There seems to be this universal perception that there is a right way to grieve, which is nothing than further than the truth. If you’ve lost anyone, then you’ve experienced grief and know that grief hits everyone differently. There are some days where everything is fine, and then the next moment you’re struggling to breathe. Yet, there still is this social belief that the right way to grieve means to cry, to talk it out, and explore your emotions while exploding through tissue boxes. Which leaves men in the lurch, because as a general rule, they don’t grieve openly which doesn’t downplay their pain. Men grieve differently than you’d expect. Here’s how to understand male grief patterns.
I’ve been a widow for some time now, and I joined some Facebook groups to connect with others. After engaging with many different widow/ers, it became apparent to me that men processed things much differently than expected. The common acceptance is that to get through any sort of trauma is talk therapy, exploring your emotions, and deep emotional releases. However, the more I reached out to the men in these groups, this wasn’t at all the type of support they needed. Which made me wonder, what support does a man need when grieving? How do they process grief, and what are the common outlets that they use?
After some research, I’ve been able to consolidate the wealth of feedback I received into several common threads. Though they are compartmentalized into sections, they do not encompass the many ways any individual experiences and processes grief. But at least it’s an eye opening exercise to the women who want to help their men friends through their grief.
Male grief pattern #1: Focusing on what needs to get done
Dealing with grief is incredibly difficult, as it changes form every time you look at it. It’s like a supervillain that can transform into your worst nightmare, only to vanish and hide in the shadows to once again sneak attack when least expected. That’s my way of personifying grief. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy a thing to encapsulate in real life. Which is why many men will focus on tangible actions to deal with intangible feelings.
By focusing on doing what needs to be done, a widower can actively solve a problem and get a sense of control over his situation. At first, it will be the tasks needed to be done after a loved one’s passing: the funeral, the admin paperwork, and all in between. (link to After Death Checklist) Then, it’s dealing with clearing out of personal affects. That’s just in the first few days.
After the initial whirlwind of activity, when life slows down and goes back to “normal”, he will focus on his day job to keep his mind occupied. Anything other than dealing with these horrible feelings, because of the fear that if they lose control of them, they will spiral. And that is a most unwanted outcome.
Male grief pattern #2: Internal processing vs. talk therapy
Because grief is such a personal thing, and showing weakness can be such a strange concept to men, many would rather try to figure it out on their own before sharing. Being in control of their own inner turmoil is so important, it is preferable to figure out what they are going through and have a semblance of an answer before talking to their friends. It also doesn’t help that their friends won’t understand what they are going through.
It’s easier to talk to a therapist or doctor as they are professionals. Their job is to help figure this stuff out. However, what’s even better is to connect with other widowers who get it. Once their experiences and expressions are validated, only then will a widower feel comfortable to bring it up in normal conversations – though, it’s still unlikely that will happen. This is private stuff.
Male grief pattern #3: Being the rock
Men are supposed to be the supporting rock for their loved ones. That’s what they’ve been taught is their job. It’s part of their fabric. So, in times of greatest strife, it’s what they cling to as their identity.
They watch their kids trying to deal with the loss of their mother, and for the most part they seem okay. Until they aren’t. So then it’s their job to be the strong one for their children. As their only parent, it’s now imperative that they become the rock that the family can cling to, even if the rock is badly damaged. No need for the kids to see that. They need strong support and a family base – that’s the only father’s job now.
Even when buffeted by all of the worst that life could give them, bereft fathers continue to put on their stoic face to try to keep the keel steady and the boat from capsizing. In their grief, men will try to ensure that their family are safe and secure, and that life will be as close to normal as possible.
By becoming the rock, they not only help their remains of a family come onshore and survive, they are also finding their own inner strength.
Male grief pattern #4: Using vices as distractions
This one is very common across all types of grievers. The pain of being suddenly torn from an established life is so shocking to the system it takes years to recover from. The first few months are waking up to a nightmare every single day. The rest of the world goes on, but yours has changed so fundamentally it feels like nothing is real. But it is. It is real, and your brain and heart can’t reconcile reality and devastation. Your brain keeps running in overdrive, as your heart is torn open and bleeding, and it all becomes too much to deal with.
Out comes the self-destructive distractions. What does it matter if drinking to excess is harmful to my health? It’s all going to end anyway, I’m miserable, so let’s get drunk. Or stoned. Or smoke a pack a day. Nothing matters anymore except for numbing out this pain. It helps to get through the moment, instead of running away completely.
But it doesn’t work. At best, you pass out and succumb to weird dreams that you wake from and repeat the process. At worst, you spiral into an emotional kaleidoscope, all the emotions hitting you in a blur, leaving you sobbing in a corner until you pass out from exhaustion.
After some time, which is different for everyone, this self-destructive coping technique is gradually replaced by more proactive coping techniques.
Male grief pattern #5: Burning off grief with activity
After some time, again this time frame is unique for everyone, the psyche realizes that doing the same techniques again and again without results might be a signal to try different tactics. So instead of wallowing in grief, a common tactic is to burn through it.
This goes back to actively finding coping techniques that work towards something, focusing on the present instead of the past. Most of these coping techniques relate to honing physical skills. Tactical, hands-on skills that take full concentration.
Exercise is a favourite. Setting aside a set time to focus on activity. Going to the gym. Going for a run. Taking time out to focus completely on what your body is telling you, and getting your mind into the zone. Connecting again to the reality of your world through a safe activity starts setting the foundation for healing.
Male grief pattern #6: Bouncing between numbness and overwhelming emotions
When you are newly bereft, there is so much that you go through. It’s true that the first year is hard, and even the second year, but that’s a long way off when you first crash into widowdom.
The first days are the hardest. You have to focus on just breathing. Waking up each day to a nightmare is exhausting. Instead of having your normal routine, everything that you knew has been destroyed. Your heart is overwhelmed, as is your brain. The emotions are overpowering, and can attack you full force without warning. So then, your brain reacts by shutting down all feelings to give you respite. A cold numbness then spreads through you, and you can’t think properly.
Grief hits everyone, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, it’s an unwelcome process of grieving, but bouncing between numbness and overwhelming emotions is common. Even with male grief.
Male grief pattern #7: Lonely nights and silent tears
During the day, it’s easier to stay focused on day-to-day tasks. But come nighttime, once the kids are asleep and the day’s demands are over, there’s nothing but loneliness. Just you and the empty space where your loved one once sat.
This is the time when all of the emotions come, and unlike women who will reach out to others during these lonely night, men typically prefer to do it alone. Male grief is silent. They will let the tears come, silent tracks down their cheeks. They don’t want to upset others with their thoughts, or be pegged as different during an unimaginable time, so it’s at night when they are alone when they allow the tears to come.
Everyone has lonely nights, but it’s the men that feel it hardest as they feel they have to do it on their own. Which is the most lonely feeling of all.
Male grief pattern #8: Jumping into the dating pool early in the process
You might be aware, but it’s a fact that widowers are at a much higher risk of suicide after the loss of a partner than women. Being left alone, adrift without their partner as their lodestone can be unbelievably difficult.
Men are more likely to jump into the dating pool early in their grieving process. As one widower revealed to me, “I used to cuddle to get the possibility of sex. Now, I initiate sex to get cuddled.” Physical closeness is important to all sexes, but men typically need that connection the most. Trying to tap into that closeness physically can be an important motivator to dating again.
Beyond the sex, having lost their lodestone it’s understandable why men will try to reconnect with another partner again. They’re already being thrown into the waves of grief while trying to keep life together, alone. That’s hard for anyone. Trying to seek out another partner is completely relatable, regardless of when it happens in the process. From an outsider perspective, it may seem like many men try to find connection again earlier than women. This doesn’t mean that they are discarding the love they had for their lost loved one – if anything, it shows how much they miss them.
Male grief pattern #9: Talking to other widow/ers who “get it”
There is nothing that compares to losing a spouse, and unless you’ve gone through it, you won’t get it. Losing a spouse is the most stressful grief ever. It’s such a lonely place. You feel like you’re the only person in the world who is going through grief, until you find other widowers who “get it”.
Unlike therapists or psychologists who will try to dissect their feelings in a cold therapeutic environment, connecting with other widowers who “get it” is such a soul support. Just look at the responses from men in Facebook groups that help widows and widowers. There is so much engagement from men and women alike who really get what it’s like to go through grief.
Connecting with other widows and widowers can be such a wonderful release, because they really understand what it’s like to be bereft. On a minuscule level. The day-to-day. The lonely nights. All of it.
Within these communities, the lone widower finally feels like he’s not a pariah but one of many hurt souls that are also looking for support. And that community is gold.
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Male grief pattern #10: Finding strength in their kids
Kids process grief differently than adults. They don’t seem to show pain, just go forward in their day-to-day. They are resilient creatures, and they have to be as life changes for them everyday.
When you are a widowed parent, you’re going through all of this stuff. But your kids – they just keep going. You may be in the depths of sorrow, or the numbness where you’re not allowed to feel – and then you see the excitement in your kids’ eyes when they see Christmas lights. The unparalleled joy they express when they experience their first circus. Their unbridled anguish when they can’t figure out how to tie their shoes they’ve worked so hard on.
Even though a widower is hurting so much, and can’t feel anything, they resonate with their kids. You feel their frustration, and want to help them through. You witness their joy, and feel joy through them. You are now their sole protectors, who have to make sure that they are okay, even though you might be falling apart inside.
Having your kids’ back can become the most important thing in a widower’s life, the reason to keep going. And that’s a precious thing.
Finding a way out of grief
Just as everyone’s grief is different, every path out of it is just as unique. Whether the griever is male, or female; whether they have lost a wife or a husband; whether they were legally married or common-law: every widow/er’s grief is unbelievable painful. It feels like you’re on a lone island stuck out at sea, watching the world go by in a haze. Finding others who are going through the same thing is so comforting, because it means that you’re not alone after all.
If you’re a man in the depths of grief, I hope this list helped normalize your experience. If you’re a woman who wants to help support a man in his grief, I hope this brings you clarity as to what male grief looks like. Overall, I hope this has been educational and eye opening. I know I learned a lot!