Men have emotions the size of oceans, but they have an emotional toolboxes the size of a walnut for talking about them. Or so we've been told. For some of us it's true. For the rest, we just have our priorities mixed up.
When we try to express our grief through this walnut-sized hole, the pressure builds up behind and what finally comes through is so forceful that it knocks people over.
My impression is that men talk less about their emotions than women do. You're probably saying, "Duh!" For many people, showing their grief in public feels like a sign of weakness, of not being in control. Men like to appear strong and decisive, even when they don't know what's going on.
Think about the responses to Vice President Joe Biden sharing his grief. A world leader was being human, and some people didn't like this. My feeling is, if you can't cry when your son dies, whether you're male or female, then I wouldn't trust you as a leader.
Women aren't stigmatized the same way as men for showing strong emotions. They're stigmatized in a different way.
My impression is that women often get together to talk about life issues. And yet, even though they have a support network, I think women are also reluctant to share their grief, especially when it lasts longer than a month.
Reluctance to talk about grief is not a gender issue. It's a societal problem.
Many of us don't share our grief with anyone until our friends force us to talk, if we have good friends. Or we overwork until we collapse, hoping that grief will go away, which it won't. Then our lives fall apart and we are put into therapy by professional health people where we are required to talk.
When I was early in grief, I looked at every resource and found little that dealt with the actual experience. There are more resources available today, although still not many that are written by men.
I wasn't good at expressing my emotions before death kicked me in the heart. It wasn't because I didn't want to share. I wasn't sure what I was feeling, and I didn't know how to express it.
Men of my generation, and well as men of the generation before and after, didn't learn how to express feelings when we were growing up. I moved through life perched in my head, and took enormous pride in getting more work done than anyone else. Emotions got in my way because they weren't productive.
What kept me moving through grief were several of my friends in their 30s who kept coming over to listen and ask questions as I struggled to make sense of the rumble of emotions tumbling me around, even though they hadn't experienced a loss and didn't know what to say or do. Also, at a time when I wasn't sure I was grieving right, an older man who lost his wife a year ahead of me told me what to expect next.
Hearing that grieving was likely to take a year or more instead of one month, kept me from panicking.
It doesn't help that in our society we don't talk about grief. It doesn't help that we hide the dying and the dead away in hospitals and funeral homes. It doesn't help that we have forgotten the rites, rituals, and observances that used to guide people through the trauma of grief.
We need to encourage grieving men to talk about what is going on inside them.
We need to provide openings where they can share their few sentences of feelings when they are ready. Quality not quantity is the man's way. Women would call this "terse." Men call it "to the point."
A one-on-one discussion over coffee is one way to help that isn't intimidating. If nothing else works, mute the TV during commercial breaks when watching sports and ask how they're doing. This will give them until the next commercial break to rummage around inside and find something to say. Bring beer.
Men need to talk about their grief before their emotions shut them down, their faces go hard, their hearts constrict and turn bitter like walnuts, and they no longer care about themselves or anyone else.
Men like to solve problems, but grief isn't a problem to be solved.
Grief is a journey we have to take, and it helps to have someone to talk to on the way.
Part of this essay previous appeared in The Good Men Project.
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 email@example.com.