While wrestling with the Christmas lights under his tree recently, a wave of sadness washed over Neil Turner. He couldn’t help but think of his daughter Colby, who died in 2010 at just two years old from a rare genetic disorder.
“Suddenly, the thought of another Christmas without her swept in and replaced my frustration with tears,” says Turner, an engineer in Oklahoma and father of two. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her and think about her. But if I focus on just the loss and the heartache, suicidal thoughts come quickly.”
Grief isn’t linear. It can hit by surprise. It is ongoing and it evolves, says Turner. It is a complicated emotion for many people, and it can be particularly complex for fathers. Even today, dads might feel pressured to “be strong” for others and put their own feelings aside after a loss, which can have damaging psychological consequences. And although the expectations regarding so-called “masculine” behavior are evolving for the better, many men still feel isolated in their grief and less comfortable opening up about it.
“There is a deeply ingrained social conditioning that will take some work to undo and reverse,” says David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Chicago area and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist. “A number of men are working to define new models of masculinity, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Men are generally less willing to talk about their grief, more reticent to express emotion, and less likely to seek support, says Jan Everhart Newman, JD, Ph.D., a psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Sadly, this pattern can be reinforced when boys and men seek comfort after a loss around more vulnerable emotions such as sadness and are rebuffed and given messages like ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘Stay strong,’” Newman says. “Often, my male clients will report that another family member is more outwardly expressive of intense emotions and that they felt that they couldn’t put any more stress on that person [by expressing their own grief].”
Why Grief Can Be So Isolating For Men
Grief from a male perspective has received little research interest, but some of the articles that have been written suggest that men’s grief is often diminished or even dismissed. The authors of a recent study of combat veterans noted that grief is a “long-overlooked toll of war.” In her study of fathers and pregnancy loss, published in 2004, author Bernadette Susan McCreight wrote, “…the loss can be devastating for fathers yet, very often, the world that surrounds them tends to discount their loss, and emotional support and cultural rituals that are normally available to other bereaved individuals are often absent for this group of men.”
Newman agrees. At the funeral of a Special Forces veteran recently, she saw a heartbreaking example of how people don’t seem to know how to respond to men’s grief. The man was buried with full military honors, which can be a long affair. Kids clustered in a group poking one another and laughing, Newman says, while adults stood around together, somber and chatting. Then she saw the adult son, who was on his knees at the coffin sobbing entirely alone.
“The only person who came to comfort him was his young son,” Newman says. “There is something about grief that can be frightening and is difficult for others to accept.”
Human beings will do anything to avoid discomfort. As it makes them think of their own mortality and lack of control, death is at the top of the list of things that make people uncomfortable, she says. Additionally, traditional gendered expectations might influence how couples deal with grief. Klow says he has counseled women who say they want their male partners to be more in touch with their feelings but don’t actually like seeing them cry or express emotions.
Some men might feel isolated in their grief not because they don’t know how to feel emotions but because they don’t feel it’s okay to express them.
A web content strategist in the UK, Kevin lost his father last year, shortly before he and his partner found out they were having a baby. He now lives in his father’s house with his family and thinks of his dad often, such as when he’s dancing around the kitchen to The Beatles to entertain his son and get him to stop crying. Kevin says he often apologizes for talking about his father even though his partner says she doesn’t mind.