Men and Grief
Recently I have been reflecting on the different ways men and women often approach life, relationship and both grief (internal response to loss) and mourning (shared social response to loss). Most grief groups tend to be dominated by women who share their feelings with others by talking; an instinctual way to bond, nurture and heal. Though some men are talkers and quite expressive with their feelings most men do not sign up to this type of group. Why? In general, unless it is safe to do so, men don’t easily reveal their vulnerabilities in group settings. Dependency on others is tested for its reliability and safety more strategically.
My husband of 20 years died of cancer in 2008. Just over a year after he died, though my heart was heavy with grief, I decided I needed to do something fun to keep my heart open to life, joy and adventure. Gliding was the chosen activity. I had always wanted to learn how to fly a glider. It is basically a plane with no engine though the cock pit is equipped with full instrument panel. A motorized plane tows the glider to an acceptable height and once released the wind currents keep the plane aloft. On a day with no “lift” the plane stays in the air for only short periods of time. On a good day you can be up soaring for hours. It is breathtaking to be high in the sky cradled in the quiet of the elements. I am now a licenced glider pilot but very few women take up the sport.
Just two weeks before I decided to sign up to the gliding club for my first instructional course, one of their cherished members who was a very seasoned pilot was killed in a plane crash in his motorized glider near the airfield. The members were devastated as he was loved by all. There were only two other female pilots in the group at the time. When I arrived at the club that first day of training they eventually shared the news of what had recently occurred. A somber energy weighed heavily in the air and in turn their hearts. Vulnerable as a single woman due to the fact I was a fresh widow myself, the testosterone factor was thankfully reduced since they too were grieving and supporting the widow of the pilot who had died. Empathy took precedence and a less threatening welcome resulted. Normally, it can be quite daunting for a female to enter such a male dominated arena.
I was working full time as the Program Director for a hospice society at the time. When they learned of my profession our bonding began to reach beyond just the topic of flying. I noticed that the men rarely spoke of their lost member in a group setting. If they did it might be a story to celebrate his memory. What was moving was that as they came to know me and the work I do they would quietly seek me out and while away from the others, often while doing a task, many one on one conversations occurred in which they shared the impact of their loss; the emotional pain and shock of it all. Looking back, it was interesting how the timing to arrive at the airfield was orchestrated and I felt quite honored to be in that role for them as they mourned. In turn they were supporting me to open to a new activity in my time of healing and deep vulnerability. The stories they personally shared were heartfelt and touching as each was traversing the loss in his own unique way. To this day I also feel it made my entry into the club unique and bonded me with my new “band of brothers” on a whole other level.
A second observation in how men grieve happened years later. Our CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) died of cancer. Again, he was a man loved and respected by many and had played a big part in me becoming a pilot. Several months after he died there was a general meeting held for the flying club. I was the only woman in attendance. After the gathering the men decided to go out to the local pub for their routine drinks and social time. Now being “one of the boys” (though they tell me I am NOT one of the boys!) I was invited along. If it had been a group of women getting together after a significant loss we would naturally reach out and share our feelings openly asking each other how our hearts were doing. This would help us to explore better ways to nurture each other and the surviving family members in the aftermath of his death. As a woman I somehow expected the men to leap into a reflection of his absence and talk about their feelings too. Instead, very little was said. A glass was raised by all in his honor. A few touching stories shared but mainly the conversation went to other topics. Again, one on one or in more intimate numbers, some of the men shared their feelings with me. The more interesting thing that occurred was that they were quicker to offer to do things to help. As an example, they would ask; “Does the widow need help moving anything? I have a truck, let me know if I can help. Does she need anything fixed around the house?” Actions and activities seem to be the way to process and work it out. A different expression of their concern and love than women but beautiful in its own way.
The flying club is volunteer based and run by its members. Years later when they needed someone to step forward for the President role I was honored when the men approached me one on one and in turn as a group to invite me to consider the position. I believe in part it was due to the respect and connection made through these intimate moments of sharing combined with my determination to fly a plane with no engine! I did take on the role for a year which meant more than I can tell you; deeply honored by the men.
This writing is to remind us all that men often grieve and mourn differently than women. Just because they are not talking or openly sharing their emotions does not mean they are not being impacted deeply or in emotional pain. They might be on a mission to cut down every unwanted bush and tree in the backyard or build something with their hands in honor of the person who died. Touch in gently. Give space for quiet, more intimate sharing when it is safe for them and be open to doing physical activities that might help release and process the energy in a different way.
Let us not forget the beauty of men; how they love and are our heroes in life in so many ways. Let us also make it a goal to find better ways to support their style of mourning the loss of those they hold dear. Silence does not mean their hearts are not quietly crying out to be seen, heard and loved through this tender life transition.