By Deborah Mitchell
Tom Golden, LCSW, internationally known grief counselor and author of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing.
Healing Through Therapy
The biggest problem with therapy, says Golden, is that it is “shaped to be effective with women.” Talking and expressing emotions are difficult for most men because it is not in their nature to seek help. “Only when men reach crisis do they come for help,” says Dr. Williams. “If you really want to help men talk,” says Golden, “get them involved in an activity.” One hospice invites all the recent widowers to an all-day fishing trip. This activity allows the men to process their grief while they fish together. This approach works with boys as well. Boys won’t open up one on one, but they will talk while playing basketball.
When men do seek counseling, Dr. Williams asks them to tell their story: “Tell me what the last day with your wife was like.” While a woman will almost always cry, men generally do not, at least initially. “Men tell stories about their feelings instead of expressing them; women are more likely to express them [directly],” he says.
Once men do start to talk, they are more willing to express anger than are women.
“Many times they’re also expressing a greater degree of guilt—they should have been able to do something about the situation,” says Williams. The idea that they should have been able to control the circumstances is typical of men, while women usually believe they can’t, so they are more open to help.
Ritual and Symbolism
A ritual is a routine activity that helps people move from one state of mind to another. It is often a critical part of a man’s healing process. For Rick, it was restoring the old Chevy. “The ritual activity is intended to connect you with your pain and grief and allows you to move out of ordinary awareness and into the experience of grief, in a safe way, for a period of time,” explains Golden.
Sometimes men express their grief symbolically. When pro golfer Payne Stewart died in a plane crash several days before the Tournament of Champions, many of his peers wore knickers (Payne’s trademark) during the event. “That was their way of showing they were feeling something they couldn’t express inside,” says Dr. Williams. Other symbolic actions can include dedicating a game during a sporting event or building a memorial
Men often get mixed signals when it comes to expressing grief. The message they receive growing up is to take loss “like a man.” When they reach adulthood, though, the messages become contradictory. Golden sees grieving families in which the wife and children are crying, but the husband is not. The family is worried because dad isn’t crying. Yet if he does, they get upset. Although a wife may be relieved that her partner is able to grieve, she may fear that his tears somehow lessen him as the stalwart of strength she holds him to be. Thus, men are criticized when they don’t grieve, and their masculinity is questioned when they do.
Biological differences also offer some insight into why men grieve the way they do. Compared with women, men have less prolactin, a hormone excreted by the pituitary gland, which is associated with emotional tears. Boys and girls have equal amounts until about age 12, then the level in boys plummets as testosterone levels rise. Despite the talk about men “getting in touch” with their feelings, “We are still in the throes of six million years of evolution and hormones,” says Golden. “It’s amazing that we’re changing as fast as we are. What’s changed is that men are expected to be more sensitive, yet strong and masculine.”
Once both men and women understand that a mixture of their masculine and feminine sides are at work in the grieving process, perhaps they will be more willing to allow the people in their lives to grieve in their own ways
* Deborah Mitchell is a freelance writer specializing in health and earth-friendly issues. She has had more than a dozen books published and also writes for several professional and consumer publications.