“Now stop that crying. Big boys don’t cry.” How many of you heard that while you were growing up? Four years ago, I attended the funeral of a man who left behind a wife, a ten year old son, and two girls age seven and four. The priest spoke directly to the ten year old boy in the homily saying, “You are now the man of the house. You have to be strong for your mother and your sisters.” (I wish they gave an opportunity to object at funerals like they do at weddings, because I would have.) Men and boys carry these messages around with them. To express vulnerability is somehow to be less of a man.
In order to talk about men and grief, it is essential to discuss the impact of shame on men in our culture. Grief expert Alan Wolfelt says that, “In America, grief is seen as shameful and should be gotten over as quickly as possible.” This is especially true for men who experience the death of a loved one. In the book, No Time for Tears, Judy Heath states that while men do cry after a death, they do so privately. Many men learn early on that they need to hide their tears. People around those who are grieving will add to the experience of shame by saying things like, “Isn’t it time you moved on? Or, “aren’t you over this by now?”
Robert Karen says this, “If a culture is any good, it provides us with a format for discharging our emotions when we are mourning a loss. If, however, people are deeply ashamed of an emotion, as we are of grief or fear or anger, or shame itself, then you inhibit the discharge of emotion. In our culture we use power as an antidote for shame. It is a universal temptation for a universal condition. One is ashamed of weakness and losing control, of not being in charge of one’s being, of failing.” (Atlantic Monthly, “Shame”, R.Karen, April 1992.)
Shame researcher, Brene Brown says that for men, the primary shame mandate is: “Do not be perceived as weak”. A man who came to one of her book signings told Brene, “We (men) have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional [bleep] beat out of us.” And he said, “And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends, my wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off.”
Shame is an emotion in which the self or an aspect of the self is perceived as defective, unacceptable, or fundamentally damaged. The experience of grief (sadness, anger, hopelessness, powerlessness) while normal and necessary, often triggers the experience of shame in men who are grieving. Shame can have a lifelong impact on an individual leading to symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is an experience that is often very difficult to express because the very nature of talking about it causes additional shame. Rabbi Gershon says that, “The world is driven by unresolved grief”. Shame is the key factor that keeps men from experiencing, expressing, and resolving their grief.
Feelings of shame are a “red herring” that distract us from our natural and normal feelings of grief. Shame adds unnecessary pain and prevents us from getting near the real and necessary pain of our loss. Our human response to shameful emotions is to hide that part of ourselves, yet this is the part of us that is most in need of being seen so that we can receive of love and understanding we need. Men often try to control their grief because they feel ashamed of it, as if it were a problem they have failed to solve. Feelings of grief are like the weather. They often come upon as when we least expect it. It is not something that can be controlled and thus can lead to the experience of shame. Some men who are grieving will be more comfortable expressing anger because as Robert Karen pointed out above, “power is the antidote to shame”.
Grief and shame researcher Cath Duncan says that as we become aware of and challenge our shame, our grief will naturally transform into growth. As one young male facilitator in our grief support program has shared, “Vulnerability is the real strength.” Sharing our story of loss in a compassionate and shame free relationship or support group, not only helps us to mourn; it frees us from shame because there is nothing to hide. Men need to hear and believe what Rabbi Earl Grollman says, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease, or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical, and spiritual necessity—the price you pay for love.”
Connie Palmer, LCSW is the Clinical/Training Director of Imagine: A Center for Coping with Loss located in Westfield, NJ. Imagine provides grief support groups for people of all ages. Go to imaginenj.org for more information.
**Sad Boy Picture provided via Creative Commons