Men and Grief: The Power to Learn to Love Again
Grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. Grief is the price of love.
Often, we learn to love without one day expecting that it may change. We may learn to love unconditionally, without reason, intention, or restitution. We may love like we’ve never been and won’t ever be hurt, while in fact, this may be love in its purest, most open, and trusting form. As much as we love, inevitably, we will all one day find that love hurts and that grief is the price we pay for having had the glorious opportunity of a loving experience. While love can be one of the most fulfilling experiences, losing love can be one of the most painful. For anyone, but especially for men, navigating the experience of love and it’s intimate partner’s grief can be a lonely, confusing, and troubling experience. Although modern masculine stereotypes seem to be on the move, traditionally, men are taught to suppress emotion, never to cry and never to reach out. In terms of emotion, for men, it is traditionally only acceptable to express stoicism and anger. For this reason, men often resort to feelings of anger or irritability when what may be under the surface is an experience of sadness and sorrow. This struggle with grief is not limited to the death of a loved one but might be a break-up, lost opportunity, or an old lifestyle. In varying degrees, grief accompanies our experience with loss, change, or growth.
While grief can be one of the most intense emotional struggles in our inherently vulnerable human experience, attempting to suppress and avoid related feelings can only lead to greater difficulty in processing grief. Suppressing these strong feelings may prevent a sort of emotional or cathartic release. With this, men can experience shame in addition to socially unacceptable difficult emotions. As you can see, the grief process for men can become exceptionally complicated by various societal and cultural expectations and self-imposed limitations. Often, due to their upbringing and these cultural norms, men may not recognize the underlying core emotion and the process of suppressing becomes automatic or unconscious. As a result, displaced and unrecognized emotions may lead to social irritability, domestic violence, or substance abuse. This process of suppression and lack of emotional expression can lead to what has been amusingly referred to as emotional constipation. As time passes, this lack of emotional expression might even lead to clinical depression, anxiety disorders, addiction, domestic violence, or even suicidality. This stunted grief may be one possible contributing factor in the shocking statistic that nearly 80% of completed suicides are by men. Furthermore, this issue of emotional constipation may reach beyond an individual struggle and on a more global level contribute to crime, violence, lack of role models, and general societal difficulty.
The question becomes, how do we deal with this issue and how do we support men in their grief process so that they might learn to love again? For starters, it’s important to normalize the myriad of difficult emotions that might need to be expressed. From sadness to guilt and even nostalgia, grief can bring up a wide variety of emotions. Male or female, masculine or feminine, these emotions are a completely normal and even healthy part of grief. Next, we can label these emotions and work to understand them. In regards to grief, what might sadness need to say? What might regret have to say about our loss? They might say that you’ve lost something near and dear, or they might say that you wish you’d had more time with your loved one. As we normalize and listen, we might then allow ourselves to experience and feel the emotion, all in hopes of allowing for the relief of an emotional release. Finally, let’s not forget to breathe through this process and cope with what comes up. In grief, these feelings can often be overwhelming, this makes it important to find healthy ways to cope. With this, some men have found that tangible, related projects can be cathartic. For example, some men might benefit from a dedicated woodworking project, art creation, memory box or even writing a song. These intentional and sometimes dedicated coping strategies don’t impede the process, but can better facilitate steps toward healing. With this, keep in mind that is not necessary to take on the grief process all at once, but instead, if possible, it is important to balance this with healthy coping or distraction. This isn’t a task to be completed, but a natural process to be engaged in and respected.
• Label Emotion
• Listen & Feel
• Breathe & Cope
Although grief may never end, with time and respect for the process, we can learn to live with it. The experience of grief itself might come and go, but generally speaking, with respect to this process the intensity of the grief may lessen. Most importantly, as we honor these emotions and the role they take in our process, we can hope that we might learn to love again. We can hope that we might learn to love with open hearts, unrestrained by the difficulty of suppressed emotion and stalled or displaced grief. Men with open hearts and the capacity to love become positive leaders, role models, and fathers, demonstrating strength in a manner that will empower our fellow men to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives. Moving forward, we might work to raise young men in a manner that normalizes emotional experiences, fosters emotional maturity, and empowers an understanding of the information offered by our emotional states. In my work, I often encounter men who haven’t had the opportunity to develop the capacity for emotional intelligence, they’ve either explicitly or implicitly been taught to stuff their feelings and this, rather than expression is what has been reinforced. With a collective effort, we can teach the importance of these emotional processes and allow boys to become men who are empowered to feel, able to love, and are present for their families.
What I needed more than anything was the strength, courage and permission to grieve.
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.