The notion that grieving is a process is familiar to most of us. There is a method and a forward, progressive, or continuous movement toward a goal or end state. Often we talk about grief as an active rather than a passive process. Grieving is not something done to us, but rather something we do. Thus, grief demands a response from us, one other than resignation. An active process specifies choices and presumes change. More than anything, the process of grief is about transformation.
To process something implies tine, effort, preparation, patience, and persistence. Typically, working through a process or bringing it to conclusion requires steps or tasks. Time must be set aside, effort expended, preparations made, and patience and persistence must rule the day. In grief, we know that it's not the ticking of the clock that moves us in the process, but what we do with the time. Our efforts measure more than how much better we feel now; they also take into account how often we feel bad. Growth, victories, and healing are never that obvious in grief, and hindsight is likely better than foresight. We witness progress in our grieving by looking back, instead of looking forward.
The act of grieving is an intrusion on our physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and cognitive worlds. We hurt physically: shoulders, chest, arms, legs, head. We are a tumble of emotions, and our heart feels trampled and irreparable. Our social connections have been severed; we've lost our place in the scheme of things. We wonder about God, and question our faith and beliefs. We are filled with irrational thoughts and wonder if we've truly gone crazy. Many of us are left wondering if we can really deal with this thing called grief.
Our attitudes and behaviors take a roller coaster ride when we are grieving. Previous patterns of eating, sleeping, and daily living no longer make any sense. We feel numb to the normal activities that once gave us pleasure and kept us going from to day. We cruise on automatic pilot, unable to concentrate or keep on task. We desperately want the world to stop so we can get off, but the world seems indifferent to our needs.
Among our natural reactions to grief are shock, numbness, anger, denial, disbelief, disorientation, and despair. We vigorously protest the loss and attempt to recover what we once had. At the heart of our grief is an intense desire to have our job back, our partner back, our life back. Life is a mess, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine getting on with living. The chances that we might ever heal and be whole again seem extremely remote. It is as if the sun has been eclipsed, and we live in the penumbra of loss.
Grieving is not a linear process. People don't just plow ahead and then dust their hands off and announce that they are done with that piece of work. No, grieving is circular and repetitive. We cycle through grief over and over; it's the old "two steps forward, one backward". We make progress, advance forward, then we backtrack, retracing our steps. Grieving isn't continuous, but it is recurring. Events like anniversaries, holidays, or new losses trigger our grief. Before we know it, we are grieving again. We never get over our loss, we just get through it. For good or bad, grief dictates that we are never quite the same again.
Grief is work -- intense work. The lessons that grief teaches us are not for the skittish, the weak, or the avoiders. Grieving means coming to accept what has happened in our life. As most of us know, this task is tremendously difficult and onerous. But over time we must untie the bonds of our lost relationship and slowly let reality seep into our consciousness. The finality of the death or tragic event must become evident to us, and we must find acceptance without losing our soul.
Ultimately, we must experience the pain of grief, and not just in a cursory fashion. Grief demands that we struggle with our feelings, fully and completely. Those who hide their pain or try to ignore it only intensify it over time. By releasing our pain, we make room for healing. The tears, cries, anguish, frustration, and desperation must be acknowledged so that the healing process can begin.
Grief creates chaos. Like a glass plate dropped on a kitchen floor, our life is fractured by grief. We must change, adapt, reconstruct our world, and fit the loss into a new reality. As anguishing and awful as it seems, the world has drastically changed for us, and we must learn that we cannot possibly recapture what we once had. It is up to us to find new meaning for our life.
The ways people cope with grief are as distinct as the blades of grass that grow across the prairie. These distinctions are most marked between men and women. Grief and grieving are centered in our emotional lives; aspects of which are developmentally unique to each gender. Men are taught to be less self-disclosing, less expressive, and less interdependent. Women, on the other hand, are encouraged to focus on affiliation, connectedness, and intimacy. Women not only desire expressiveness, they need to express their feelings. Men's inexpressive tendencies cause conflict. It is as if the genders are at cross-purposes.
The emotional domain of many men tends to be relatively narrow. They are fearful of the consequences, culturally and personally, of expressing their emotions. No one wants to be held in contempt, humiliated, or ridiculed at the water cooler for behaviors deemed unmanly. Suppression is not a case of being either unable or unwilling to express feelings; it is both. The absence of a language to describe men's inner world compounds the issue even more. Men do not express themselves in the same vocabulary that women use.
Men tend to distrust their feelings. Many fear that if they begin to let their feelings out, they might not be able to shut them off. This can be a terrifying and repugnant thought. While women sometimes worry about this, too, their level of anxiety is not nearly as acute. By viewing emotions as uncontrollable and volatile, men reinforce their belief that it's safer to keep feelings concealed. Because men are given little encouragement to express their emotions, they are hesitant to expose any emotional vulnerability.
Intimacy is dangerous territory for many men. It threatens their freedom and the protective walls of silence they sometimes build around themselves. Men tend to form close friendships less on the basis of affiliation or intimacy than on the basis of shared activities. Men worry that intimacy may overwhelm them with intense emotions and draw them into risky interconnections. Unlike women, the bonds they form usually have more to do with loyalty than shared feelings, and they tend to be less self-disclosing than women, particularly about their emotions and most private feelings.
Generally speaking, men bond with other men to confirm their status and competency in the world. Friendships are the basis for mutual rivalries and personal challenge. When feelings come up, many men change the subject, downplay the issue, or deflect the topic away from themselves. These men prefer to act as if everything is fine, as if some things are better left unsaid. They maintain a strict code of silence and refuse to cross certain boundaries. Even those men who are dissatisfied with this state of affairs, though, may have no idea how to change it.
Women find their place in the world through relationships. A woman's ability to form friendships and intimate bonds is at the core of her identity. These relationships enable women to express their hurts, disappointments, and pain, and to be supported and encouraged. Women feel their way through grief. While grieving, they are able to disclose their most intimate feelings -- for example, the guilt they feel for surviving a loved one or for failing to prevent a death or loss. Unlike men, women seek and expect to find a safe venue for expressing what is in their heart and soul.
Men are supposed to be a rock; they are supposed to be the protector and problem-solver for their family. Men are rarely presented with an alternative to being strong, capable, and in control. There is a widespread expectation that men should manage and moderate family grief. They are to insulate the family from further harm and take responsibility and repair what has happened. Of course, it is impossible to put things back exactly the way they were before, but the urge to do so is so strong and the expectation so great that many men work furiously to do just that. They search feverishly for ways to mend their family, insisting that things will soon return to normal. Like the white knights of olden times, men are the rescuers who will restore and preserve family unity. To carry out this role, men are forced to postpone or even suppress their own grief. The pressures are unrelenting.
Grieving is about feelings, and many men know this perfectly well. After years of suppressing, repressing, and denying one's emotions, grief momentarily strips away all defenses. Men are not immune to feelings; grief affects them as strongly as it does women. But their process of grieving is often less visible than women's. Men grieve on the inside, and their grief work tends to be more cognitive than emotional.
That men think their way through grief is something many women know quite well. They often see men metaphorically storing their grief in a file drawer in the back of their brain. Men seem to be running away, to have dismissed and locked away their feelings. To do the same, women feel as if they would have to cut out part of their heart. Women want an intimate connection with their partners, but, when their partners pull away, they have no way to break through to see if their partners are actively grieving.
Men often try to block out their grief. Some make a conscious effort not to think about the death of their loved one, the job loss, the impending divorce, or the feelings associated with these events. Their efforts are deliberate attempts to keep the negative and painful from penetrating their soul. To do this, men may intentionally think about practical and routine things, like work, sports, or household chores. This sort of self-distraction keeps distressing thoughts and memories under control and, at least for a time, gives men some emotional relief. To drift in and out of their grief gives men the sense that they are working through it, letting go whenever and however they can.
Men feel pressured to be productive citizens and responsible family men. They have to be busy doing things and demonstrating their competence. Activity is a natural way for men to escape trauma. Keeping busy has value for men; it consumes their energy and time, and keeps their mind occupied. Some men seem to get obsessive about such things as work, exercise, health, sports, parenting, or domestic chores. Many lose themselves in the safety of work and career and become workaholics. Others take on addictions like alcohol, gambling, or sex; some even become hyper-spiritual. Compartmentalizing and distracting their feelings helps men avoid their pain.
More than a few men turn to physical activities as a way to keep distracted. Cutting a cord of firewood or building a storage shed allows physical pain and mental concentration to displace grief. Any activity will do as long as it keeps the man busy and helps him ignore his pain. The physical work becomes another way to escape reality.
Women often criticize men for intellectualizing their grief. It's just a way for men to hide their feelings, they believe. From the woman's viewpoint, there is a disconnection between the head and the heart. The man's attempt to "stay in his head" is an effort at rationalizing what has happened to him. By systematically reviewing events and circumstances, the man is searching for a logical and reasonable explanation. He believes that one exists; to discover it, he just has to think hard or long enough. Searching out information, studying the literature, or getting the advice of others fuels his thinking. Intellectualizing does not deter the man's painful memories. Rather, he tolerates these memories in order to get the facts right and to see if there is some detail he has missed. Uncomfortable as these memories are, he knows they are key to his thought process.
There is no denying that grief is a very private experience. Sometimes women, just like men, would rather be alone with their feelings. But, more often than not, women seek companionship to support their feelings and to satisfy their needs for intimacy. Men hurt and know they hurt, but they prefer to cope alone. Whether on the job when no one is around, out in the woods, in a boat, driving alone in the car, or outside in the garage, men find private places and times to express their emotions. Men use these private moments to unleash their pent-up feelings and to confront their emotions. Men do cry, but rarely around others. Male conditioning would have it no other way.
Grief is the great emasculator. Most of us will know no other time in our life when we have been so absolutely and completely stripped of control. This insecurity is especially intense for men whose identity, worth, and self-esteem are tied closely to issues of power and authority. Not only must these men maintain self-control, they must be masters of their domain. To be seen as helpless and fearful -- or worse, a failure -- would be humiliating. Rather than being defeated by their loss, many men charge ahead, looking for ways to demonstrate their control over it. For some men, this may mean engaging in activities related directly to the loss, like taking charge of funeral arrangements or pursuing legal remedies. Some focus on other aspects of life, like cleaning out the basement or tending the garden. Men rail against powerlessness. Their efforts to exert influence publicly demonstrate that they have not lost their ability to make decisions or bring order to a disordered state. Failure is not a reasonable option.
When Men Grieve: Why Men Grieve Differently & How You Can Help
by Elizabeth Levang, Ph.D.
About The Author
ELIZABETH LEVANG, PH.D. is an author, national speaker, and consultant in the fields of human development and psychology. She conducts educational programs and lectures on grief and loss, and also consults with corporations and organizations to assist employees who are grieving. Her first book was Remembering With Love: Messages of Hope for the First Year of Grieving and Beyond.