While wrestling with the Christmas lights under his tree recently, a wave of sadness washed over Neil Turner. He couldn’t help but think of his daughter Colby, who died in 2010 at just two years old from a rare genetic disorder.
“Suddenly, the thought of another Christmas without her swept in and replaced my frustration with tears,” says Turner, an engineer in Oklahoma and father of two. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her and think about her. But if I focus on just the loss and the heartache, suicidal thoughts come quickly.”
Grief isn’t linear. It can hit by surprise. It is ongoing and it evolves, says Turner. It is a complicated emotion for many people, and it can be particularly complex for fathers. Even today, dads might feel pressured to “be strong” for others and put their own feelings aside after a loss, which can have damaging psychological consequences. And although the expectations regarding so-called “masculine” behavior are evolving for the better, many men still feel isolated in their grief and less comfortable opening up about it.
“There is a deeply ingrained social conditioning that will take some work to undo and reverse,” says David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Chicago area and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist. “A number of men are working to define new models of masculinity, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Men are generally less willing to talk about their grief, more reticent to express emotion, and less likely to seek support, says Jan Everhart Newman, JD, Ph.D., a psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Sadly, this pattern can be reinforced when boys and men seek comfort after a loss around more vulnerable emotions such as sadness and are rebuffed and given messages like ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘Stay strong,’” Newman says. “Often, my male clients will report that another family member is more outwardly expressive of intense emotions and that they felt that they couldn’t put any more stress on that person [by expressing their own grief].”
Why Grief Can Be So Isolating For Men
Grief from a male perspective has received little research interest, but some of the articles that have been written suggest that men’s grief is often diminished or even dismissed. The authors of a recent study of combat veterans noted that grief is a “long-overlooked toll of war.” In her study of fathers and pregnancy loss, published in 2004, author Bernadette Susan McCreight wrote, “…the loss can be devastating for fathers yet, very often, the world that surrounds them tends to discount their loss, and emotional support and cultural rituals that are normally available to other bereaved individuals are often absent for this group of men.”
Newman agrees. At the funeral of a Special Forces veteran recently, she saw a heartbreaking example of how people don’t seem to know how to respond to men’s grief. The man was buried with full military honors, which can be a long affair. Kids clustered in a group poking one another and laughing, Newman says, while adults stood around together, somber and chatting. Then she saw the adult son, who was on his knees at the coffin sobbing entirely alone.
“The only person who came to comfort him was his young son,” Newman says. “There is something about grief that can be frightening and is difficult for others to accept.”
Human beings will do anything to avoid discomfort. As it makes them think of their own mortality and lack of control, death is at the top of the list of things that make people uncomfortable, she says. Additionally, traditional gendered expectations might influence how couples deal with grief. Klow says he has counseled women who say they want their male partners to be more in touch with their feelings but don’t actually like seeing them cry or express emotions.
Some men might feel isolated in their grief not because they don’t know how to feel emotions but because they don’t feel it’s okay to express them.
A web content strategist in the UK, Kevin lost his father last year, shortly before he and his partner found out they were having a baby. He now lives in his father’s house with his family and thinks of his dad often, such as when he’s dancing around the kitchen to The Beatles to entertain his son and get him to stop crying. Kevin says he often apologizes for talking about his father even though his partner says she doesn’t mind.
“It feels wrong that he’s not here to enjoy the newborn,” Kevin says. “It will always feel socially unacceptable for me to express my grief no matter how hard people try to make me feel comfortable.”
Cultural background and upbringing have a huge impact on how much men might adhere to stereotypical male tendencies, such as stoicism, that might make them feel less comfortable feeling and expressing grief. And it might be doing men a disservice to expect them to grieve more like women tend to, with outward shows of emotion, according to J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW. Janssen says men who grieve more quietly and keep their emotions in check around others might simply have a more “masculine” style of grieving that isn’t necessarily unhealthy and shouldn’t be dismissed.
Of course, caveats exist. “You have to be careful with the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ which are bound by culture and tradition, and in the age of gender neutrality, this distinction may even be meaningless,” Newman says. “It comes down to whether a man feels free to express his emotions without judgment and is simply choosing not to versus not expressing emotions because that’s not what a man ‘should’ do.”
The latter situation — a man feeling like a bad person because they’re experiencing normal, painful emotions — is harmful.
Healthy Grieving Is a Process
There are signs that the walls around male grief are coming down. Recently, comedian Michael Cruz Kayne tweeted on the 10th anniversary of his son Fisher’s death and received an outpouring of support, as did James Van Der Beek when he wrote about the grief he and his wife felt about losing a baby to miscarriage in a heartfelt Instagram post. Comedian Patton Oswalt also has talked openly about grieving the death of his first wife, author Michelle McNamara, the mother of his daughter, Alice.
Many men (and women) need time to grieve privately, which is not the same thing as “isolating.” Although he also talked about his loss with others, Turner says he also needed alone time to process Colby’s death.
“For quite a few years, two hours into any car ride by myself I would be in tears having that much time alone with my thoughts,” Turner says. “But if I didn’t get that time regularly, my emotions were more likely to come out sideways, in non-preferred ways.”
There’s no timeline to it, Klow says. Ten years later, a long solo drive or the dog getting sick can trigger grief all over again. Healthy grieving changes from person to person. It can take a lot of different forms. To help process the loss, it can help to have a social gathering with friends and family to say goodbye and celebrate the life of the person who has died, says Elgin, Illinois, funeral home owner and director, US Army Reserve First Sergeant and father of two Dan Symonds.
Symonds was stationed in Afghanistan when his family told him his father was dying. He “lost it for about 15 seconds” in front of his Commander, he says, but didn’t cry again for a while after his father’s death. He returned home and busied himself arranging military honors for his dad, an example of “instrumental grieving” that includes task like tending to the estate and cleaning out the house of the person who died. Those tasks shouldn’t be dismissed as avoidance — they can help people process the loss, Klow says.
Being alone with grief for stretches of time, however, isn’t necessarily unhealthy. It can help to put thoughts and feelings into words, Klow says. Humans are social creatures; reaching out to social networks and naming the person they’re grieving and talking about memories and what they’re feeling tends to help.
“What helps me is talking about my dad with my children, telling them what he was like and how he would have loved them so much,” Symonds says. “We keep his memory alive every day.”
Klow suggests finding several people to listen to about grief; that can maximize someone’s avenues of support and alleviate the worry that they’re overburdening one person. That network can include a partner, family members, friends, or a therapist. Klow holds group therapy sessions for men and says many seem relieved to have a safe space in which to express themselves.
“It’s important not to be alone in grief,” Klow says.
Someone’s partner can be a life-saving source of support, but they might have to work on making the relationship as egalitarian as possible, he adds: “You don’t have to be perfect, but both partners need to ‘hold space’ for each other so that there isn’t just one person who’s the ‘designated feeler’ of feelings,” he says.
It can be difficult to do, but the Turners were able to give each other permission to be in different places in their grief.
“We were okay if one of us was sad and the other was not. We weren’t afraid to give each other space,” Turner says. “We did see other couples that would get upset with one another with out-of-sync feelings of ‘They need to move on’ or ‘Why aren’t they still sad?’ I’m not sure why, but we didn’t fall into that trap.”
A therapeutic retreat for bereaved parents, if it can fit into the budget, also might be helpful. Turner and his wife went to one after friends suggested it.
“I had never been in any therapy session at all, and although it was emotionally and physically exhausting, we found it helpful,” he says, but adds, “The next year they even invited us back to help lead the retreat as we were the only couple in the group still married. The divorce rate among bereaved parents is really high.”
The Turners also found a fulfilling way to process their grief through charity work with the American Heart Association. His daughter, Ella, got involved, too, raising more than $60,000 for the ACS after an event she participated in received media attention.
“It gave us the opportunity to talk about Colby and use her story in a positive way,” Turner says.