“Be strong.” “Bear up to pain.” “Be sexually potent.” “Provide for others.” “Endure.” “Don’t give in.” “Compete and win at all costs.” “Be in control.” “Remain rational, unemotional and logical.” “Accomplish, achieve, perform.” “Be assertive, in control and one step ahead of the next guy.”
These are some of the messages given to young boys and men for thousands of years. We’ve heard it from lovers, parents, families, friends, religions, governments, the media and other men since birth. Some of the messages of expected behavior are blatant and others more subtle. Some are proclaimed orally or in print and others are non-verbal and observed by actions and deeds. “Don’t cry.” “Never, ever, express or convey fear, dependence, loneliness, emotion, weakness, passivity or insecurity.”
It’s only been in the last forty years, since the modern women’s movement (in some areas of the world), that these cultural, familial and religious norms and expectations have been questioned, debated, challenged and/or changed. Within this short span of freedom from such rigid conditioning, some men have chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to embrace these norms and continue the cycle. Others have revolted against them altogether and thrown out the positive attributes of such expectations, along with the negative. And others swagger back and forth between the past and the present, in a state of confusion, bewilderment and loss.
Regardless of how one lives, when a man loses a loved one, by death or separation, they can be thrown into an unknown world of pain that casts their beliefs, personal expectations and accepted ways of being into an ocean of doubt, turmoil and isolation. Loss causes an eruption of feelings, fears and thoughts that fly in the face of what it has meant to “be a man”. Feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, doubt, confusion, helplessness and indescribable pain can assail our very concept and perception of who we are.
Efforts at avoiding, “toughing it out”, controlling or “getting rid” of the pain of loss, only result in temporary relief, often at the expense of long-term health and rarely change the reality of our condition. The pain of grief is one of the few kinds of pain in life that are best dealt with head on, by doing something men are often taught to avoid. The pain of grief and mourning tend to change and heal with time and attention, when we can honestly acknowledge what we are feeling, thinking and believing and externalize such reactions in a positive, healthy environment and/or manner.
Men and women all experience the pain of grief and loss and both genders feel its impact, in many of the same ways. What tends to be different about the sexes is the way in which we talk about and verbalize such feelings and experiences. We filter them differently. Men often talk about the things we did for our loved one, how we took care of them, what we’re “doing” now and what we “plan” to do in the future. We blame others or ourselves for something that did or didn’t happen or something that could have been different; something that would have spared us the pain we are now experiencing. Our anger, guilt and reasoning; are ways we try to control and make sense out of our grief and the situation it has put us in.
Though it is a generality and never true at all times, with all men or all women, men tend to speak “about”, instead of “of” or “with”. If I asked a gentleman how he’s been “feeling” or what had been the “most difficult” about the loss of his wife, partner or parent, he might look at me as if I was speaking Russian. If, on the other hand, I questioned his “reactions” or asked him to tell me a story “about” the deceased, he would begin to take the road to the same valley of pain that a woman experiences, but get there from a different route.
Ironically, men often seem to be more emotionally dependent on women for their sense of self, than the other way around. (Again, please remember that I am speaking in generalities and there are thousands of exceptions.) The women in a man’s life are who he tends to share his most intimate needs, desires and fears with, as it is seldom safe or accepted to talk about such things with other men. Thus, when a woman mate, friend or mother dies or leaves, men have nobody to whom they feel they can acceptably turn to and their need for intimate human contact and emotional well being is left in a desert of thirst for companionship, friendship, validation and/or physical contact.
Many men, though not all, also connect physical touch with sex, because it is one of the few occasions in their lives when they are permitted or expected to touch or be touched. To hug, kiss or embrace another man or woman, aside from the sexual act, is frowned upon and charged with a variety of expectations, judgments and fears. Thus, after the death of a loved one, men often do not know how, where or when it is acceptable or possible to have any human contact that is not sexual.
Luckily, there are people, men and women, who are willing and able to listen to men’s lives and experiences surrounding grief and loss. There are places where a man can be held, without any sexual involvement or expectation of such. There are people within families, churches and communities that honor and respect our gender’s differences without putting limits or expectations on what those differences can or should be.
If you or a man you care about, has experienced the loss of a loved one, give yourself or him, the comfort, permission and love that all humans need, regardless of gender and provide the personal or community resources that can help the hurt change to healing and positive action.