It’s not what was happening that I couldn’t handle. It’s that I didn’t understand it. I’m a man, and like most men I wasn’t ready to grieve.
I wrote a post for Acculturated recently about the epidemic of men and suicide. A corresponding aspect of male suicide is how men handle grief. Our culture does not teach men how to grieve, or even what grief feels like, and as a result many of them—many of us—are blindsided by it.
Male grief is the subject of an insightful new book, Men, Grief, And Solitude—A Different Perspective, by Daniel R. Duggan. Duggan is a chaplain and counselor who has over four decades of experience observing how people grieve. The thesis of his book is that men and women grieve differently. This sounds like a small point, and Men, Grief, And Solitude is a small book, but in it Duggan turns some conventional wisdom on its head.
Since the 1970s, traditional grief theory has held that everyone grieves in similar ways. According to Duggan, this is false. Men have different brains than women, take longer to grieve, hide their grief and their tears, and require a period of solitude to begin to heal.
It’s important to note that what Duggan is saying is not that men should not talk about grief. The stoic man who holds fast after watching a parent die or enduring a painful breakup is a model that results in psychological, spiritual, and physical damage. Duggan calls this “going deep into the cave.” He argues that men simply have a different way of talking about their grief, called “reporting” or “storytelling.” We are more comfortable, at least at first, talking about who, what, when, and where, than about feelings. We separate from others whereas women tend to vocalize things directly with each other.
Duggan writes that expecting men to act differently while grieving can be damaging to all those involved. Women and children are confused and even disappointed when they see men at funerals not reacting, wondering why they are not feeling. But this way of being dependable and even working while suffering a loss has to do with our biological as well as cultural factors. Working through our grief takes men longer.
This kind of insight is in short supply in our culture. I found this out recently, and the suddenness of my grief, the nature of it, and how it came so long after the events that made me sad, was terrifying. Had I known just a small amount of what I have since learned about how men grieve, I may have been more prepared.
For several years I had dated a woman from India. Our relationship had been a kind of reverse chronology of typical romances. We met when she was separating herself from an abusive boyfriend, and I was enduring treatment for a serious but treatable illness. She got away from him and I got better, and for several years we experienced an idyllic, even childlike love. This woman’s old boyfriend had tried to restrict her movements, even taking her cell phone. She lived right outside of Washington, D.C., but had never even been into the city. As I returned to health I began to experience a kind of second childhood, and wanted to see all of the things in my city I knew and loved through her eyes. We saw tango dancers at the Kennedy Center, made the rounds at the best Indian restaurants, and dissected our favorite movies for hours. She had never seen the Atlantic Ocean, and on a gorgeous May afternoon I drove us down to the Eastern Shore. When she saw the ocean she wept. We talked about going to India, me meeting her parents.
Yet after a few years, the relationship began to have problems. They were many of the usual obstacle couples face, with the added dimension of two different cultures trying to understand each other. Then one day she told me she just wanted to be friends. This was someone who had tended to me when I was sick, been an intimate friend, had even lived in my mother’s house for short time after she left her violent boyfriend. She once said that in her darkest hour, I became her family.
When she told me her feelings, I knew I was going to be heartbroken. What I didn’t anticipate or understand was the grief. While she openly cried and expressed sorrow at our separation, I just kind of went about my business. I got a new job, connected with old friends, went on with my life. Then about a year later I found some papers that belonged to her, papers that looked like they might be important. I called her to see if she needed them, and she hit me with the news: she had gotten married.
I had spent a good twelve months living my life and only occasionally (or at least I thought) thinking of this person. But my reaction at the news of her nuptials was a titanic implosion of tears, anxiety, dread, shock, and denial. I congratulated her, hung up the phone and then went on a tear in my garage, busting up old junk and sobbing like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. I was cast into a tailspin so dire that I wound up in front of a therapist. The most overriding feeling was confusion. I had stopped drinking at 25. I had buried my father when I was 32. I had defeated cancer. What the hell was going on? What was wrong with me?
What was going on was that my lack of knowledge about the way men grieve had left me completely wide open to an emotional body-slam. Had I simply acknowledged how important this person had been to me, how much I loved her, and talked to a counselor with knowledge of the way men grieve, I might not have been so destroyed. I would have known what to expect, and known that as a man it was going to take me weeks if not months, and require prayer and support and solitude, to get over things. This probably happens a lot in our culture—a man suddenly freaks out and women are baffled when they hear it has to do with something that occurred years earlier.
We’ve achieved a lot of wonderful equality between men and women in the last 50 years. But in some fundamental ways, men and women are different. Grief is one of them, and one of the most important. Acknowledging the difference and treating the grieving with a new perspective may even save some lives.