and other parts of the world too.) Men are under-represented in the use of health care services. I’m about to start another all gender bereavement support group and men are usually under-represented in these groups as well.
So where are the men? Maybe they don’t grieve. They are strong and non-emotional beings anyway right? Crying – forget about it!
Let’s bust open that myth right now. Men experience loss too and when any one of us loses something that matters to us, we grieve. Period. There are no gender implications. The process of grieving however will look different on each of us. Here too there are no absolutes by gender – all men do not grieve in one way just as all women do not grieve in another.
I have read research articles about men and grief. I have reflected on the experiences of the men who have come to the bereavement support groups I have facilitated. I’ve spoken with men and women about men and grief. Here are some of the themes that have emerged:
- Men are expected to be emotionally strong in order to support their spouse/family/friends/colleagues. Appearing strong and attempting to not overburden others in the context of support involves hiding feelings of grief and anger. Shame is felt at showing weakness such as expressing emotions – at being vulnerable.
- Men’s attachment roles are often downgraded. For example the father who has experienced the loss of a child through stillbirth. Or the son who was not the primary caregiver to his father. There can be a projection by others that these attachments matter less and therefore hurt less. He, after all, was not pregnant. He, after all, was not the one who emptied the bed pan.
- Self-blame can loom large. He believes he should have done more – worked hard, spoken louder, spent more time, gotten to the hospital faster… – infinite possibilities. The voice of “if only…”
And yet – having offered these themes about men, I need to acknowledge that they can apply to women too. I have heard women speak about how they have had to be strong for their children at the death of the spouse/father. While expressing emotions seems to be more acceptable for women, there can be references to “Don’t be so dramatic,” or “You need to get over it. It is time to stop crying.” If society is more open to women expressing their emotions, there seem to be limits here too.
Women experience disenfranchised grief as well – when the loss is not recognized or acknowledged by others. Miscarriage can fall into this category. If acknowledge as a loss, some see it as insignificant, not a ‘big deal’. Friends or colleagues might express surprise at the depth of grief that is present. Job loss, as another example, can be a disenfranchised loss for either gender. You’ve lost a job – no big deal – you can get another even better one. This is an opportunity!
And I have yet to meet a griever – of any ilk – who has not dipped into self-blame in a voice of regret or a voice of “If only…”
What if its not about gender?
Some guiding principles for each and everyone of us…
My longing is that each of us can discover that place, a sweet spot, where we find some ease in our own individual experiences of grief while recognizing part of what can contribute to that ease is to hear and work with the stories and experiences of others. It is not about comparing and judging one’s grief story versus another’s, rather it is about discovering the shared resonance, the place of shared meaning in, and understanding of, the losses that have occurred.
I also long for each of us to come to an understanding of the emotions of grief where we are not shamed or made to feel a sense of constriction around expressing any emotion. Sure, we can talk about healthy and unhealthy ways to express emotions, but the underlying premise is that all emotions are valid and valuable. Some of us will explore and express those emotions verbally, some of us might do so in more physical ways, and yet others might have a quieter, less expressive process.
Lest there be any questions about why I linked health and bereavement in the first place, let me add that grieving is a normal, healthy human process. It serves a purpose and as such contributes to health – mental, physical, and spiritual.
And last, but certainly not least, it is for each of us as individuals to decide what constitutes a loss that matters. Wouldn’t it be lovely if society as a whole could embrace this and perhaps begin with an empathetic question around possible pain rather than disregarding or minimizing because there is judgement about the scale and scope of loss?
Please do not take any of this to imply that conversations about gender and grief are not warranted. More research looking at different groups and their experience of grief can continue to contribute to our broader understanding. I personally want to create safe containers for individuals to come to and process their grief. I recognize that might mean considering gender in the mix. A men’s only grief group is a valid approach. I just know that whenever I start talking about gender and grief I feel pulled to acknowledge that grief is not easy for any of us – regardless of gender, age, or culture. And while grief doesn’t have to be hard, we do feel losses. That is the core of grief.
I welcome your thoughts/comments on gender and grief.
© Dr. Catherine Hajnal 2015. All rights reserved.