We all have unique ways to deal with loss and grief, just as we approach joy and happiness in different ways.
Recently, I conducted some research for a new coaching program I am developing for men. I was deeply touched by the level of openness these men shared with me about their views on success, relationships, personal growth, regret, loss and legacy.
The responses to my questions were widely varied, much to their surprise. I frequently heard, “I am sure all men say this,” though this was not actually the case. What I did sense through my interviews was that these men appreciate safe spaces where they can communicate ideas, talk through past experiences, and share their hopes and dreams. It was wonderful and totally eye-opening. It also gave me great pause.
As a sister to five brothers, a mom of two boys, and both a personal trainer and business and lifestyle coach to several men, I have had a special and intimate insight into the way they communicate and how they express their thoughts and emotions. I have also witnessed how men have been pigeonholed by society. It seems they are straitjacketed emotionally, limiting their ability to express a wider range of feelings, particularly when it comes to loss and grief.
The reason why I decided to focus on grief and loss in this column was a result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I recounted my interviews, research and revelations, to which he responded with pensive silence. After a moment, he said, “After a woman experiences a loss, she is sad, but she does OK. Men, not so good. This is important to write about.” I agree.
Men and women generally have different grieving styles, whether the loss is through divorce, a job, a parent or a health issue. The discrepancies seem to result from women having more opportunities to talk about their deeper feelings than men. Men are conditioned at a young age to “just deal with it,” to “suck it up” and to not “let them see you cry.”
As a result, men compartmentalize parts of their emotionality, causing vital processing information to be buried underground. This compartmentalization is often because of their fear of being shamed, embarrassed or ridiculed. From adolescence on, men have minimal social support outside their immediate family, if that, to provide a safe place where they can express sadness and loss.
Because of this expectation of male behavior and coping, men are disproportionately unprepared to express distressed feelings and loneliness. Society expects them to be self-sufficient and independent and to rely on their own strength to get through life’s challenges.
It is important to remember that even the Lone Ranger had Tonto! To expect anyone to experience grief and loss alone is not only limiting but unhealthy, physically and emotionally.
When they experience this lack of support, men tend to isolate in order to protect themselves. They disconnect to cope with the intensity of emotions, or, as we are seeing more and more, they resort to aggression, violence, substance abuse, even suicide.
So, what can we do to help men and, as a result, help all of us face loss and grief with more openness and acceptance?
Here are some ways we can bring this subject into the open to support men experiencing loss and grief, in hopes to relieve the inner stress and emotional bottlenecking:
1. Acknowledge the loss or death. Don’t expect any canned or warm and fuzzy response. Just acknowledging someone’s loss or suffering is a first step to creating connection and a bridge to healing.
2. Express genuine interest in feelings, concerns and conditions of the loss. Accept the response. Don’t take anything personally if they respond in an abrupt fashion. Grief and loss are messy. Grace can go a long way.
3. Hold confidentiality. Say things like, “Hey, if you need someone to talk to, I am here.” Ask them if they just want to hang out, even in silence. It may feel like you are not doing anything, but remember, silence actually speaks volumes and is a wonderful vessel to build trust.
4. Do small acts of kindness. A note, a meal, a quick text. Don’t expect anything back. They will remember those who reached out. Each and every kind gesture matters.
5. Don’t judge tears. People cry. Encourage it. It’s a natural human reaction, and it’s why we were born with tear ducts.
6. Do something physical. Men often resort to physical activities as a way to express and de-escalate painful emotions. Doing a parallel activity is a wonderful bonding experience for people. Lifting weights, going for a run, stacking wood; choosing any activity that is both repetitive and strenuous is a great release.
The world can be a scary place. By taking small steps of kindness toward each other, we can foster more healing and support. This will help create a more honest, yet stronger place for all of us. Isn’t it time we all, men included, are given the opportunity to stand and be heard? I believe it is.
A special thank you to the men who trusted me enough to share their inner lives with me and a special call out to the men who left this planet early, yet whose lives continue to impact me deeply, including my brother Matthew and my son William.
Kate McKay, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, motivational speaker, author and business consultant, resides in Newburyport. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.