After my mother died, my grief manifested itself through maniacally doing positive things — specifically, volunteering and physical fitness. An outside observer would have said I was coping well, but after two years, it became unsustainable (and I had a physical injury from the exercise). My question is about the different way that men and women experience grief. Men experience it just as deeply but we rarely have a support network of friends to talk to about it. What are your strategies for men? I may have seemed like an enthusiastic athlete and community volunteer, but in reality I was in serious pain.
Two things are usually true. One, men don’t have good outlets for talking about their feelings; and two, they all desperately need to go on 100-mile bike rides the second the funeral is over. If your way of coping is to bike across the country, then great — if it helps you. But if you do it to the point of hurting yourself (through either physical injury or losing your job because you’re always sweaty and wearing bike shorts at work), then I think you’re right to question how useful it really is. Ultimately, it sounds like you needed someone to talk to but couldn’t find the right person.
A lot of what I’ve read about men and grief say that men experience it much more actively and physically than women. That physical manifestation can be anything from sickness to marathon training. But as a woman who hates to talk about her feelings (I only like to talk about yours), I’ll insert here the usual disclaimers about how each person processes grief differently. That said, everyone needs at least one person they can talk to. Finding this person will take a bit of trial and error, but here are some places to look:
• The Official Route: Grief counselors are fairly readily available and can provide you with useful professional experience. Support groups can also help, especially if they are illness-specific. If you can’t find a group online, your local hospital can usually hook you up. There is also an organization dedicated to setting up men-only support groups. Keep in mind that if you feel out of touch with the people in the group (for example, if everyone is 30 years older than you or they’re all struggling with acceptance and you’re struggling with anger), the experience can be alienating. A support group isn’t something you should suffer through. If it’s not making you feel better, grab your coffee cup and get the hell out of there.
• Friends: It might not be bad to practice saying something like, “It’s still really tough” to a few sympathetic friends and see where it takes you. And don’t forget to listen; if friends seem to point out someone else in the same situation, they may be trying to let you know there’s someone around to talk to. There’s a better than average chance that even your most well-meaning friends will fumble this one. It’s hard to know what to do or say if you haven’t been through it yourself. Still, it’s nice to give people a chance to rise to the occasion.
• Community: I think walk-a-thons are amazing not so much for their fund- or awareness-raising abilities, but rather for giving people a positive outlet in which to come together and remember their loved ones, in close proximity to the types of things that are generally considered cheering: team t-shirts and babies and sunny days and orange slices.
If you’re reading this because you know a guy who’s lost someone, keep in mind that no one is ever supposed to talk about death in our culture, and men are never supposed to talk about anything (except sports). This is unfair and unhelpful and up to us to change. So, help a dude out, buy him some coffee and give him some space to talk. No one has to give out any hugs if they don’t want to. Promise.
My boyfriend died from an aneurysm last fall. He was 26 and I’m 24. We’d been together since college and were talking marriage, kids, the whole fantasy. I’m in no way past the pain of losing him (I haven’t been on a date since he died.) This time of year in particular is awful, with our anniversary in early December and the whole Christmas thing.
My dilemma: his family loves the holidays. So does mine. They don’t know each other well and live a few hundred miles apart. I’m still close with his parents and siblings, and we used to alternate years at each place. Last year I blew off everything. But I know both sets of parents want me with them this year. I honestly have no idea what to do, especially in the future, when hopefully I will be with someone else (even if I can’t imagine that right now).
I’ve heard so much about how weird and/or terrible and/or generally unsupportive families can be when someone involved in a non-marital romantic relationship dies that I’d like to give a shout out to both your family and his for recognizing the importance of your relationship. It is only a better thing that you have support from both sides.
Now, on to this holiday season. Clearly, you are still (and understandably) struggling. Perhaps the question you need to ask yourself is this: Do you need to be with the people who love you most, or the people who loved him most? It doesn’t sound as if you’d be burning any bridges with your own family if you didn’t go home and it may be good to be surrounded by people who are grieving just as deeply as you are. And, while I generally think making decisions out of fear (i.e., every decision I made about men in the early ’90s) is a terrible idea, unless you know for certain that your relationship with his family won’t ever change, this may be a sad but special opportunity that won’t necessarily come again. Unfortunately, you are going to be sad no matter where you are, so you might as well pick the place that gives you the most potential for something good.
Finally, “don’t borrow trouble” is the soundest advice in virtually all situations. That is: Don’t worry about future years now. I can’t promise you that they’ll sort themselves out, but I can promise you that you can’t do anything about them right now.
Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org (subject: Ask ML).