In nearly 43 years of working with those who grieve, I have observed differences between men and women in their coping styles. The traditional grief theory I had been taught – that healing results from people identifying their feelings and sharing them – did not fit many men.
Men grieve. Men cry. Men have feelings. And men heal. They just have a different way that is often not seen or understood by others. The first step for many men in their grief work is to go into their solitude. Solitude is the place within oneself where memories are recalled, feelings are felt, and conversations are held with whom we need to talk to. There, men get in touch with themselves, including their pain, and begin to work through their pain. Solitude not only teaches men to deal with their pain but it also reminds them to move beyond their inner solitude and relate to those beyond them.
Interestingly, men talk about their losses and grief. But not through naming feelings. Men often use storytelling. Storytelling is a vehicle to express feelings without naming the feelings. If one listens to such a story, one can feel the feelings ‘dripping off of the words’. The storytelling is doing the work of healing. When the story is done, the man is often done ‘sharing’ his feelings. The listener has to be OK with that. In doing so, the listener is honoring the man’s feelings and grief. The listener is a witness to the story.
In being with men who are dealing with a loss ask, “How are you doing?” vs. “How are you feeling?” Often men don’t have many words for feelings. Give them space to go into their caves, their solitude. Assist and create ways for men to “do” things in their grief work. Provide openers for storytelling. Ask, “What happened?” or “Where were you when you heard?” etc. Once a story is being shared, one needs to avoid interrupting by asking about feeling or more details. If one interrupts it may interrupt the train of thought and the man may not be able to get back to what he was feeling.
Rev. Daniel R. Duggan, BCC, ACPE Supervisor of Alexandria, VA, has listened to and helped the grieving for more than 43 years as an ordained Presbyterian minister and a board certified chaplain. He currently serves as director of chaplaincy at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads, and director of Clinical Pastoral Education at Goodwin House Incorporated, Falls Church, VA. His article uses excerpts from his book, Men, Grief, and Solitude—A Different Perspective.