I had been wondering how to honor my dad within my own family.
I was having some difficulty in coming up with something that
felt right. About that time, my wife, Darbie, came up to me and
said, "Hey, I have an idea." She went on to suggest
that we decorate the tree that had been donated by my male friends
(as described in last month's article) and planted in parkland
adjacent to our home. What a great idea!
We discussed how we could all work together in making the decorations
and in putting them on the tree. I started this by gathering some
berries and dried flowers from my garden. Orange nandina berries,
purple beautyberry bush berries, and some dried-up purple and
white gomphrena flowers. As I tested this idea and strung them
together, I was with my father. I felt the sadness of his absence.
I experienced the profound gratefulness at having been his son.
I thought of what he would have preferred and took those preferences
into account in making the decorations. I marveled at how the
idea resonated with what I thought he would appreciate-the decorations
were natural and would serve not only as decorations, but as food
for the various wildlife that inhabit our nook of the woods. Perfect!
When the kids came home from school, we had all of the berries,
string, pine cones, carrot pieces, and other things that we needed
and we sat together making the decorations. As we did this, we
talked of my dad and what he meant to us. When we finished (on
the actual anniversary of his death), we went out into the rain
to adorn the tree and have a short ritual. This activity gave
everyone in our family a chance to remember my dad by being involved
in a family activity that honored him. As a man, it helped me
to connect with my grief through a task that involved our entire
The reason I am bringing this up is that it is a great example
of how people can be of help to men in their grief. Darbie was
wise in her suggestion of a family activity. This allowed us to
plan, initiate, and discuss the project, and, in the process,
remember my father and our grief for him. Through the "doing,"
our family had the opportunity to experience the "being"
of the grief.
What are other ways that people can help men in their grief? Please
bear with me for this one. The ideas we talk about may be helpful
to some men and some women. Please know that we can't say all
men grieve like this and all women like that. Everyone is unique
in their path toward healing. The following ideas will be generally
applicable to men, but could very well be helpful to anyone. We
all grieve in our own unique way, and the following ideas are
meant to be just that, ideas, and not only for men.
One idea is to avoid asking a man how he feels. Have you ever
done this before? What do you get in response? Most times I bet
you get, "Oh, I'm doing okay" or "fine" or
something like that. Why does this happen? In her newest book,
Deborah Tannen explains that conversations such as these are tiny
rituals meant not so much for information exchange as for performing
the task of following through on a habitual "ritual,"
which helps us in negotiating our everyday hellos and good-byes.
When you ask a man what he is feeling, he will many times respond
automatically that he is doing "fine." This is a male
(and sometimes female) cultural ritual that brings a response
that is not usually what the questioner had in mind. Perhaps a
better question would be, "What is the toughest thing about
your loss?" This question avoids the mechanical ritual response
and also honors a man's hierarchical nature. The men I have known
have often mentally gauged the most difficult aspects of their
loss and have some familiarity with this way of looking at things.
The question also overtly honors that this is a struggle and tacitly
honors the man for being engaged in this struggle.
Men in general seem to have a different way of connecting to their
grief, and often this way is not related to talking. I can remember
a couple that was coming to see me for therapy, where the wife's
complaint was the man didn't talk about his feelings. The woman
was a therapist herself and the man was a construction worker.
It was clear that they loved each other dearly but were having
some tough times in talking about things.
I noticed that often the wife would ask the man how he was feeling,
he would pause-and in a short period she would proceed to tell
him how he was feeling. Now she was usually right, but she did
not give him the opportunity to find it himself. The next time
this happened, I suggested that we give him time to come up with
his own answer. Wellllll
we waited and waited for what seemed
to be a long time. Five minutes went by and then almost ten. I
was afraid I had really screwed up-had I put him into an impossible
And then he spoke up. He proceeded to speak
from his heart in a way that astounded his wife. We all learned
that he was capable of finding his heart-he just needed more time.
Men seem to have different mental processors for feelings. Maybe
it's like computers: men have 286s and women have Pentiums when
it comes to processing emotions mentally. There is absolutely
nothing wrong with a 286, it's just slower. Give men a chance,
give them time.
One way to give men more time is to write to them rather than
talk to them. By writing a note, you give the man the freedom
to read it more than once, to take it with him to work or the
john, and, importantly, to respond in his own time. Another benefit
is that writing takes the nonverbal communication and the "tone
of voice" out of the equation. I know couples who have a
terrible time in talking about their grief but when they start
writing notes to each other, they gain a greater understanding.
Give it a try.
Another important thing to note about men and grief is the tendency
for men to withdraw when they are actively grieving. The purpose
of the withdrawal is often not to avoid those close to them or
to avoid the grief, but is related to a man's desire to find some
inner understanding and balance before moving the pain out into
Men tend to view grief as a burden and a problem, and they are
steadfast in their desire to solve their own problems and not
"dump" this problem on someone who has no responsibility
for the grief. This contrasts with the more feminine mode of "sharing"
the grief, thereby bringing greater intimacy with the woman's
loved ones. For years, the grief research showed that men grieve
"less" than women.
Then we found out why this happens. When drawing research samples
for grief studies, the women who would volunteer would usually
be in a great deal of pain and in the midst of the chaos of grief.
They tended to be interested in "sharing" this pain
with the researchers. The men, on the other hand, who were experiencing
a similar intensity of grief, did all they could to avoid being
a part of these studies. The men who would participate were those
who had already withdrawn and had found a certain handle on things.
Therefore, the results from these studies indicated that women
grieved more than men. We know now that this is not so, but is
a function of a biased sample.
It is probably good to honor a man's need to withdraw to gain
some balance. There are numerous masculine role models for this
activity, Christ being one. My own reading of the Bible tells
me that when Christ was in need of healing, he would withdraw
"to the desert." This does not mean that men shouldn't
talk about their grief. Talking about grief and connecting with
one's emotions in the process is healing for all people. It does
mean that men will usually withdraw first and talk later.
Because of a man's tendency to withdraw, his inclination to grieve
through task, and societal shaming of tender emotions, a man's
pain tends to be more invisible than a woman's. If you want to
connect with a man in his grief, keep in mind that he will often
have an easier time connecting to his pain through activity, he
will have a tendency to withdraw initially, and he will probably
be less agile in his verbal processing of his pain. Maybe knowing
this will help in finding ways of honoring men in their grief.
I think Darbie's willingness to connect with me through planning
an activity and ritual for our family together has deepened our
intimacy, while at the same time honored our different paths.