THERAPISTS CAN HELP MEN IN GRIEF
Copyright 2009 By Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com
It's a situation many counselors have faced: A couple comes to your office following a significant loss in their lives. Perhaps there's been a death in the family, or a miscarriage. While the woman sobs telling her story, the man sits quietly at her side, dry-eyed, stoic, even chipper.
There's a tendency to wonder: Is there something wrong with that guy? Where are his emotions? What is he hiding?
I recently finished writing a book called FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms With the Deaths of Their Dads . In my research, I surveyed 376 men about how they dealt with the loss of their fathers. And here's something important I learned: That guy in the counselor's office may be mourning just fine.
For a variety of reasons, this is what has happened in the past forty years: Women have made themselves more available than men to grief researchers, grief counselors, and grief-support groups. Thus, during this boom era in death-and-dying studies, much of what we have learned about grief comes from the experience of women. It's no surprise, then, that crying over a loss, and talking about it, are frequently cited as necessary for successful mourning.
But crying and talking, we've probably all noticed, are not how most men tend to grieve. While 61 percent of the men I surveyed said that they cried, at least a little, over the deaths of their fathers, only 19 percent said they cried a lot. Rather than through crying, they said, it was through action – often connected to the memory of the father – that many men mourned the loss of their dads.
Often, that action started immediately. Upon hearing the news of his father's death, a 33-year-old lobbyist I interviewed immediately exited his San Francisco apartment, walked to a cable car stop, and rode the trolley across town. It was something he'd done with his father when he was a kid.
Another son, a 39-year-old lawyer, immediately sought solace at a donut store. It wasn't because he was hungry. “As a child, many Sunday mornings, my dad would get donuts to eat while drinking coffee and reading the paper,” this son said. “Since I was informed of his passing on a Sunday morning at 6 a.m ,” the son immediately thought of getting donuts. About this response, the son told me: “I would say it was honoring his memory.”
A 30-year-old graduate student told me he took a “furious walk” right after learning of his father's death from a heart attack. And a mechanic, who was 36 at the death, said that after he heard the news, he took “an anger run” on his motorcycle. Five years after the death, he recalled the ride in detail: “I went past this little pond. There were mountains behind it. There was this beautiful sunset, this red sky, the clouds, the mountains, and the light reflecting off the pond. It was just such a beautiful, breathtaking view. I stood there and enjoyed it for a little bit. I felt a sense of release in that the day had a very beautiful end.”
Maryland psychotherapist Thomas Golden, a specialist in male grieving, says grief can be defined as energy created within a person in response to a loss . In essence, he says, the purpose of the grieving process is to release that energy, and bring the self back to psychological equilibrium.
Golden and others have found that for a variety of reasons, men are less comfortable than women with dramatic release of emotion, as generally occurs in crying. Many men prefer “to slowly, deliberately chip away at their grief,” Golden says. That means they continue to mourn, at a subtle level, for years or even longer.
One man I interviewed was a college English teacher; a decade after his father's death, this son still finds a way to work into his curriculum one of the books his deceased father had loved. Another son set up a foundation to combat the disease that had killed his dad. A third, whose father had taken his own life, became a volunteer suicide counselor. All of these men said they cried very little, or not at all, over the death. Yet they all believed they had mourned their fathers adequately.
Many of the men I spoke with also used thinking as a significant part of their grieving process. These men said it helped to simply ponder the life their father had led, or the relationship they'd had with their fathers. In these ways, the son dealt with his pain in part by creating an intellectual framework in which to view the loss.
In my interviews, I also noticed that a few men did not experience emotional pain very intensely at all. Even over a loss as dramatic as the death of a father, these sons seemed to maintain their balance and move ahead with their lives.
How is this possible? Dr. Terry Martin, a pioneering psychologist and grief researcher, says that while some bereaved men unhealthily repress their emotions, others simply don't feel the pain intensely. Martin believes there's nothing inherently bad about this. “The whole emphasis has been that feelings are the real key” to a full life, Martin told me. “Frankly, playing with a great idea for me is as rewarding as being stirred emotionally.”
Several men I interviewed said that well-meaning friends, therapists or clergy-persons urged them to cry after their father died. One man, who was just thirteen at the time of his dad's death, recalled that in the first days afterward, he didn't shed tears. He thought that was fine – until his relatives started coaching him that it was “OK to cry.” When I spoke with this man more than thirty years later, he said: “What I never heard from anyone was that it was also OK not to cry.”
In fact, my research showed that at least for men mourning their fathers, crying was not a predictor of a healthy recovery. On the other hand, the quality of the father-son relationship before the death was a predictor. Sons who had positive relationships with their fathers tended to recover relatively quickly (even when their initial mourning was intense). Those who had negative relationships with their dads were often left with regrets, anger, and guilt in relation to the father – feelings that often lingered for many years.
Thus, a counselor working with a man whose father is dying might encourage the man to try to “make peace” with his father before the death. Even when a reconciliation is only partial, it seems to help the son by decreasing the chance that his mourning will be complicated by resentments and regrets.
The men I surveyed also said that providing at least some of their father's late-life care eased their grieving, as did talking openly with their fathers about his impending death. In these conversations, sons often were relieved to find that their fathers were not afraid of death.
Here are some more relevant findings from my survey. For even more details of the survey, visit www.fatherloss.com.
* 65 percent of sons say that at the time of the father's death, it affected them more than any previous loss in their lives
* 12 percent of sons use alcohol or drugs to cope in the aftermath of the death, including a quarter of men who are ages 18 to 32 when the death occurred
* 8 percent of sons seek professional help to deal with the loss, and 96 percent of those sons say the help is valuable in coping with the death
* a man's relationship with his spouse or partner is twice as likely to get better than worse following the death of the man's father
* 28 percent of sons talk to, pray to, or in some other way try to communicate with their deceased dads
* 68 percent of sons dream about their deceased fathers
* 93 percent of sons who get involved in the late-life care of their fathers say that such involvement helps them later in coping with the loss
* 53 percent notice themselves acting or speaking like their fathers after the death
* 72 percent spend time with tools, photos, and other mementos of their father to help deal with the loss
* 13 percent of sons become more religious after the death of their fathers; 2 percent become less religious.
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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.NeilChethik.com .
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