Help for Men Who Grieve and Those Who Care About Them

By Kip Ingram
Director of Bereavement Care

Men don’t always fit the typical mold when it comes to expressing their grief. A family member or friend may look at a man after a significant loss and question why he seems to shed few tears. They may wonder why he does not show much emotion when others around him are expressing their feelings in a direct way. On the surface, he may seem unaffected in tone, or distracted with accomplishing tasks, or seething with emotion but somehow unwilling to talk about it. He may seem to want to be alone more, and he resists sitting around with others talking about his feelings. Those concerned may wonder why he does not seem to grieve like others and if something is wrong.

Recent research suggests that men certainly feel and are affected by loss in big ways. For example, widowers are at risk for higher rates of depression, health problems and overall mortality than widows. They seek and receive less social support and are 5 to 12 times more likely to commit suicide. There is no doubt that men feel the impact of losses in their lives, so what is happening with their grief? Are they in denial? Have they been taught by society that men are not allowed to cry and show their feelings? Or is there something else going on?

A number of researchers in men’s grief, such as Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin, have recognized that people, both men and women, have different grieving styles as individuals. Neither all men nor all women are alike. One cannot lump them into distinct groups, with each one containing separate “masculine” and “feminine” elements. Some men may be more emotionally expressive than others, some women less so, and each individual is shaped by his or her own unique circumstances and loss. What Doka and Martin have noticed, however, is that people tend to gravitate toward two patterns of grieving: intuitive (expressive emotion) and instrumental (practical emotion). And they have found that men more often are instrumental grievers.

Instrumental grievers (practical grievers) experience their world more intellectually and less through intense feelings. They find more energy when solving a problem or accomplishing a task. They cry less, or rarely, and they are more awkward around the emotional expressions of others. They tend to focus on behaviors, and their emotions are often managed in small amounts, which are tied to certain activities. Intuitive grievers (expressive grievers) cry more, experience their feelings more intensely, and find it comforting to share feelings with others. While most of us are not exclusively one pattern (instrumental or intuitive), but a combination, we lean more toward one or the other. Whether by instinct or social conditioning, men tend toward the instrumental style.

Given the difference in styles, one can begin to understand why and how many men would seem to grieve differently. They still suffer the impact of a loss and carry the emotion of it, but they work it out in different ways. As one man said to me in the early days of his grief, with a combination of frustration and pain, “I wish I could just fast forward through this part and get to the end.” I would remind him that suffering in grief is unavoidable and there is no one magical technique to make it speed up or go away, yet there is something important in his desire to approach the grief journey as a series of problems to solve and tasks to undertake. The key is to build upon his strengths and begin to engage in conversation about the many tasks, problems and decisions he is facing. Conversations about emotions still have a place, but we can come at them in a way that is tied to certain purposes and activities.

One common experience many grieving men face is a deep sense of loneliness, and this can present an issue which needs to be addressed. For example, it is not uncommon for a widower to acknowledge that his wife was the one who managed the social calendar for activities with friends. She may have also been the “hub” of communication with children and other family members over the years. So after her death, finding a way to take up and fulfill her crucial role is presenting a problem. It is important to find the kind of social support which enables a widower to endure lonely times. Finding good ways to manage social activities and supportive connections with others is a crucial part of the grief journey for many men.

This same task-oriented approach can be used to address many of the issues that men often face in grief: denial and shock, guilt and regret, anger, a sense of helplessness or powerlessness, mixed feelings of longing for a loved one and relief that his or her suffering is over. One important activity for grieving men is to engage in meaningful rituals. Such actions can be simple or intricate, a one-time event or an ongoing routine. To engage in a grieving ritual is to do something specific which connects to a loved one in a meaningful way. It may be listening to a certain piece of music or looking at pictures in a way that lets your emotions come forth. It may be building a memorial of some kind or creating something in a loved one’s memory. It may be a ritual to express anger or acknowledge guilt. It may be a ritual to channel energy into a sport or hobby. The power of ritual for many men is that it gives them something to do in their grief, a task in which to engage, a channel for the emotion they carry. In the end, the issue is not whether real men cry, but understanding how men grieve and how best to support them in the grief journey.