When I was 15 years old, my 25-year-old uncle died in a fire.
While some older adults had feared for his well being for some time, his death was sudden, unexpected, and extremely traumatic for me. In times of grief, we all experience mixed emotions, but I was overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and isolation.
In the days following his death, my time was spent among both close and distant relatives in the home of my grandparents. When people interacted with me at all, it was generally to tell me to give comfort to someone else ("Go hug your grandfather." "Hold your grandmother's hand."). I did my best, and I got through it. I had been to funerals before, but this was the first time I was so close to the deceased and so aware of the judgments of the people attending the funeral and receptions at the home later. Someone, usually a woman, didn't cry enough or dared to wear pants to a funeral. Someone else, usually a man, fell to pieces and couldn't keep it together. Certain friends should not have dared to show their faces, and others had no excuse for not coming. Or so it was stated by the chorus of judgment and scorn.
I tried my best to assimilate funeral normativity, but it really didn't make sense to me. Years later, I cried at my grandfather's funeral. This seemed a reasonable to me, and I didn't predict being judged for it. After the funeral, one of my relatives asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She said, "I knew you must be some kind of sensitive artist or something." So much for the freedom to openly grieve for a close relative at his funeral. Do women face this kind of judgment?
But men who do not express emotions openly aren't free from judgment or consequences, either. Kenneth Doka, an expert of grief counseling, said in an interview, 'We do a strange thing with grieving styles. I always say we disenfranchise instrumental grievers early in the process. "What's wrong with this person? Why isn't he crying?"' The man who manages his grief by working through it with projects, helping others, and so on is ignored. The man who emotes openly is criticized. Doka points out that more emotive grievers are penalized later (Why isn't she over it yet?).
My uncle's funeral may be when I first developed my revulsion at smug hypocrisy and self-righteous pity. I can remember one aunt declaring, loudly, "Well, if his death had anything to do with drugs, I just don't want to know about it. That is not what is important now." And this may also be when I first became aware of paradox. If she believed what she said, she would not have said it, and if she said it, she obviously didn't believe it. (And a lifelong love of philosophy is born.) Anyway, I also developed my own sense of righteous indignation toward people who couldn't offer condolences without poking people with daggers in the process.
In my first experience with traumatic grief, the people I would normally turn to for emotional support were all overwhelmed emotionally and intellectually. I don't blame or resent anyone for it, but I was alone with my grief and my first experiences with this kind of loss. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I just never took the continued existence of anyone for granted again. I also accepted grieving as a solitary activity.
The next traumatic loss I experienced was described in an earlier post at Ethics Beyond Compliance. My niece and nephew drowned on Mother's Day (May 10) in 1992. The single most striking feature of this grief experience for me is the memory of many friends, coworkers, and family members coming to me to express their condolences and sincere concern for the suffering and recovery of my ex-wife. People lamented that it must be extremely hard on my wife, and I was admonished to take good care of her, as her suffering must be immense. I tried to do those things, of course, as I tried to manage my own emotions and continue to care for my children (I was an at-home dad at the time) and maintain a functioning household.
During this time, I had thoughts that terrified me and flooded me with shame. I began daydreaming, almost longing, for the death of someone who would be important to no one but me. A death that would bring me the kind of comfort and concern that had been reserved for my ex-wife during what was certainly the most challenging and traumatic event of my life to that point. I was horrified to think that I could wish anyone dead. Of course, no one in the world is important only to me. Everyone I love is loved by others as well. Further, I wouldn't trade any of my loved ones for "good grieving." (I will add that one friend in particular stood by me and cared for me throughout.)
The true fantasy, of course, was that someone would step in to help me through my current grief, not that I wanted anyone to die. Still, these thoughts became pervasive and persistent enough to plague me with guilt and interfere even more with my recovery. What I really wanted was to receive the same support I was expected to give. I don't really want to be the only person in the world being cared for; I just want a reciprocal arrangement. I don't know whether every man feels the same way, but I know I'm not the only one.
Why is it that being a man is to be sentenced to a life bereft of emotional support? When women say they want to meet a sensitive man, they generally mean they want to meet a man who attends to their emotional needs, not a man who openly expresses his own emotional needs let alone a man openly expresses his emotional frailty.
I dream of a world where grief is not gendered and where masculinity is not marked by solitary sorrow.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.