Even Strong Men Grieve
Men and women are different. Shocked? I doubt it. However, did you know that men and women grieve differently too? While there are now more resources available for individuals who are childless, they have tended to be written from the female perspective and to a largely female audience. One reason for this may be in part to the different approaches men and women take to grief. While it is fairly common for women to reach out to social supports when experiencing grief, it is seldom the first, or even second, avenue for which a man may approach.
Men in our society are taught young to exhibit “manliness” especially while experiencing discomfort. Having grown up with three brothers I was early aware of the different messages that boys and girls are given when in pain. Girls may be held and comforted until several years older than are boys, and comments such as “big boys don’t cry” are heard far more often than “big girls don’t cry”. From overt comments such as this, as well as watching the example of male role models, boys learn early what are acceptable ways to express and deal with emotion.
Childlessness is not typically something that men or women in the LDS church have arrived at by choice (though there are exceptions – and that’s ok!), so it is very normal to experience a sense of loss, bewilderment, frustration, and definitely to feel grief. While sadness, crying, and hopelessness are common grief symptoms, they are not expressions many men grew up feeling comfortable with. So just what is “normal” when it comes to feeling/expressing grief in men? It may indeed include crying, sadness, and hopelessness, but perhaps even more often it may include the following.
Symptoms of Grief in Men Include:
- Feeling numb
- Withdrawal – from social contact, from thinking about the loss
- Keeping expression of emotions to a minimum – “Staying strong”
- Anger (early taught to boys as one of the only acceptable emotions to express)
- Rumination – thinking over and over about the loss, or the change in plans
- Turning to work as a way to avoid confronting the emotions
- Irritability – getting more easily annoyed or overreacting to small disturbances
- Substance abuse – unfortunate but true, men may attempt to cope with emotions by using or abusing substances as a way to numb out the pain
Just as some LDS women grew up expecting or planning to be stay-at-home mothers, many men grew up planning and expecting to be the breadwinners. This means that the day-to-day process for men would look somewhat more similar no matter if they were fathers or not. Going to work for much of the day and then returning home to be with the family for the evening and weekends, while the day-to-day process that women may plan on as a stay-at-home mother would be fully revolving around children. This does not mean that men won’t feel the loss of the dream any less than women might, but it may mean that they can confront that grief a little more indirectly as it may not impact as much of their sense of identity.
Research actually shows that talking about emotions is the only way to deal with emotions. Men bring some pretty great skills to the table to help them cope with their grief. As long as the emotions are addressed and not avoided altogether, there are many ways to grieve in healthy ways.
Coping Skills for Men:
- Problem solving
- Planning for the future
- Using internal strengths to explore emotions (Exploring on your own can be ok too! Just don’t withdraw from your wife, who can be a strength to you as well as needing your strength.)
- Physical activity as a way to deal with emotions
- Resolving regrets
- Finding ways to incorporate new dreams and hopes into daily life
- Turning towards deepening their relationship with God
- Seek out your male friends (whether to talk or not, it’s up to you but socialization is important!)
Men and women will often approach their grief in different ways. There is no “right” way to grieve. It is ok for men and women to look/act/feel differently from each other in their grieving process. Recognizing those differences is a good start in honoring each other’s perspective and experience as well as a good way to lend support in meaningful ways.
Desi blogs from experiences in both her personal infertility journey and her professional training as a Marriage and Family Therapist to provide insights into strengthening marriage and easing the grieving process.