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The Problem of Male Grief

Shining light on issues that for a long time have gone unaddressed.

Key points

  • Men have no sanctioned way of grieving, yet grief is not a choice.
  • Many men have become accustomed to not feeling their emotions.
  • The underlying wounds of masculinity were by and large caused by men, and healing is accelerated in the company of other men.

Over the last 30 years, acceptance of mental healthcare and access to resources have expanded exponentially. Understanding of anxiety, depression, and trauma has reached public consciousness like never before, shining a light on issues that for a long time have gone unaddressed.

Despite this increased availability and support, there is a silent epidemic when it comes to the world of men and their mental health. According to the CDC, 1 in 10 men experiences anxiety or depression, but less than half reach out for help. They are less likely to seek help for mental or emotional difficulties overall.

In 2020, men died by suicide almost four times as much as women. They are more likely to binge drink to cope and are three times more likely to die as a result of alcohol or substance abuse.

Men are also lonelier. James Hollis, Ph.D. described it this way:

“ … in speaking to women’s groups, I have suggested that women look at men this way: If they took away their own network of intimate friends, those with whom they share their personal journey, removed their sense of instinctual guidance, concluded that they were almost wholly alone in the world, and understood that they would be defined only by standards of productivity external to them, they would then know the inner state of the average man.

They are horrified at this notion. Having confused the wielding of outer power roles with identity and freedom, women assume that men have a better life. Certainly, they seem to have more outer choices. But most women do not recognize that men have fewer inner choices. And it is with the inner choices that we most define our lives, as almost all women know.”

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by James Hollis

One could argue that all of the statistics above come down to a lack of inner choices in the emotional lives of men, especially when it comes to difficult emotions like disappointment, sorrow, and grief. Something about these inner experiences feels so limiting to men that they avoid choosing to seek help and support, even when the option is available to them. Instead, they choose silence, often to their own detriment.

Sometimes this issue is discussed as if men simply have their own way of dealing with painful experiences. The assumption is that they’re just different from women, and they do things their own way. However, if that were true, we wouldn’t see the trends already mentioned above.

While there are common ways that men respond to grief, that does not mean that they are actually processing their emotions or coming to a healthy resolution. The real issue is not that men have some other means or manner of grieving. It is that the Western cultural expectation of men discourages grieving altogether.

Any acknowledgment of sadness goes against much of the social instruction men receive throughout their lives. From a young age, men are told to “suck it up," “walk it off," and that “boys don’t cry." They hold their chins up, grit their teeth through the pain, and move on. Allowing that kind of raw emotion would imply that he doesn’t have himself under control and that something is lacking in him.

Brené Brown, Ph.D. puts it succinctly in her book Daring Greatly: “Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.”

The dilemma is that men have no sanctioned way of grieving. Grief, however, is not a choice. Pain, loss, disappointment, and sadness are hallmarks of the human experience, and no one is exempt. This leaves men not with the task of “not grieving” but of dealing with the emotions that are already happening.

With so few socially acceptable avenues for processing these emotions, it isn’t uncommon for men to find other ways of managing them. Sometimes we isolate ourselves or disassociate. We may distract ourselves, keeping busy enough that the inner world can’t catch up. Other times, we numb ourselves by drinking or using substances. When pushed too close to our emotions, unresolved grief can come out as anger.

Because there are so few emotional resources for men, addressing our emotions and experiencing the suffering of loss becomes an act of courage. Having never been given a path for processing these feelings, many men must figure out the way for themselves.

Despite this challenge, there is a growing movement amongst men toward owning their grief and finding deeper meaning in their inner lives. Men are hungry for more, leading some to cast off the stigma and own the full range of their emotional experiences. We are at the beginning of this journey, however, and men face challenges to this growth on both a personal and collective level.

This is uncharted territory for many of us, but there are a few things we can do to orient ourselves in the right direction:

Stretch our capacity to feel the full weight of our emotions

We have become accustomed to not feeling our emotions. In general company, feeling is too risky, so we have learned to turn aside and walk away, building a callous of non-feeling as a form of protection.

The antidote to this is to turn toward our emotions rather than away. Our inner “feeling function” is much like a muscle that must be exercised, and in the beginning, things will be difficult. A practice of steady breathing is incredibly helpful in opening ourselves to what we are experiencing. The more we become consciously present with our inner experiences, the more we will make room for our whole inner selves.

Stop shaming other men

The unspoken rules of oppressive masculinity often lead men to shame those who dare step outside of the limited emotional box we’re given. In this way, we become enemies of our brothers and create more pain when what we need is support. Although we may struggle with our own discomfort, we need to stop shaming other men for weeping and feeling authentically. We have enough challenges in this work. We owe it to one another to buoy each other up, or at least grant each other silent respect.

Seek out community with other men and risk vulnerability

The underlying wounds of our masculinity were by and large caused by men, and healing is accelerated in the company of other men. It’s no mistake that one of the most challenging tasks, opening up to other men, is also one of the most cathartic. Our inner work is a personal journey, but we need others beside us. As they say, no man is an island. By seeking out other men engaged in this work and taking the risk to show our authentic selves, we will find a supportive community vital to our personal healing.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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