Men and Grief

The Well of Grief

 Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else.

David Whyte from Where Many Rivers Meet ©2007 Many Rivers Press

Closing in on 65, I’ve had my fair share of losses:  loss of loved ones, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, childhood best friend, a marriage, and my dogs. The list goes on and I’m painfully aware that there will be more.  Like many men, I’m deeply saddened and distraught by the losses.   And like many men you might not know it.  

Men grieve. It isn’t always obvious but men grieve a lot and we are very good at covering it up.  There are big losses like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or career, the loss of a family through divorce.    And there are the smaller losses when facing an empty nest and the children we have worked so hard to raise and support are launched.   And there are the losses that come with aging, loss of vitality and sickness.  

Often we are unaware of our friend’s or our co-worker’s grief because men tend not to express their more vulnerable feelings.   Reasons for this are well known, researched and rehearsed.   From a young age, men are conditioned to ignore, compartmentalize and repress their pain.  While I do see hopeful changes in how we are raising our male children today, the blessing and curse of male stoicism continue. Certainly being able to ignore, compartmentalize and repress vulnerable feelings has its advantages in certain situations,  but not being able to mourn our losses can wreak havoc on our relationships and disassociate us from our true self.  If as Rohr says,

we don’t learn how to transform our pain, we transmit it.

Men who deny and repress their feelings of grief often suffer more serious long-term problems such as:

  • Low energy; pain consumes our vitality and focuses our energy inward
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
  • Low self-esteem, lack of motivation, depression, insensitivity
  • Increased conflict in relationships with friends, family and work; hurting those around us
  • Maybe more accident-prone
  • Physical complaints such as headaches, fatigue, and backaches
  • Working too much
  • Using anger or aggression to cover-up sadness and vulnerability

All men grieve when they experience loss, but in order to heal, they must mourn.   As the Whyte says we must face the pain and:

"slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe"

My experience has taught me that many men just need to be given permission to grieve and reassured that tears and more vulnerable feelings don’t make them any less a man.  They need a safe place to grieve where they know they will not be judged and suggestions about how to do it.

Recently, I helped lead a retreat with over 70 participants.  A primary focus of the retreat was to help men grieve and find healthy ways to move through their pain.   I’ve helped with this retreat several times, been a participant myself, and I’m always deeply moved to see when men are given permission and the tools and a safe confidential container how much pain gets expressed. 

So here are a few suggestions:  

Many men express their grief in doing something physical:  chop wood, go for a hike or bike ride, etc.   This can help to metabolize the pain.   Pain can get stuck in our bodies and spirits and can consume our vitality.   

Don’t be afraid to lean on friends. Isolation doesn’t help. You don’t have to spill your guts every time you see them but let them know that you’re going through a difficult season.  Trust that they want to be there for you.   It can be helpful to find someone who has gone through a similar experience.    Receive their reassurance and empathy.

Set aside 10-20 minutes regularly to honor the loved one.  Sit and experience any feelings coming up for you.   Invite them in and notice all the feelings that come up and greet them with compassion.  

 Find a men’s therapy group or retreat.  

There is much to be learned from our grief.   Trite as it might sound, our grief can be a profound teacher. Again, in Whyte’s poem there is treasure in our grief:

“the secret water, cold and clear, …the small round coins

As painful as it is to be with our grief if can be an instruction manual for:

  • providing perspective on what is really important and where we want to invest our energy
  • helping us to grow our energy and patience
  • challenging us to become more forgiving
  • helping us move out of our disproportionate focus on self
  • freeing up our vitality for things we want to invest our energy in
  • challenging us to live life on life’s terms

And perhaps most importantly:

  • know the power and strength embedded in our vulnerabilities

Losses and pain are an inevitable part of life. Getting stuck in our pain creates more suffering for us and those around us. Persevering through the pain is the life-giving option.