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A Tree for My Father

by Tom Golden, L.C.S.W.

This article appeared in the March 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Swallowed by a Snake
by Thomas R. Golden
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There I was, dripping in sweat, the kind that rolls down the side of your head and innocently into your ear. The still summer evening was allowing me to hear my own breath and my own thoughts. I was determined to make this a great hole and I kept digging probably farther than I really needed to, but on I went. What seemed like a great deal of sweat was swallowed effortlessly by the dirt in the bottom of this hole. It was easier still to absorb the tears I shed.

This hole was to be the home of a tree that was being given as a memorial to my father, who died a year ago last November. I had known the hole needed digging, but had put off the task until now. Now, of course, was just about the last possible time it could be dug. As I continued digging, I was with my father. My thoughts raced back and forth to recent events leading up to his death and back to childhood memories. I remembered his engineering talents and nature and tried to dig the hole in a way that would please him.

As I dug, the feelings flowed through me. The sadness of missing him and his absence, the gratefulness of having been his son, and the anger and frustration of my powerlessness. All of these feelings found their way into this hole. The act of digging became a template for the various thoughts and feelings to arise. Through the action, I was opened to my own inner world.

I started wondering why I had put off this job. I realized that I didn't want to do it. Actually digging the hole brought the death more into reality and a part of me didn't want that. I've learned to accept this part that wants to deny things. Denial is not really such a bad thing, and it doesn't go away as quickly as some people seem to think. I've noticed it has a slow zig-zag decay that can last a long time. In a way denial can be our friend, allowing us to slowly accept the reality at hand. I became aware of the battle going on between the denying part and the digging-the-hole part. As a friend of mine says, "We have wetware, not hardware."

The tree has since been planted in an emotional ritual attended by myself and the six men who donated the tree. It became a template for all of us to delve into our interiors and connect with a variety of issues from fathers to death. The activity of buying, digging, planting, and gathering together became a hub for a wide variety of spin-offs. As we stood around the tree, we all had a chance to speak and to listen. Somehow having an activity made this process flow smoothly. It would have been much more difficult to simply sit in a circle and talk about our feelings. It was through the doing that we could connect.

The tree now stands in a park that is adjacent to my home. Not only was the activity surrounding the tree helpful, now the tree has moved from being an activity to being a place. Each time I come and go, I see that tree sitting there being itself. When I see the tree, I am reminded of my father, my grief, and the men who lovingly honored my father and my pain.

I have found a wide variety of activities that, like the tree, help me in connecting to my inner spheres. Writing, gardening, and music are examples. All of these activities can take me into myself and my grief and joy. Another example is a ritual I learned about some time ago from the Cree Indians of Northwest North America: the tree-wounding ritual. The following story describes this simple ritual and its beauty:

When his brother died suddenly, Jaque was torn by sadness and anger. Following ancient custom, he went into the forest, selected a tree and, after uttering a prayer, stripped away a piece of the bark. Now the tree, like Jaque, had lost something whose loss caused deep pain. Many times over the following months, he returned to visit the tree. As the seasons passed, the wound in the tree healed. So did the wound in Jaque's heart. With the tree as a visible reflection of his loss, Jaque was reminded that he, too, was healing. (excerpted from my booklet, Different Paths Toward Healing)

In this instance, there is also an action and a place. Both action and place serve as "containers" or "hooks" for the inner state of the man. As the man performs the action or visits the place, he is afforded the opportunity to experience his pain, and as the above example points out, to have his healing reflected back to him. I have used this ritual a number of times and have found it extremely helpful. The trees I have chosen are mostly in my backyard and stand as reminders to me of my grief, pain, and healing.

Death professionals have long been confounded by the difference between men and women in visiting gravesites. The men tend to visit more often. The above ideas should give us a deeper understanding of why this takes place. Men tend towards linking their grief with a place, action, or thing. There are many examples: the man whose daughter died, who wore her ring as a remembrance of her, the man who carved a bust of his wife after her death, a man who built a pond in memory of his murdered brother, a man who wore his father's watch, and on and on. These activities are often quiet and unseen by most people. The casual observer might assume that the man is "not grieving," but many times that is not the case.

The use of activity as a means to connect with one's grief is not exclusive to men; women also find this approach helpful. The difference is that women have a strength in connecting their emotions to their words, and then are inclined to "share" those words with the people in their life whom they love. This proclivity fits nicely with the keyword of "intimacy" that Deborah Tannen used to describe women in her book, You Just Don't Understand. A woman's world, according to Tannen, revolves around her intimacy and connection with others. We would expect that when a woman experiences the chaos of grief, a primary mode of healing will be connecting her pain with her intimacy to others. Tannen goes on to use the keyword of "independence" for men. When independence is your keyword, you are probably less likely to want to "share" your feelings with those around you. You will be more likely to seek out modes of healing that will be harmonious with your interest in maintaining independence. I know for myself, and for many men, the verbal connection is facilitated by connecting it with some action, place, or thing. I am less inclined to simply "share" my feelings with those around me. I am grieving, but I do it in my own way, a way that is more quiet and less visible, and harmonizes with my interest in independence. It is for this reason that it is a dangerous act to judge a man's grief by how much he "shares" it with others. A man's pain cannot be judged by outer appearances or the abundance of tears.

It needs to be said that when we divide men and women into two distinct groups, we are in dangerous territory. All people are unique in the ways they find to heal themselves. There are probably more individual differences in grief than there are gender differences, but the gender differences do exist and need to be honored.

These differences can often be clearly seen in a married couple who have experienced the death of a child. Often the man thinks the woman is "overdoing it" as she openly emotes and shares her feelings with those she loves. The woman, on the other hand, sometimes thinks the man "isn't grieving" due to his difference in chosen path toward healing. Both parents are immersed in the chaos of grief and have limited reserves to come to the aid of their partner. This is a tough situation. The solution is for all of us to honor each other's unique form of grieving.

Tom Golden is a therapist active in Menís Work in the Washington, D.C. area and is the author of Swallowed by a Snake, available through MenWeb. Tom can be reached at: Tom Golden, LCSW, 104000 Connecticut Ave., Suite 514, Kensington MD 20895. (301) 942-9192. His e-mail address is: He gives seminars throughout the U.S. and Canada on grieving. He has a World Wide Web site, Crisis, Grief and Healing: Men and Women, at Crisis, Grief and Healing: Men and Women

In a subsequent article, also on MenWeb, Tom describes a ritual to honor the first anniversary of his father's death, and offers suggestions on how to help and support a man who is grieving.

Related stories:


 On the Anniversary of My Father's Death, by Tom Golden

 A Ritual for my Father, by Bert H. Hoff

 A Man's Grief , An excerpt from Tom's book Swallowed by a Snake, which first appeared in the November 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine.

 Men, Grief and Ritual, Another excerpt from Tom's book Swallowed by a Snake, which first appeared in the January 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine.

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of Tom's book.

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of an audiotape by Tom.

MP3 WebCasts:

Be sure to check out our three MP3 WebCasts of Tom Golden on men and grief.

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